Straight Talk: The Business of Copywriting
For the two decades that I've been in this business, agreeing on price always [has been] a stress for the copywriter as well as the [client]," explains Palm Desert, Calif.-based copywriter Chris Marlow. For Marlow, who also runs a copywriter's training program called The Copywriter's Coach, this issue is a double stressor as her students want to learn not only about direct response copy, but the copywriting business as well.
Not content with anecdotal tales of how successful copywriters got that way, Marlow wanted something more scientific to share with her students. So throughout 2004, she surveyed nearly 300 copywriters on such topics as what they earn, how they market themselves and how they work. She compiled all of this research and data into the 2005 Freelance Copywriter Fee & Compensation Survey, which she released this summer.
Marlow recently spoke with me about some of the study's most unexpected findings and what they mean for both copywriters and the clients who hire them.
TG: What were some of the key findings of your study? What were some of the surprises?
CM: The study was designed to reveal insight into what copywriters actually charge for 20 of the most common copywriting jobs, including ... order-generating packages, lead-generating packages, concepting, sales letters, online promotions, Web sites, magalogs and more.
Some of the surprises: Because of the work I do with my students, I had the perception that most copywriters would be earning around $40,000 or $50,000 per year. I was shocked when the study revealed that 22 percent earn $100,000 or more. Six percent earn between $150,001 and $200,000, and 7 percent earn above $200,000. We had one response at over $1 million. I think that when you can say that nearly one in four copywriters is pulling down over $100,000, that's a good indicator of the profitability of this business.
Other surprises were that 81 percent felt they often undercharge for their services, which is what the survey addresses; and I was also surprised to find that of the business categories copywriters work in, technology leads the pack at 20 percent. Next was the health market at 12 percent, then information products at 10 percent, publishing at 7 percent, and nonprofits at 4 percent. I expected nonprofits to register "below the radar."
Marketers who market to copywriters often emphasize the financial benefits of working in this industry. But my survey revealed that only 18 percent were attracted to copywriting for "the opportunity to earn your worth." Instead, the primary motivator for becoming a copywriter was "personal freedom (no boss)," which came in at 32 percent.
TG: What are the biggest challenges facing copywriters?
CM: Far and away the biggest challenge copywriters have is learning what marketing is all about. There is much focus on the craft of copywriting and very little on the nuts and bolts of a direct response effort. ... To get great results, you need to understand lists, what a good offer is, [and] strategy to the level that you can offer ideas for increasing results. That many copywriters don't really know what it takes to get a lead or a sale is revealed in their own marketing. Those who struggle as freelancers are often hampered by their lack of practical marketing knowledge.
TG: Your report reveals levels of disparity in how copywriters work. What does it tell you about the industry?
CM: Throughout my whole career, I believed that the term "copywriter" was inextricably linked to the generation of either leads or sales. But [through] publishing a newsletter for copywriters, the Freelancer's Business Bulletin, I became aware that my own definition of "copywriter" didn't always square up with my subscriber's definition of the word.
So I made a point to ask two questions that would shed light on the industry's view of itself. The first question was, "Do you do response-oriented writing plus non-response-oriented writing, or do you do response-oriented writing only?" The survey revealed that less than one-third of respondents did response-oriented writing only; the majority appeared to take any kind of business-related writing.
I think that for "hard core" [mailers] like myself, it's a wake up call that most copywriters think in broad terms, so if you're going to hire a copywriter for a specific task, you'd better determine whether that copywriter can do the job or not. For instance, if you have a campaign that must generate a healthy number of leads, you would not want to simply rest on the fact that the person you hired calls herself a "copywriter"; rather, you [should] look at what kind of copywriter you're dealing with, and hire based on a proficiency in the task to be accomplished.