I've lost track of the number of times clients have said to me, "I've never worked with a freelance copywriter before. How's this work?" I've also heard, "We hired a freelance copywriter once before. It didn't go too well."

To the first I usually say, "It all depends." And to the second, "I'm sorry to hear that."

Given how critically important effective content is right now and how important copywriters are to the creation of same, it might help the cause of world peace and mutual understanding to shine a little light on things.

How do you choose a good freelance copywriter and how do you increase the odds of getting through a successful project?

This topic could fill a book, but we will spare you that. The goal here is to provide you with a few ideas to help you make better decisions that can pay real dividends.

A Zillion Scribes in a Million Places

Type "freelance copywriter" into Google and watch what happens. Almost half a million results. You'll see stuff like "Persuasive phrases that deliver sales." "Psychological Copywriting That Helps You Legally Pick People's Pockets." "Killer copy. Will do whatever it takes." My all-time favorite is "Our copy grabs the reader and forces them to buy your product." Whoa, baby. That's some promise. Can we get fries with that?

I can't imagine what it would be like to have a genuine and urgent need for a really good, completely reliable copywriter only to have to sort through all of that clutter. I can hear Marvin Gaye signing "Mercy, Mercy Me."

In fact, there are many reputable, experienced and even sound-of-mind copywriters listed on the web. The real question is, How do you wade through all the noise and the confetti? How do find your way to the real talent and experience?

Let's run through a fictional example to see how the search could play out.

A Small, Successful IT Company

Say you're a small, successful IT consulting company named ManagedData Systems, Inc. You have about 65 employees and 9-10 million in annual sales. You have a standard, brochure-type Web site that your daughter, a journalism major, wrote for you. Your business has reached a plateau: You aren't shrinking, and you're not growing.

Your site gets a large number of visits but doesn't generate much in the way of sales or inquiries. Your printed collateral is mostly out of date. Your company is extremely skilled in the niche market you serve and is customer centric and so you sell mostly by word-of-mouth. You have high-profile splashy competitors and you have learned, based on hard evidence, that you actually serve your clients more effectively than they do.

Your problem is that hardly anyone knows all that.

The Commitment

So, with some urgency, after prodding from the sales staff, you commit to improving the quality of your site. Beyond the Web site project, you've been persuaded to spread the good news via monthly press releases, doing a few case studies a year, maybe launching a newsletter. And you're intrigued by corporate blogging.

You don't want a marketing agency or an ad agency for reasons of your own, maybe because of the cost, maybe that's just someplace you just don't want to go. You just want a writer to help sharpen up what you already have and to help create some new materials as you look ahead.

So you type, "freelance copywriter" into Google—and voila!

An Army of Laptops and Promises

It's like a small army out there, only the soldiers are wielding laptops and promises. B2B copywriters, B2C copywriters, advertising copywriters, catalog copywriters, direct response copywriters, and annual report writers. There are people who specialize in Web site content and case studies and whitepapers and consumer packaging and branding and tone of voice. And then there are the legions of "legalized pickpocket" copywriters—which you are going to avoid at all costs. And of course there are long-form copywriters and short-form folks.

"Too damn many choices," you think to yourself. "Where to begin?"

First Considerations

First, you are going to identify very clearly and explicitly what you are trying to get done and what you hope to achieve—your long-term and short-term objectives.

I've listed, below, some examples of how you might go about this.

1. A Printing Company

Immediate need: New Web site and new content

Long-term goals: "We want to be a resource for a creative group of up-and-coming designers. If we are a resource, then our sales staff can get in the door. If we're a resource and we can get in the door, we can build our credibility. If we are more credible, we are more successful."

2. A Web developer for a niche market

Immediate need: New messaging. New content for Web site.

Long-term goals: "We need to gain greater clarity over the four service/product offerings we provide. If we have greater clarity, our sales people will know better how to communicate to prospects, which in turn will yield better results. We need to position ourselves better against other providers, and to be more attractive to investors and prospective employees."

5. A small liberal arts college

Immediate need: A comprehensive guide to higher education online.

Long-term goals: Our goal is to develop content that serves two functions; strengthen our brand and create "link bait" in order to drive more traffic to our site in order to register more students.

6. A global manufacturing company

Immediate need: A newsletter to announce big wins, new strategic initiatives, and new personnel moves.

Long-term goals: "We're developing a global communications program in order to grow and exchange intellectual capital across multiple divisions and to "flatten" the global organization."

Next, consider these questions:

  • Who am I trying to reach? Employees, other businesses, or consumers?
  • Am I trying to build or extend an existing brand or am I working on a series of standalone, loosely connected projects that will support my overall sales and marketing efforts?
  • Which is more important... finding a copywriter who understands the intricacies of my particular business, or finding one who can help me make a strong business case for what my company sells?
  • Am I more comfortable working with an established company that provides copywriting services or with a person I can build up a long-term relationship with?
  • Do I have the resources (time, personnel, funding) to devote to hiring a copywriter and providing her with all the information and access she will need to succeed?
  • Am I willing to work remotely?

So, based on the above, our fictional firm, ManagedData, could reasonably arrive at the following:

Immediate needs: A refreshed Web site with a more effective presentation of the company story. Lead-generation pieces—whitepapers—that prospects can download (after providing an email address) to learn about specific service offerings and the company's value proposition (which needs refinement).

Long-term goals: To position the company more effectively against larger, better-funded competitors and to advance the company's value proposition: big company IT consulting services with small company service ethos and costs.

Copywriter Wanted

So when ManagedData Systems went looking for a copywriter, it knew what it was looking for:

  • It wanted a business-to-business copywriter who would work to create long-form copy—standalone pieces that drive the (refined) value proposition forward to support and enhance the sales and marketing process.
  • It has decided on a copywriter who knows how to build a business case.
  • It has an entrepreneurial approach, so it likes working with individuals rather than multiple layers of bureaucracy—hence the decision to go with a freelancer.
  • It has made a solid commitment in terms of funding and assigning people internally to help move the project forward.
  • It is willing to work remotely.

Improving the Odds of Success

Once a candidate has been selected, ManagedData Systems is going to ask some questions to increase its odds of success.

  • It will confirm its candidate has a business-to-business core capability.
  • It will ask what process the copywriter uses in discovery and in content development.
  • It will ask for writing samples and references.
  • It will ask for areas of experience and expertise. (There are lots of variables in the business-to-business market.)
  • To succeed, both copywriter and client are going to agree to a fixed schedule of deliverables from beginning to completion, but with some flexibility built in.

Good luck!

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image of Richard Pelletier

Richard Pelletier is a writer for business. He's from the East Coast but now lives in Seattle. He is principal conductor at Lucid Content. He is one charming cat living with two sometimes difficult kitties.

LinkedIn: Richard Pelletier

Twitter: @lucidcontent