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Small Business & Productivity

Your Guide to Hiring a Copywriter: Setting Goals, Search Tips, and Red Flags to Avoid

Did you ever see the movie (or read the book) Where’d You Go, Bernadette

The protagonist, Bernadette, outsources nearly all of her life to a virtual assistant from India named Manjula—only to find out that there is no Manjula and she’s actually been talking to a member of a Russian scam network that plans to defraud her out of her money. 

Hiring a copywriter can feel a bit like that. 

NOT because they’re planning to scam you. That’s super rare. But because it’s hard to know if you can truly rely on the person on the other side of the computer. 

You think you’ve found the perfect fit, only to find out later that they have a crappy attitude or they can’t communicate for beans or they don’t actually deliver what they promised. 

So what are you to do when you want to hire help?

It’s all about due diligence and avoiding red flags.

1. Think About Goals, Not Deliverables

If you look up listicles on the topic of hiring a copywriter (and I have), most start with something like “determine your needs.”

Sometimes, that’s simple. “I need a brochure for my brand new wedding venue.” Ok, sure. 

But often, it’s not as clear. 

For example: maybe you’ve been passively building an email list. But you have no idea what to do with it. If you come to a copywriter saying, “I need to start sending an email every week,” they can put that together for you. 

But is that actually what you need? Or is it just what you think you should be doing?

A better approach is to start with a GOAL.

“I want to start promoting special events through email to sell 15% more tickets,” is a much better goal. As for how you do that—that’s something your copywriter can help you with! 

You don’t need to have the how figured out. You just need to have the goal in mind, and a good copywriter will help you get there. They can also help you determine how you’ll measure success. Having clear metrics for a win lets you and the writer know if they nailed it or not. 

And along those lines…

Do you really need a copywriter? You may! Or you may not—especially if you’re on a tight budget. 

There are great resources out there that are free (like my blog) or low cost (like the audits and guides in my shop) that can get you the guidance you need to majorly improve your copy without shelling out the big bucks. 

2. Start the Search

Copywriters are perpetually online. So a web search is always a good place to start. But Googling “copywriter” will cast too wide of a net. 

Search for a writer that specializes in your niche to narrow down the field. 

I focus on hospitality and lifestyle brands. But there are medical copywriters, legal copywriters, SaaS copywriters, ecommerce copywriters…the list goes on. 

Search for “[industry] copywriter” to find a better fit. Someone who “speaks your language” and will understand the ins and outs of your particular area. 

You may also want to reach out to any contacts you have in the marketing industry already. If you’ve worked with a web designer or graphic designer in the past, ask if they know any good copywriters. Same with any digital marketers or SEOs.

You can also look on freelance platforms like Upwork and Fiverr. There are absolutely skilled, professional copywriters in these places. But check out the DANGER WILL ROBINSON section at the end of this article for some red flags to watch out for. 

3. Review Portfolios and Samples

A copywriter’s portfolio is where they get the chance to strut their stuff. The portfolio will show you the caliber of client they’ve worked with in the past, and the quality of their work. 

If someone’s portfolio is giving you all the warm fuzzies, that’s a good sign. 

A couple caveats about portfolios:

If it’s a bit thin on samples, the copywriter may be new to the job. Or they may be so swamped with client work they haven’t had a chance to update it. Or they may primarily write for agencies who require they sign non-disclosure agreements, and therefore they can’t post some of their work.

This is not uncommon—I myself have done tons of work for agencies that I can’t share, because it was under the agency label. 

So if you’re interested in a copywriter and want to see something that isn’t in their portfolio, just ask. They may be able to send you samples directly that they haven’t posted online, or they may explain why they can’t share everything they’ve done. 

4. Talk in Person (or Over the Phone, or Over Video)

Email is great, but you’ll never get a great read on someone until you talk to them. 

I would never hire anyone for an important job without talking to them first, and you shouldn’t either. You don’t have to be best friends with your copywriter, but you should at least like the person if you’re going to have a pleasant working relationship. 

Your call is the perfect opportunity to dig into project details like your goals, ideas for achieving those goals, and timelines. It’s your chance to make sure you’re on the same page  and give the copywriter the info they need to put together custom pricing.

(Not all copywriters do custom pricing. Some have pre-set packages, and that is a-ok as long as their packages align with your goals.)

The copywriter will probably have tons of questions for you. This is part of the research process. I send out an in-depth questionnaire to new clients so I can get a sense of their brand, audience, voice, and product. 

