If a marketing team’s job is to do anything, it’s to communicate. That means we need people who put our message into words; and they need to be good at it. So how do you find and hire great copywriters? Here’s how.
11 min read
Here’s some of the best advice for hiring great copywriters.
It’s common for marketing leaders to be pretty good writers. That’s not always good.
A decent writer can hoodwink themselves into thinking that they don’t really need to hire writers. I’ve made the mistake of waiting before myself.
This delay can thwart the marketing team’s ability to scale and really impact revenue growth in a way they otherwise could. That’s just unacceptable.
So if you’re in that boat, needing to hire copywriters, here are some of the best tips for getting it right.
1. Decide what you want
Not all writers are created equal, even the really great ones.
Before you start looking, you owe it to yourself to be clear about what it is that you want from this hire. For example, is your team large and you need additional bandwidth for a program that is largely developed and running? Or, is your company small and you’re looking for someone who can wear multiple hats, is skilled at many types of writing, and who has the potential to manage a team in the future?
Whatever your needs, set them out clearly first. Laura Serino of eCommerce Fuel says, “Before you can hire a great writer, you’ve got to know what you want them to write… Make a list of the priorities your intended copywriter will take on once they get the job. If you have a clear idea of the types of content you need created, you’ll be able to better narrow your search.”
As you consider the writing you need done, is a specialist or a generalist required? For example, do you need someone who is a savant just at direct response email writing? Or do you need a writer who can move seamlessly from blog posts and print collateral to case studies and e‑books? What is the budget? Are you looking for top-dollar senior-level skills, or will a more junior entry-level writer do?
When candidates come through the door, look out for matches between the work you need done and their interests. Annie Pilon writing for Small Business Trends says, “For some copywriters, their personal styles and preferences can make a big difference in how much care they put into their work. So when vetting copywriters, consider asking them about what types of subjects and formats they enjoy the most.”
2. Find those most likely to succeed
In What Does it Take to be Creative? 7 Tips from David Ogilvy, the authors at Chocolate and Caviar tell this story: “William Maynard of the Bates agency said that “most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.”
Poets and killers. Which is right for you?
David Ogilvy said, “If you are a killer and a poet, you get rich.”
The fields of creative work are full of people who tend to express a more dominant preference for either the creative or the analytical. In How to Build a Marketing Team: Starting with the CMO, I pointed out a similar dualism all the way at the top of the organization with artists and scientists, or a leader focused on brand or demand.
Sonia Simone of Copyblogger says if you’re already a poet, “You’re lucky—the strategic part is much easier to learn than the poetry bit.”
Easy or not, some artists are none too keen to gain the skills of a killer.
Laura Serino in The 7 Secret Steps to Find, Hire & Keep a Killer Copywriter (ironically) says, “Don’t Ask a Writer About Conversion Rates. Or ROI. Or A/B testing results. Or anything else analytical. Copywriters write – they don’t analyze data.”
She’s specifically talking about freelancers here, but if you need someone who is both poet and killer, you should know that there is a segment of writers who don’t believe in doing both. In How to Find a Writer Who Won’t Kill Your Content, Chris Gillespie goes a little deeper when he says “most writers fall into three broad categories:” He describes these three as,
Journalists, who write well and are good at the discipline of doing research, meeting deadlines, and writing professionally. They sometimes struggle in marketing because being subjective and persuasive can go against their journalistic ethos.
Copywriters who get writing for marketing, but sometimes lack the artistry with words, the finesse, or the fact-checking scruples of journalists.
Novelists who are purely artists that write for money. They support their writing habit by taking paid writing jobs. Notably, Gillespie says, “I’ve never found one who cut it as a content writer. That’s not to say they can’t be found, but they are rare.”
So who is right? Are you better off as Simone suggests finding a poet who can be taught the killer skills like SEO, analytics, and keyword research? Or as Gillespie implies, steering clear of pure artists and “seeking someone with experience as a copywriter or a journalist and helping them develop any skills they lack”?
I’d say steer clear of poets who are unwilling to gain the skills of a killer, or in Gillespie’s parlance a novelist who views marketing skills as distasteful and a quasi “selling out” of the pure artistry they want to be making.
Hiring great copywriters means finding someone who either has both skills or who is hungry about learning the parts they are missing. Ultimately you want to avoid hiring a writer who puts out bad content. The world is already awash in content litterbugs.
3. Hire for strengths
I think it’s important to distinguish between skills and abilities.
A candidate has skills if she can execute the things right now. She has abilities if she can learn to do a thing in the future. And you need someone with both. You need execution ASAP, plus the ability to grow and work around your needs in the future. In the pre-interview screening, you should keep in mind whether what you are seeing is a skill or an ability and whether you need this skill now, or can develop an ability into future skills.
It’s also a good time to remember that you want someone better than you, and to do that you need to hire for strengths, not lack of weakness. In If You’ve Never Done the Job, How Do You Hire Somebody Good?,author and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz says,
“The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you)… As a result, it is imperative that you hire for strength rather than lack of weakness… Hiring for lack of weakness just means that you’ll optimize for pleasantness. Rather, you must figure out the strengths you require and find someone who is world class in those areas despite their weaknesses in other, less important domains.”
