7 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Copywriting

#3: You need to master some serious psychological hacks.

Copywriting. I don’t know about you, but the word tastes unpoetic. Bland. Corporate.

Truth is, there’s a lot more to copywriting than suits, swivel chairs and sushi lunches. (Alliteration is the true mark of a creative writer). (No, it isn’t).

I didn’t consciously decide to get into copywriting. It just sort of… happened. And since I didn’t do much research into the field beforehand, I had no idea what I was falling into.

That said, these are the seven things I wish I’d known when I first started:

1. There isn’t a “real” school for it.

Okay, if you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find a school somewhere that offers a copywriting major. But it’s definitely not the norm. Usually, copywriters come from English (like me), marketing, or advertising degrees.

I’ve met some copywriters who started out in STEM, became masters of their subject, and then found envy-inducing jobs at high-profile science and tech companies.

Yes, it’s annoying that you can’t easily find a copywriting major at your local university, but there’s also a positive catch: it means that, in some cases, you don’t absolutely need a university degree at all.

Many copywriters skipped school and went straight into practical application. They spent hundreds of hours writing. They took a few online courses (be extremely selective if you choose this route). They learned through trial and error how to write persuasively. They performed copywriting services with little or no pay, both for the learning experience and to build their portfiolios. Sound like everything you do/did in university? Exactly.

2. It’s not content writing.

I was a sweet, innocent content writer when I began working at an e-commerce startup. Sure, in the past I’d added sales flair to articles being sponsored by a brand, but I’d had no real experience with the gritty copywriting world.

That startup was my first dip into copywriting, and the first few projects were a struggle. I was trying to do everything possible to avoid using tried-and-true sales techniques because it made my creative soul cringe.

Thing is, there really is room for creativity in copywriting. If you’re in a position where you can comfortably take chances — and some potential sales hits — feel free to flex that creativity and find new ways to hook customers.

But unlike content writing, your main goal isn’t to educate or inform. Though the best copywriting techniques do involve education to some degree, the real goal is the lead, or, even better, the sale.

3. You need to master some serious psychological hacks.

In fact, I would say that 75% of copywriting is figuring out how to get into your target customer’s head.

When I started taking on copywriting tasks at that e-commerce, I quickly realised how helpful it was to use some of the things I’d learned in Psych 101.

A simplistic example: We know that humans are social creatures. According to years of research, and the Yale Attitude Change Approach, we tend to rely on other people’s experiences before we make important decisions.

Bring that knowledge to your copywriting, and you’ll see why providing social proof is an effective way to get that lead or sale.

That’s also why I ask new clients for access to some of their marketing analytics. I want to see how their current content is performing on key products, including where readers click away from a page, and how long they stay on it.

If the company is performing best practices, it will also have target customer profiles, which you should definitely request.

4. For the sake of your sanity, stick with products you believe in (at least a little).

After getting into the copywriting game, I began taking on projects with a couple of clients who sold products that made me uncomfortable, to say the least.

These products were in my niche, which actually made my discomfort all the worse. I knew what quality products in this niche looked like, and I knew almost immediately that these products did not fit the bill.

But I was still a noob, and wanted to prove myself, so I ignored my instincts — and hard-won product expertise— and continued to work with them.

This is the thing about copywriting: Yes, it’s sales-y. Yes, you’re hacking into target customers’ brains to convince them to buy a product. Yes, on the outside this seems shady.

That’s why I’d avoided copywriting for so long. I didn’t trust it. And when I started working for these shady companies, I began seriously doubting my own morality.

But my husband (who’s in marketing) made an important point:

Copywriting isn’t about tricking people into buying something. It’s about leading them to a legitimately useful product that they might actually want and need.

And that was when I realised my mistake. I had been working within a niche I believed in, but the products I had been touting were all wrong.

So please, don’t take on clients who seem to be running shady businesses. Your writing will suffer. Your sense of self-integrity will suffer. It’s not worth the money or the portfolio credit.

