Are Your Copywriting Skills Outdated?
In a writers’ forum I follow, a writer submitted a question about copywriting. She had done it professionally years ago and was considering returning to the field. She wondered about getting herself updated for today’s market.
In the past, she had done ad copywriting for standard mass media (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, etc.). But would those skills be relevant in today’s advertising environments? Copywriting is copywriting, right? Her concern is valid, even if writing and copywriting skills are timeless.
Let’s look at some of the ways that advertising has changed and, specifically, how that impacts the field of copywriting.
What is Copywriting?
First, let’s clarify what copywriting is. It is simply creating text-based content that will be featured in advertising. It could be text in a print ad, or a radio or TV ad script. Today, it could be the text in PPC (pay per click) ads or social media posts.
Copywriters are masters of writing that evokes emotion and action. Top talent in this field can be paid very well because their skills help create sales and profits for an advertiser.
The godfather of copywriting is indisputably John Caples. His “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play...” ad from the 1920s is a role model for ad copy that tapped into people’s emotional needs for approval and achievement. It tells the story of how someone who had never formally learned to play music amazed his friends with the skills he gained from a home study music course.
There’s just one issue with Caples’ kind of ad. It was developed for print magazines and newspapers.
Mastering the Medium
In his 1964 book, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” Marshall McLuhan posited that the characteristics of the medium (or media) used can be as influential as the message the medium delivers. His most famous quote is, “The medium is the message.”
What does this have to do with copywriting? Everything! Text that will be framed by a beautiful print ad in a magazine will probably not work for a Twitter tweet, even if the number of words could be the same for both. If the message in Caples’ classic “piano” print ad had to be redone for use on social media, it would likely be best delivered as a YouTube video that tells the story.
And since all social media is so visually dependent, this also requires that copywriter's have a strong visual sense to marry the copy they write with the selected photos and videos.
Today’s advertising environment now covers so many more media formats than ever before. So writers who want to tap into the field of ad copywriting in today’s market need to be masters of the medium, not just masters of writing.
Mastering the Market
In addition to being versed in today’s media formats, copywriters also need to be thoroughly versed in today’s markets. Years ago, product and service advertising aimed for reaching more homogenous, mass markets. Today’s markets are extremely fragmented with many smaller market segments.
This can be either good or bad news for copywriters. The good news is that writers who have a wealth of knowledge and understanding of smaller, niche market segments can specialize in serving those segments. Specialists can often command higher fees than generalists.
The bad news is that there are so many segments that it may be difficult to determine what areas of specialty to pursue. Segments can also be so small that the amount of opportunities and potential earnings are small, too.
So copywriters need to know the special needs of market segments, determine if they are qualified to serve those needs, and assess if there is enough of a market need for their skills to make them any money.
How are Today’s Copywriters Hired?
These days, it is less likely that copywriters are hired full-time, except for possibly the biggest ad and marketing agencies. The more likely employment scenario for copywriters is through freelancing on sites such as Upwork and Fiverr, or somewhere else online.
While freelancing is appealing to entrepreneurial copywriters, the various online freelancing sites are extremely competitive. There are hundreds or thousands of talented writers competing for opportunities. As well, writers are competing with other writers from around the world who may be willing to work for substantially less.
On top of all this, clients can be very demanding. They always have been for creative work like this. But today, armed with analytical data, their expectations for ad copy performance can be high, even unrealistic. Add understanding analytics to the copywriter’s skill set!
Then there are clients that are inexperienced, uninformed, and demanding. They haven’t worked much, if at all, with freelance talent. They might be from small, but growing, businesses who now need to start hiring help for marketing functions. Online freelance sites are often turned to for this help.
The problem is that many of these newbie clients have no idea how to evaluate copywriting talent or the written work produced. So their demands and expectations could also be unrealistic. Unless a copywriter is willing educate them, and the client is willing to be educated, this can be a recipe for “clients from hell.” Add client management to the copywriter’s skill set!
That Was Then
Years ago, I remember seeing promotions for courses that taught you how to easily (of course!) make money from copywriting. That was before the Internet. With all of the market and medium knowledge required today, on top of stellar writing and client management skills, it is no longer an opportunity for those who want to dabble in the field to make a few easy bucks. It must be approached like a business.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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© 2019 Heidi Thorne