The corporate blog for Raven Tools suggests these five things to watch for when screening writer resumes:
- Mistakes. Ostensibly this job is important enough to the candidate to proofread for spelling and grammatical errors.
- Style. If you are looking for a certain style in your writing, be wary of candidates who focus on something wildly different.
- Lack of experience. This is kind of a gut-check on whether they match your seniority needs from Tip #1 above.
- Poor follow-up. Do they reply quickly and are their answers precise and accurate.
- Lack of effort. Have they done their homework on your company, you or your senior management team? Do they show that they care about where they will be working?
There are lots of lists of questions out there. Annie Pilon recommends “Headlines and calls to action especially can make a big difference. So put special emphasis on those in your search for copywriters.”
Favorite interview questions from Laura Serino include (comments are my own),
- Have you ever come up with a line/story/headline that you thought was brilliant but the company you worked for didn’t love?
- How did you get into copywriting? Let them tell their story.
- What’s your favorite brand for copy inspiration? This helps you get a sense of how they consume their craft. Asking about books they’ve read recently can also shed light here.
- Is there a product category you prefer to write for? This informs the bridge between what they would write if they were just doing it for themselves, and what they will write for you.
She also cleverly recommends requesting before and after drafts of portfolio pieces.
According to Raven, “These three simple questions will serve as a basis to help you identify candidates with the appropriate business writing skills.
- What is the difference between imply and infer? This type of question enables you get a handle on a candidate’s understanding of grammar and usage.
- What editorial reference guides have you worked with? If a writer has business experience, she should be familiar with publications such as the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style.
- Describe three important SEO copywriting practices. Search engine optimization is a critical component of content for web pages, blog posts, online press releases and HTML versions of white papers and brochures. If your writer doesn’t understand the fundamentals of SEO copywriting, kiss your rankings goodbye.”
They also recommend you feel confident writing candidates can,
4. Take a test drive. Moving beyond interview questions.
You can’t tell how well a candidate will do just from reviewing portfolio writing samples. “To evaluate candidates, just looking at their past work won’t do. Always ask them to write a test article,” says Gillespie. And again from Brad Shorr, “The best way I’ve found to screen copywriter candidates is to give them an actual assignment.”
So what makes an effective test assignment?
You want to see how the candidate will work with your company processes, so make the assignment as real as possible. According to Shorr, “When an assignment is ready, the copywriter needs a proper creative brief.”
By preparing a creative brief as you would for any other assignment, you’re increasing the real-world nature of the test assignment.
When assigning the project, Raven states it’s very important to:
- Provide clear and adequate instructions.
- Provide the necessary background.
- Give the same project to each candidate.
- Provide a real-life deadline. If the material is submitted late, it’s a deal-killer.
Test assignment part 2
After you have received the test assignment back, Serino recommends a thoughtful follow-up step. She says, “I’ve only ever had one company take this second step when finding a copywriter. But it’s a step that will make all the difference.
“Once you receive a completed test back, offer feedback on what they can do better. Have them go back to the drawing board and see how they can alter their writing according to your suggestions.”
This second test is designed to highlight attributes mentioned in tip three. Can they take criticism and follow directions? Can they work on your team? Are they collaborative about the job? Can they adopt your company’s tone and voice?
Note: Most experts agreed that if the work was usable in the wild, that the candidate should be paid for it even if you didn’t hire them.
5. Do your part to help them succeed
Finally, onboarding a new team member the right way can help you capitalize on the investment you have made in them so far.
Some of the best suggestions are to get them out in the field with your sales team as soon as possible. Shorr says, “If you have a field sales force, the very best training for a copywriter is to have him or her spend time in the field with your sales reps.”
Gillespie gives the following advice for providing the prerequisites for your new writer to thrive.
- Buyer persona research: The more your writer can get inside your customer’s head, the more precise the writing will be.
- Access to your team: Most writers do better work when they feel included. Invite them to the office to meet your team and set up ongoing opportunities for them to communicate with the team.
- Access to your customers: For all writers, eventually the well of ideas runs dry. Give them ways to get reinvigorated, such as interviewing customers. It breaks them out of their pattern and gives you a never-ending fountain of fresh, authentic stories.
- Data: Content marketing writers rarely see data on how their writing performs. Sure, they might see the number of shares, but they don’t get to track their engagement from piece to piece or A/B headlines. Subscribe them to access performance reports in your marketing system or Google Analytics.
- Feedback: Most writers never get more feedback than “thanks.” If they don’t know how they did, they can’t grow. Always track and share edits in Microsoft Word. Even better, build a style guide together. It’ll save you both a lot of time.
- Structure: If every deadline feels like an emergency, your content quality suffers.
He also strongly cautions against the marketing team dropping the entire content strategy in the lap of a new copywriter or leaving writers without clear direction and strategic input. “Marketers who don’t offer clear briefs with suggested outcomes, quotes, links, and statistics to their writers… shouldn’t be surprised when their writers create something different than what they had in mind.”
If you’ve had hit or miss experiences in the past, keep this list handy to increase your chances of hiring great copywriters for the future.
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P.S. Articles cited in this piece include details on places to find copywriters, and appropriate compensation ranges.
@cmo_zen is a blog of micro meditations for marketing leaders, designed to help them find clarity and peace in the marketing maelstrom.