5. Check References and Reviews

Feeling the good vibes during your call? 

Fantastic. 

Back up those good vibes with some facts by checking reviews and references. Many copywriters (myself included) have testimonials from some of their happy clients on their websites. Read them. They can tell you a lot about the copywriters’ communication style, reliability, and professionalism. 

You can also ask the copywriter to share some references that you can check. Send the reference an email and ask point blank—would you recommend working with this person? 

If a copywriter won’t provide contact info for previous clients, that could be a red flag. 

6. Review a Proposal or Estimate

After you’ve talked through the details with the copywriter and you’re confident that you want to work with them, it’s time to talk dollars. 

As mentioned, some copywriters offer pre-set packages, while others (like myself) do custom pricing. In either case, the writer should provide some kind of proposal that will outline exactly what you’ll be spending and exactly what deliverables you should expect for your money. 

A proposal is not usually a formal contract, but it does outline the project to make sure both parties agree on the scope and timeline. 

7. Sign a Contract and Pay a Deposit

After the proposal is confirmed, I send clients a separate contract. It includes the scope of work agreed to in the proposal, but it also has all the other important info necessary for a successful working relationship, like: 

  • Who owns the work once it’s completed? (You might be surprised to learn that the copywriter retains ownership of their written content unless they formally transfer that ownership to you in writing.)
  • What happens if the client wants to cancel the agreement?
  • What happens if the client wants to change the scope?
  • And so on 

A formal contract protects both the client and the copywriter and ensures that both parties know what to expect from the other. 

You may also be asked to pay a deposit before the copywriter begins working. 

This will vary from copywriter to copywriter, with some charging full-price up front, some waiting to collect until the work is complete, and some charging part up front and the balance either at the halfway point or when the project is complete. 

I believe that paying a 50% deposit up front and the balance later in the project is the fairest method. It protects the writer from doing work without compensation, and it protects the client from unscrupulous freelancers who take 100% of the money and ghost. 

But if you’ve talked to the person and have a contract in place, then you can feel pretty confident that you’re working with a pro. 

freelancer-client contract

* DANGER WILL ROBINSON *

[Do people even get that reference anymore? I honestly have no idea. If you’re confused, Google Lost in Space.]

Anyway, here are some potential red flags to watch out for when you’re looking for a copywriter. 

There are no barriers to entry to calling yourself a copywriter. 

No required education, no minimum experience level, and no governing body that tracks any of it. Literally anyone can call themselves a copywriter. 

If you have a very low budget, this is actually not a terrible thing. You can get some writing help and spend very little money to get it with a newbie. Just keep in mind that this is going to be a very junior person who is “learning on the job,” and their work may reflect that. 

Beware writers that charge by the hour

Most good copywriters charge by the project, not by the hour. 

Good copy isn’t a commodity. And how long the job takes is irrelevant. What matters is the quality of the copy. 

  • Does it reflect the voice of the customer? 
  • Does it match features to benefits? 
  • Is it reader focused? 
  • Does it sell?

If it does these things, it makes no difference if it took 15 minutes or 5 hours. I’m not a real fast writer. And I don’t punish clients for that by making them pay me more. But a faster writer shouldn’t charge less, and therefore punish themselves for their efficiency.

So watch out for anyone who charges by the hour. It’s a sign that they don’t respect the work.  

Beware super short turnaround times

A lot a lot A LOT of copywriting is research. 

Most of it, in fact. 

If you have a long-established relationship with a copywriter, they may not have to do as much research, because they know you, your products, and your audience. 

But when you’re starting a new relationship with a copywriter, they need to dig into your brand, figure out what’s special about your products, assess what your audience loves, what their objections are, and how your products make their lives better. 

That’s a lot of stuff to figure out. 

So if you’re talking to a new copywriter and they say they can have a page of web content for you in a day or two, that’s a big red flag. 

A good copywriter will look into all of this. Plus they’ll ask you lots of questions, since you know your brand better than anyone. 

That can’t be accomplished in 24 hours. 

The Right Writer is Out There

Bringing someone new into your business family can be nerve wracking. I totally get that. 

But when you find someone you can vibe with, who gets what you’re trying to accomplish and is an enthusiastic partner in making that happen, it’s like magic. 

It may take a few tries to find the right writer. 

That’s ok. 

Just follow the steps. Watch out for the red flags. And don’t be afraid to make a change if it’s not working out. 

You got this. 

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