5. Identify Your Niche. Be Your Niche.

Just as with copywriting itself, I sort of fell into my niche. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it. I’m very much interested in natural health and wellness, which is why I applied for that first copywriting job. But at the time, I had no plans to become a freelance copywriter, and no idea that identifying a niche was important.

Luckily, my previous job made it easy to choose my first niche as a freelancer. I already knew a ridiculous amount about the subject and I felt confident about the science behind the products I was selling.

If you aren’t sure about your niche, make a list of what you already know. Are you into programming? Or did you major in Art History? Do you practice yoga twice a week? What’s fun about identifying your niche is recognising that all of your past experiences matter.

Now (and please don’t hate me) you need to Marie Kondo that list. That’s right. Look through it. Find what sparks joy. Cross out the rest.

There’s a lot of contention in the copywriting world about how niche-y your niche should be. How many are you allowed to have, anyway?

Honestly, I think you can have as many as you can personally handle. It’s different for everyone.

What’s more important is that you are the master of each niche. That means hundreds of hours of experience — either practical or theoretical.

If you can master ten niches, great. My only suggestion would be to consider having ten separate portfolios for each subject. Some clients may be worried that you’re not “focused enough” if you showcase all of those niches in your pitch. While that’s not necessarily true, you don’t want that to be the reason you lose a potential client.

6. Realise your value and hold on to it with everything you have.

A major problem with copywriting: the field is flooded.

Anyone with a keyboard can claim to be a copywriter, and there will always be someone who will offer a lower fee in their pitch.

That’s led to some clients devaluing the copywriting profession. It’s a nasty cycle: one copywriter offers a ridiculously low fee, and the company begins to expect this of every future writer.

The key here is the client. It’s difficult to directly calculate the return on investment in relation to copywriting, but an established company, with experience in marketing, will still have an idea about the ROI that a quality copywriter can bring to the table. These companies tend to value copywriters who charge higher prices for their work over their less-expensive peers.

Why? Because experienced, professional copywriters understand the marketing game. They have at least a general idea of the ROI their previous content made for their clients. They know the value of their work.

When you’re just starting out, it’s okay to charge lower rates. But not too low.

If you do charge lower rates, make a deal with your first clients. Include a request in your contract that they continue communicating with you about how your content is performing, and whether it seems to have led to sales increases.

At the very least, make sure they’ll let you add the project to your portfolio, and provide a review of your services.

Only make this deal for the first few clients, and don’t let them continue to take advantage of it for future projects. As your experience grows, so, too, does your pay.

Remember that you’re not just doing this for yourself, but for copywriters everywhere. Let’s not undervalue our work.

7. Always Keep Building Your Portfolio

This is probably a less common mistake, but I definitely made it: When I started copywriting, I was an employee. I didn’t need a portfolio. Or so, I thought at the time.

I didn’t start doing freelance copywriting until long after I’d left that job. In between, I’d been focusing on moving halfway across the world and getting an MA.

One year and one degree later, I decided to start doing some freelance copywriting. Then I realised how badly I’d messed up.

At my old job, I’d written plenty of landing pages that had performed well. Unfortunately, by the time I realised I needed a portfolio, those pages had been replaced with new copy for their improved products.

And — smart lady that I was — I hadn’t bothered saving the URLs to the old pages, or asking the company to provide a review of my work.

So don’t be me. Make sure to collect examples of your best work, and update your portfolio regularly.

The Takeaways

Copywriting is about knowing what your customer needs, why he/she/they need(s) it, and introducing a product that you believe in. That’s why it’s so important to choose a niche you enjoy and know everything about.

Value yourself and your work, showcase your value with an updated portfolio, and you’ll be well on your way to your dream copywriting life.

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Writes sci-fi most of the time. In the real world, she focuses on creating compelling copy. Keep up to date: www.sarahlongwrites.com.

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