When Content Doesn’t Hit the Mark (And What You Can Do About It)

Bad copy is sadly common, and it could happen to you. Here's why even good writers can produce content that misses the mark and what you can do to steady their aim.

Photo: Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash

Copy Didn’t Fly? Been There, Done That, and: Oy.

So you hired a copywriter, thinking it would make your job easier, generate consistent content, and free your team up to focus on other marketing initiatives. 

Instead, you got the opposite—and found yourself explaining things repetitively to the writer, then rewriting what they wrote anyway, as if from scratch. In other words, you invested marketing budget—and ended up doing more work than you would have sans copywriter, with extra added delay. 

This is a marketers’ cautionary tale as old as time, and so many of us have been burned in this exact way. Maybe you’ve developed a lingering distrust of freelance copywriters—and would rather steer clear of them by assigning your deliverable to an in-house marketer or subject matter expert. Maybe you’ve concluded that outsourced copy or content simply doesn’t work. But that’s not true—and beware that tapping busy internal non-writers comes with its own set of pitfalls. 

This post breaks down all the things that can go wrong on your copywriting (mis)adventures —then provides a template to help you avoid the pitfalls, while finding a better way forward. 

Why Is Sub-Par Copywriting Such A Common Problem? 

If you’re like many people, you might think that if a person writes copy or content, they can take on any writing job. But as with any profession, there’s a multitude of strengths, weaknesses, experience levels, natural affinities and alignments, blind spots, and more. If you presume any copywriter is as good as the next, then it may be time to consider a deeper look at how you measure successful writing.

Of course, the writing fundamentals must be intact: grammar, punctuation, spelling. I always say to look for logic—which is more fundamental and basic to teach than, say, how your market operates or how your industry runs. But these can be surface trappings, which can get you into trouble if you don’t investigate further. 

If you’re trying to find a copywriter online, phrases like “industry experience” or “marketing savvy” on an Upwork profile can seem promising. But they’re about as useful as seeing “I love pizza” in a Tinder bio. You’re going to need to study work and ask a lot of follow up questions to figure out if that person is actually right for your campaign. 

Do you want a journalist with a strong research sensibility and an editorial flair? Do you need a creative writer who can think of the next great tagline for your ad campaign? Or do you seek a data head with strict attention to detail—and a keen grasp of technology? See where I’m going? The best writer for one job may not be the best writer for every job. Writing is not one size fits all (and neither, for that matter, is pizza!). 

To be clear, there will always be a learning curve: your company’s mission, origin story, value prop, trajectory, positioning, offerings, approach, business model, audience base, buyer journey, topic authority, viewpoint, and other attributes are naturally unique, even and especially within your industry. But it’s important to make sure the writer in question has some foundation in at least two of the following things: 1) your industry (e.g. finance), 2) the subject matter (e.g. investment), 3) your audience segment (e.g. B2B or C-level), and 3) the content type. Email campaigns call for very different skills than website copy, and blog posts are not the same as ebook content. If they don’t have on-point experience—will they be overseen by someone who does? 

But The Writer Is Good. What Else Can Go Wrong?

Let’s assume you found a talented writer who seems like a good fit for your company and needs. First, congratulations! But now comes the really tricky part. In order to be successful, you and your writer need to understand how to communicate effectively with one another—so they can download the right insights, and you can share what’s important. 

Pitfalls here include faulty intake, such as inadequate briefings, insufficient insights, or a failure to align on voice and tone. These can easily lead your writer to make all kinds of assumptions—which in turn lead to the wrong approach, be it a different spin on the topic or storyline, a viewpoint or emphasis that’s off track, a tone that rings false with your brand and audience, inaccurate representations, and so forth. 

The worst bit? This misalignment is likely to happen—no matter how many questions your writer asks, or how many samples, industry insights, branding guidelines, and other resources you ply them with. That’s because all communication is inherently imperfect, due to the mind meld that exactly no two people possess. And since that’s the case, it takes experience for the writer to know or intuit what to confirm—and what to take on faith. 

Now this may not be an issue if your topic, viewpoint, industry, piece, and/or storyline are not terribly complex. If that’s the case, then a briefing and quick conversation might do the trick. 

For example, if a writer is researching for a financial blog, they might assume that their readers will be everyday investors vs. people with a higher net worth. While the road to their now-rejected draft might be paved with the best of intentions, in the right hands, assumptions would be more fully examined. A good copywriter will make sure that they have clarity regarding the intended audience, perspective, and takeaways. 

Also: that’s just a simple example. In the sophisticated and complex B2B world in which we do most of our work, it usually looks more like this. Company A hired Writer C for website copy. Writer C sent a questionnaire for some intake. Industry H got explained—but Writer C missed points X, Y, and Z, because they never got to talk to Client J. Then C wrote the copy—and it could never be shared with Readers M and N, because it’s too dense, too fluffy, too basic, too off-par, too…something. J lost faith in C, C wrote another page, and got let go. J decided it could never be done, and now here we are.

Learn why the best return on your marketing dollar comes from copywriting.

The Solution

Now that we’ve figured out what’s going wrong, how can you make it right? Good question! Let’s take time to figure out what you’re REALLY looking for. Assess your immediate needs. Do you want press releases? Website copy? An Instagram post? What specifically made you want to hire someone today? 

Beyond that, consider your ongoing and future needs. This could be growth goals, future campaigns, and/or the scale of work that your marketing will entail. Think about your audience, and the voice that you want to convey. 

Once it’s time for that first message to a potential writer, be prepared to ask for what you need. Should this writer be familiar with a certain industry, like biotech or healthcare payor models? Should they be focusing on a certain type of writing, like naming or product descriptions or white papers? Remember, criteria for what constitutes “good writing” will be different depending on the project! Ask the questions that you want answers to. 

Once you know what you’re looking for, consider how to fulfill it. If you have the headcount to hire an in-house copywriter, then think deeply about their realistic bandwidth, range of experience, and whether they have the requisite arm’s length perspective. Sometimes, too, a freelance writer may be just the ticket! On the other hand, if what you require is consistent work at scale, with built-in versatility and oversight, then a freelancer may not have the range or bandwidth you need. On our part, MarketSmiths does our best to replicate an in-house level of insight paired with a freelancer’s lack of overhead—then adds a layer of strategic oversight and rigorous QC to deliver what you need seamlessly and on demand. 

Regardless, after you’ve hired your dream team, it’s important to hold up your end of the bargain. Dispense your information and insights thoroughly, leading up to and during your first meeting with a writer. Give your writers access to any and all resources that are pertinent to understanding your brand. This could include branding guidelines, competitor audits, user surveys, and examples of past marketing campaigns. Share the good, the bad, and the ugly, and encourage your writers to ask follow up questions. Communicate your needs efficiently—and test that communication to ensure alignment. Finally, trust the expertise of your wordsmiths! Provide them with what they need to succeed, give succinct feedback, and then let the magic happen.

At MarketSmiths, this is what we do—and it’s all we do. If you’d like to speak, get in touch. 

Jean Tang

Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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