When To Pay Top Dollar for Copy

It took Leo Tolstoy six years to craft the 460,000-word War and Peace. A cheap copywriting service could churn out as many words for your website for just $9,200 (at 2 cents a word) over the course of a few weeks.

Added to this, standards of literacy and attention spans on the web are plummeting.

  • We’re all illiterate More than half of American college students nearing graduation can’t understand the arguments in newspaper editorials.
  • Google fixes our grammar anyway Google mostly ignores punctuation and these days it corrects spellings and shows synonyms. There’s less and less incentive for people to search using correct grammar or spelling or to even think about the search terms they use.
  • Your brand’s probably invisible People don’t  know which website they’re on half the time, anyway. If you’ve never seen people in usability testing fail to realise they’ve moved to a different site, check out these people trying to log into facebook last week on readwriteweb.

Given all this, what’s the point in investing in well-commissioned, well-researched, well-written, well-edited, and well-subbed copy for, say, 60 cents a word?

At that rate, War and Peace would have cost $276,000 to commission.

Despite this, here’s when you should use an experienced, pricey copywriter, rather than a value service or an agency with claims like:

  • “our inhouse copy writers will produces unique, keyword balanced content …”
  • “[we’re] skilled in the art of SEO Copywriting as is evidence by our clients top search engine rankings”?

(Really – Google them if you don’t believe me).

When to pay professional rates

When you need expertise

If you want your site to demonstrate expertise (or passion for that matter), you’re going to have to pay.

First up, you need some proper expertise. You don’t want to end up like eHow where people avoid its pages in search results because of bad experiences – such as an article on how to cure a cold by someone whose credentials turned out to be “having an English degree and loving to write for fun, but I’ve never made a profit yet”.

But you’re not just paying for the expertise – most writers can knock out a quick “how to” with a bit of background research.

Real experts know their subject in depth, can demonstrate this, and have lots to say.

The problem is usually getting them to shut up.

I’m not one of these people who reckons there’s some ideal length for a web page of about 400 to 500 words. The ideal length is however long it takes to say what needs saying (and SEOmoz found that 1,800+ word posts were more likely to earn links).

The issue is saying what you need to say in the fewest words. People read 25% slower on the web. And for every 100 words you add, only 18 are read on average.

So the trick with expertise is to have genuinely insightful copy that’s edited to as few words as possible – and, for obvious reasons,  few copywriting services  charge on the basis of giving you fewer words than you asked for …

If you want unique content that gets people to stay

The key measure of SEO is not rankings or traffic. It’s conversion (however you choose to measure it). So the actual cost of content doesn’t matter – what matters is your return. You can’t tell whether cheap copy is better value without experimenting.

Also, you need to ask what’s going to make your copy do well in the search results, and whether you want visitors to return? Have a look round the competition – there are 30,900 articles on ehow.com about ipod playlists, for instance, 1,550 about the ipad, 28,000 about changing a tire, and 36,300 about face painting.

Let’s take an ehow car-tire article at random – this one was 2nd in their on-site search. You think anyone’s going to naturally link to an article that essentially says “take the tire off, then put the new one on”? You think anyone’s going to think “Blimey, that ehow article was the money. I am so going back to ehow next time I need to know something”?

Yes, you can throw up some cheap, me-too copy, build links to it and wait for traffic to click on your affiliate links. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But to build an audience – repeat visitors and people who value your brand, want your newsletter, and follow you on twitter – you have to give them quality and you have to be distinctive.

Your tone of voice matters

There’s something about the guidelines for web writing that drains the life from copy. Take this example, which Demand Media were showcasing on their home page (is this really the best they’ve got?).

Leaving aside the apparently broken return key and missing bullet-list button, is that dry, monotonous, soul-destroying copy really how you want your brand to express itself?

I’m sure there are some great writers in cheap content agencies. But they’ve got no incentive to write creatively, or even to write like a human. Most, though, have probably had drummed into them some half-baked writing-for-the-web guidelines presented as if they were universal truths, without thinking about the context – and they are desperate to strip out any adjectives or signs of human life from their writing because, hey, that’s what everyone wants on the web, right

If you pay by the word, that’s what you get – words. If you pay for tone, you get tone. Last time I checked, cheap copywriting services were all missing a checkbox where you could pay extra for signs of human life.

(If you’ve ever referred to the contents of the folder containing your draft web copy as “assets”, you probably won’t get this point.)

