Lessons from my favourite clients: How to get the best from your freelance copywriter
Just as parents aren’t supposed to have favourites, I suspect freelancers aren’t supposed to have favourite clients. But the fact is, I do.
My favourite clients are the ones where together, we achieve a massive win-win: they get plenty of value from what I do, and I get to enjoy the process. These clients kick ass, and you can bet their content does, too. So I thought I’d share what I’ve observed about the characteristics of people who get the very best from their copywriter — my favourite kind of client:
They know what they want, and can put it into context
Favourite clients know what they want to achieve. Even if it’s just the nub of an idea, they can articulate their thinking, their ambition and the context for it. They call me and say, “Hey Kate, I feel like we should do something on mobile gaming in Iceland, because we have an event on the topic coming up and it would help us start a conversation ahead of time.” This is a great jumping off point, because it means we have scope to explore the possibilities that will lead to them achieving their goal. I love conversations like this, because we can both own the objective and commit to it. Instead of being tied to a particular output — a brochure or a blog post, say— we can figure out which kinds of content will work best and then decide on the formats I’ll create.
They trust in the process (and the copywriter)
Writing is a bit of a mystery to many people (more so when you put ‘copy’ before it), which is in itself a bit of a mystery to me, as one who writes for a living. But my favourite kinds of clients are the ones who are willing to trust that they will get what they need from the process, no matter how mysterious it may be to them. And that involves trusting me. Now, trust is a tricky thing, but sometimes you just have to surrender to it because the alternative is to make yourself prematurely grey and micromanage to such a degree that the process becomes strangled. The way I see it, if my approach, track record and not-inconsiderable day rate don’t convince you that I mean business, then we probably shouldn’t be working together. If you’re willing to believe, then let’s create some kick ass content. Trust me. I got this.
They do minimal gatekeeping
One of the things I love the most about my job is helping people who are amazingly clever and good at stuff (or brands that are inherently brilliant) articulate their wisdom to the outside world and basically look good. To do that, though, I need access to brains. Not in zombie kind of way, but in a getting-to-know-you and understanding-what-you-think-and-what-makes-you-tick kind of way. Often the person who commissions me is a marketing manager, and their stakeholders hold the juiciest subject matter. Favourite clients are confident to let me interview their people or instigate email conversations to draw out the story. I know it’s a leap of faith, especially if that person is their boss, or their boss’s boss. That’s why good copywriters waste no-one’s time with this stuff. It’s like an efficient supermarket dash: make a list, get in, get what you need, smile and say thank you, get out and get on with it.
They treat deadlines as a collaborative process
Ah, deadlines. The writer’s life is a series of deadlines, punctuated by cold cups of coffee. But they also serve the important purpose of keeping things on track and helping manage expectations. Great clients understand a few important things about deadlines: 1. That deadlines are our deadline, not merely the writer’s: often, meeting deadlines relies as much on the client providing the writer with the information and feedback they need as much as the writer actually doing the job on time. Therefore, 2. When setting deadlines, we need to take into account both of our workloads (they also get that most freelance copywriters have other clients, too). Which means that 3. The best way to set deadlines is to figure it out together, based on the final, final date for completed content. Good copywriters respect realistic deadlines. We’d sooner tweet an errant apostrophe than miss an agreed deadline. But it takes two, baby.
They extract value from your experience
Clients who ask me about my other clients (confidentiality maintained, of course) and past projects are onto a winner. It’s not that my experience is so vastly impressive and exciting, rather that they are willing to look beyond their usual parameters and snag any ideas, experiences or ways of doing things that could work for them. Like many copywriters, I’m sure, the range of my experience (good and bad) is broad — from working with some of the most recognisable brands in the world to brand new start ups that have since faded into obscurity. There are learnings to be gleaned from each and every one, and I’m willing to share. Because you never know what that might spark.
They give feedback constructively
Copywriting is an iterative process. I never expect my copy to be perfect first time around, for exactly this reason. That means I welcome feedback. Feedback is another tricky one, especially if you are of the Anglo-Saxon persuasion, if you know what I mean. People get squeamish about it. But great clients know that feedback is precisely what us copywriters want — the more detailed, the better. If you don’t like this word or clause, can you say what it is you don’t like about it? If a key point is missing, can you elaborate? If the tone of voice is slightly off, what could it be ‘more of’, or ‘less of’? Good copywriters don’t take feedback personally. They actively seek it, because we want this stuff to be goddamn perfect. And perfect doesn’t happen in a bubble.
They get the power of ‘now’
My copywriterly mission is to create kick ass content for my clients. What I mean by that is quality writing that’s engaging, true to the brand, ready-to-use, repurposeable, current. These are the things that make content valuable, and that make my fee worthwhile. Some of my favourite ever projects have been creating content for clients ‘on the fly’, attending their event or office to write interview content, blog posts and articles, event wrap-up materials, right here, right now. I love the sense that in these cases, they can commission today, publish tomorrow. These days, content goes stale very quickly, so momentum is a must. It requires faith to work this way because quite often the process needs to be accelerated or streamlined (a less complex sign off, for example), but it’s worth it. ‘Now’ is powerful. Clients willing to embrace that get a huge thumbs up from me.
Why am I telling you all of this? Today, content is currency for businesses and brands. It’s worth investing in, but there’s a whole seam of additional value (like ideas, strong collaborative relationships, best practices, even saving time in the long run) to be gained, if you’re willing to work at the copywriter-client relationship. I see it every day with my favourite clients; together, we create little dynamos of content creation, increasing in momentum all the time.
And that is why I do what I do.