What’s a Web Copywriter for? Slime or Substance?

Note: This post originally appeared on the blog for Green Ink Creative, a business handle I no longer associate with my practice. It may contain obsolete information and should be considered a historic artifact, not advice pertaining to the here and now.

With that caveat, feel free to have a go at it.

Pen | Atlanta Freelance Writing Services

Here’s a deceptively simple question: What do copywriters do?

Mulled it over a bit? Ok. Here’s another one: What do web copywriters do? And furthermore, how might the abundance of misinformation about effective digital marketing tactics (that’s a premise, mind you, not a foregone conclusion) be clouding our perception about copywriters and the role they ought to play?

Ok. That’s a lot of questions. But they’re important ones.

The thing is, many organizations never benefit from their investment in digitally “savvy” copywriting services. What’s more, a better understanding of copywriting for the web – and, in particular, the responsibilities of its providers – could turn those organizations’ fortunes around.

The SEO savant

This is where the “misinformation” bit I mentioned earlier comes into play. Organizations trying to improve their SEO often turn to freelance writer/SEO “savants.” Unfortunately, the tactics these providers employ may ultimately do far more harm than good.

Who are these people? Only the low-priced, dollar-an-article copywriters you see on such bastions of talent and professionalism as Elance, Guru, and Odesk. They specialize in “SEO articles,” which basically means they churn out lines of text for the sole purpose of linking to various pages on their clients’ websites. Articles tend to be keyword heavy and quality light. You can find these writers…

  • doing work that requires virtually zero research
  • writing dozens of articles per day
  • working for rock-bottom rates between $1 and $15 per article
  • billing themselves as “content writers” or “content producers”
  • living in countries where the low prices they charge actually provide a decent living
  • writing articles for part-time or side income
  • producing large volumes of content quickly
  • placing ridiculous keyword phrases where they probably don’t belong

Do I sound cynical?

Look, I realize there’s a market for these articles. Links and keywords can goad search engines into ranking your site. Ok.

But the idea that this is the role of the web copywriter in any sort of marketing project that involves content production could put your brand’s reputation at risk. Why? Because you usually end up publishing junk. And people will associate your brand with the junk you publish.

What’s more, it’s probably just a matter of time before the search engine overlords in Mountain View crack down on the junky content brands are churning out, penalize them in the rankings, and force them to rewrite their SEO strategy from scratch. That means any investment in low-quality, quantity-driven article writing will account for nil in the long term.

On second thought, maybe that’s why the market rate for this sort of copywriter is so unbelievably low. Low value fetches a lower price.

The primary reason I find all of this disheartening is that I receive lots of requests from people offering $8 per article who honestly think piles of keyword-rich text are the ticket to digital marketing success. They think producing such material is what copywriters are for – and they’re wrong.

In the future, I’ll simply direct them to this article.

The real McCoy

So. Assuming the public face of your brand matters to you even one iota, what kind of activities should you expect – or even demand – a web copywriter to engage in? Here are a few:

  1. Defining a lexicon: How should your brand make people feel? What sort of language can help you instill those feelings in your audience? Specifically, what words should you use to achieve this objective? These are issues a web copywriter should help you address. For every copywriting project, there’s a comprehensive branding exercise close by. Its extent depends on your goals.
  2. Creating style guides: Copywriting for the web may call for established standards to guide your brand lexicon. Writers are in a good position to help you create a style guide, which will define said standards and help direct the writing/editing/publishing process.
  3. Storytelling: Writing for brands isn’t just about producing content. It’s about telling a compelling story that showcases your brand appropriately. Yes, storytelling entails content “production,” sometimes lots of it, but there’s a context into which everything you publish must fit.
  4. Content planning: What should you publish and how often should you publish it? These are questions that warrant serious consideration (within the context of your branding goals, of course) and that the “high quantity” approach ignores at its peril. Copywriters are often the people to call on when you need to plan for future content.

A slow suicide

All in all, forging relationships based on effective, brand-appropriate work is in the best interest of copywriters and the organizations that hire them. The current trend toward cheap, fast, and voluminous SEO assumes brands need not stand by what they publish and that one-size-fits-all is an acceptable approach to digital marketing.

But the brands that do this are committing a slow suicide.

They’re killing themselves for instant gratification, all the while ignoring how important it is to pursue sustainable publishing strategies. I wish the SEO savants really were that – savants – and that they could fix all our problems with a handful of keystrokes and some hasty copy/paste keyword action. I’d bill myself as one if it were the case.

Sadly, it’s not the case. And the longer businesses go on believing it is, the more they harm themselves.

photo: Janós Fehér

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