Your press releases have a purpose

Press releases should be judged on their ROI. Why are you putting out a press release? Let’s assume you’ve got something newsworthy to say – and you want journalists to pick it up, because you want to earn links or promote your brand.

Here are two options:

  • Pay someone who knows nothing about your company, the market you’re operating in, the journalists involved or their publications. Get them to write something. Maybe you can stick it on some online PR site? Then you can start a news section on your site, too. No one will pick it up, and you’ll go off the whole press-release idea. In a few months, anyone clicking the news section of your site will think nothing has happened at head office for ages.
  • Or do some proper research into who is likely to cover the story and how you can grab their interest – and pay to craft the release with care to appeal to those people.

I’ll let you do the math on that one (as I believe you say in America)

Quality costs

Adweek wrote in December about how:

“the race is on to use data and automation to produce content that people (and advertisers) want at as low a price as possible.”

One of the commenters despaired:

“Every time I click on one of [AOL’s] business stories, their “content” is filled with obvious typos, grammatical errors and completely unfocused, unorganized writing throughout. How can you trust anything written in a story so poorly put together? AOL is starting to resemble a cheap blog produced in some kid’s basement vs a professional content provider. ”

The problem for you is that if you’re commissioning cheap content, you’re probably not investing in editing or subbing. (For that matter, you’ve probably not given that much thought to what you want in the first place, and how appropriate it is.)

These stages cost money too. If you skip them, you’re not going to improve the quality of what you produce.

Journalism.co.uk, the UK site devoted to journalism, recently worked out that it cost them £37 ($58) on average to produce an online article, and estimated that a national newspaper would pay nearer £400 ($630). That is what quality, original copy really costs if you want it done properly.

Which end of the pay scale is suitable for your website?

Short-form content is even harder

Hemmingway famously came up with this six-word story:

“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

Similar attempts by copycat storywriters are invariably lame. But short-form copy can be the most compelling. Whether you want to just do it, get the best a man can get or are after the real thing, you’re not going to get a great six-word slogan for 12 cents.

In fact, for a given subject X, you’ll probably end up with something with “matters” at the end. Subject-X matters – get it? It means “it’s about subject-X” and that “subject-X is important”. Brilliant.

(That’s not to say the professionals always get it right – Warner Bros managed to use “Titans will clash” as the tagline for, er, Clash of the Titans. Inspiring. And UK retailer Dixons used “the last place you want to go” as its slogan, hoping to suggest that you’d visit its shops after checking online. Or as most people read it, that it was somewhere to steer well clear of.)

Want to see this in action? Dustin Curtis demonstrated how, in 4 steps from “I’m on twitter” to “You should follow me on twitter here”, he increased clickthroughs by 173%. That is copy advice worth paying for.

The same applies to meta descriptions. They affect clickthrough rates – so don’t make the work-experience guy type them mechanically into a spreadsheet. Lavish the same care and attention to them as you would to a magazine front-cover strapline.

Again, if you pitched a need for 20 150-character meta descriptions to a cheap content agency then they won’t be that interested, and very little thought will go into it.

Strategy? Huh?

One of the advantages of a professional, experienced copywriter is that they are likely to ask questions. Why is a blog a good idea for your site? What’s the long-term plan for your content? How should the content be structured? Have you thought about the artwork? Is your site structure ideal?

If a cheap copy service asked any of these questions, they’d cost themselves money. As the answers will often be, “You’re right – no one will be remotely interested in our blog”. Or “No, we haven’t given any thought to how people are gong to find this stuff – we thought we could throw it up and maybe someone would give it a twitter for us. My nephew’s on twitter, you see. Time for a rethink.”

To sum up

I’m not obsessed with ‘content-is-king’. The internet isn’t a monarchy. You can write great content, and no one will ever see it if you don’t have a way to get it found. Yet you can scrape other people’s content and clean up.

Nor am I opposed to platforms that match low-cost writers with those who need words (it’s easy to find examples of bad writing from content mills – but that doesn’t exactly prove anything as you can do the same on mainstream media sites.)

It’s horses for courses. The key when commissioning content is to think about what it’s for. If it can affect your brand, you want to build an audience, or if you want something unique, pay for quality. If not, then don’t.

Right, now what rate did I agree with Michael for these 2,000 words … Eh? What’s a guest post?

Malcolm Coles wrote this post – he does internet content strategy. You should follow him on twitter here. He’d quite like some more links to his UK website on setting up a business – as it’s currently a shining example of how good content without any promotion gets no visitors.

photo credit: Photos8.com

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