So listen. I’ll level with you.
I’m a writer. And I used to be a web pro. So yeah, I know what a pain web copy can be.
You can’t launch without it, but… it’s hard to write it. And it’s even harder still to get clients to write it.
A professional copywriter can make all that “hard” go away and roll a truckload of “easy” up to your door. But sometimes—say, when there’s just not enough money in the budget for good copy—using a writer just isn’t an option.
I get that. And while it would be professional negligence for me to recommend not using a writer (not to mention death to my business bank account), I’m a realist. I understand that life happens and sometimes you just need words on a page, dammit.
If you happen to find yourself in that situation, here are four things you can do to get copy when you can’t afford a writer.
On the surface, the easiest thing to do when you’re stuck for copy is to throw the job back to the client and say, “You write it.” That approach makes sense in a way… Your client is the expert on their business, so why wouldn’t you have them take care of their own copy?
Well, clients are notorious for dragging their heels on web content for a whole bunch of reasons: “We’re too busy,” “We working on it, but we can’t get it quite right,” “Our office manager is the one writing it, and she’s been on vacation for two weeks,” etc. In my days as a web pro, I heard them all. Every one of these excuses adds up to the same thing—you spinning your wheels, waiting for weeks to finish your project so you can get paid.
A piece of advice: unless your client has dedicated writers and project managers on staff, the results will almost always be late. Try to avoid letting your client write the copy unless you’re fully prepared to conquer content delays and ride them like a mule with regular check-ins and deliverable dates.
Getting clients to write their own copy doesn’t always end up a disaster. It’s been done before, and it can be done again. Maybe you’ll be able to successfully incorporate the process into your workflow.
Just know this: like the old maps used to say, “Here Be Dragons,” when you let clients write, things can—and often do—go horribly wrong.
Handling the web copy yourself is what I like to call “the desperation option.” Although, I won’t lie, it’s how I got my start. Now, I’d been writing for ten years before I started building sites, so I at least had experience with being creative on demand. If you don’t have that track record, though, writing content can be rough.
But if, like me, you’re at all inclined to write copy, this method can really work out for you. If you write the copy yourself, you don’t have to entrust that part of the client relationship to anyone else—and you get to keep all the profits, too, without spending any on a contractor.
Trying to write as a part of the website-building process can be very stressful. You run the risk of scope creep and eroded profits. Speaking from experience, there are few things worse than going through a fourth round of copy revisions with a disaster client and realizing you could have made more money working at a gas station.
Here’s something you could try—take a look at what other companies in your client’s space are doing and write the same thing.
Wait… What? Isn’t that stealing?
Yes and no. If you can artfully copy—and the emphasis here is on the word artfully—from someone who knows what they’re doing, you can get good results with a fraction of the effort.
However, let me be clear. You can’t just copy and paste. It’s unethical, and could expose your client to legal action.
The trick in copying your client’s competitors is in using their work to inspire yours. It’s not about running a “find and replace.” It’s about, for example, borrowing the structure of an About page and adding new material. It’s about taking the basic idea of a blog post, rewriting the title and the sub-heads, and then going from there.
Two caveats: first, most clients will balk at this approach. And they should. When you work this way you’re walking an ethical line with a high risk of your client’s competitor catching on to the theft. And you’re creating zero chance of differentiating your client with their copy. Think about it… If you’re taking from someone else, you’re going to sound just like them too.
Second, writing content this way is very, very hard to do successfully. Your client—and their competitors—will nearly always be able to tell that the new copy came from the old stuff.
The best way to get copy that’s on-message and that represents your client’s brand is very similar to the one I just detailed. This time, though, instead of borrowing from competitors you’re going to borrow from the client themselves by taking their current marketing materials and repurposing them for the web.
There’s no ethical dilemma to mull over because your client already owns the source material—they either wrote it themselves or previously had it created as work-for-hire. Therefore, they own the copyright and can authorize you to do whatever you want with it.
On the downside, this approach is not really any less time-consuming than creating content from scratch… It’s just better informed. Somebody else already did at least a little work to get what currently exists, so that’s less for you to do on that front. But you’re still going to be tasked with stitching different materials together into a cohesive whole. That can be tough. Also, good luck if your client is a new business or doesn’t have very many marketing pieces to share with you. Spinning proverbial gold from straw can be a real challenge.
Four approaches, each with their pros and cons. It’s hard to say which I’d recommend, because they all have their drawbacks. And, of course, because I’m a writer I would recommend leaving writing web copy to the pros.
No matter how you get the copy done, when you’re finished, you may want to consider handing it over to an editor who can work quickly to iron out wrinkly content and make it seem like it was all written in the same voice. Try an online editing service, ask at your next business networking breakfast, or heck, hire me to edit your copy.
Since you can usually find editing services for much less than the cost of writing custom copy from scratch, your client may be willing to pony up for a bit of polishing.
Maybe not a whole truckload of easy, but it’s a start.
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