In an ideal world, your organization’s marketing and communications copy—think thought leadership, content marketing, lead generation, SEO, sales enablement—flows like water. Crisp and fresh, this stream of words and deliverables can be switched on and off as needed, circulating through your ecosystem to reinforce messaging, revitalize strategies, populate campaigns, expand market segments, elevate brand perceptions, pull customers closer, and nourish your bottom line.
Furthermore, every department that needs it can relish ample access to this powerhouse supply: let’s call it a “utility.” They’d tap in at will for any number of initiatives, yielding infinite pieces written on brand, on message, on tone, on time, and on budget.
That’s a marketer’s utopia: consistent, humanized, reliably effective content that flows freely and abundantly. But utopia has a way of feeling hopelessly out of reach. If you’re like thousands of marketing leaders, your reality feels and is a whole lot messier.
The rare few can access in-house copywriters, from a team likely reserved for high-profile campaigns vs. ad hoc or day-to-day content creation. Lacking capacity, countless marketers are stuck doing the writing themselves. Many turn to the freelancers, and if they find a good one, they’ll hang on for dear life. That’s because the freelance writer marketplace is, for many, a high-maintenance destination rife with risk and churn: from the guesswork of sourcing to deja vu onboarding, arduous learning curves to burdensome coordination, and frequently inconsistent work product.
Moreover, when you do find them, strong freelance copywriters are apt to rotate out (they’re in high demand, and with good reason), necessitating costly campaign suspensions, followed by a disheartening “rinse and repeat” to find new resources. Nor are traditional creative agencies a sure thing. Content often isn’t their specialty, so they frequently lean on freelance writers with the same risk ratios and churn rates as their freelance counterparts—but at an inflated cost.
So how do we move beyond this Sisyphean cycle of churn, busy work, and impermanence that characterizes so much of B2B content sourcing? First, by questioning the assumptions that got us here. As Einstein advised, “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” There are some serious misconceptions floating around the marketing landscape about what it takes to produce high-quality copy and content consistently.
Let’s unpack these myths to uncover a powerful new perspective on content procurement.
Myth #1: We just need a creative, which are a dime a dozen.
It’s understandable to believe you’ll address your writing needs through a “creative”—a wordsmith that can turn a nifty phrase or tell a quintessential story. After all, writing is a creative endeavor, right? And you want copy that’s fresh, surprising, unexpected. That involves creativity: true enough.
But commercial content, especially when it’s B2B, technical, or nuanced, stems first from a strategic business discipline. Before putting pen to paper, the writer must first dig for, spot, and comprehend complex insights. Only then can she choose context and cadence that will optimally trigger powerful, “hell yeah” type realizations across divergent readers. By prioritizing creativity over strategic acumen, you run the risk of onboarding writers that write beautifully, but fail to capture key message(s) that move the needle. Business-insightful writers are rare.
Yet a loose interpretation of ‘writer’ yields as many as 204 million people that claim this profession in every corner of the globe. With high demand but no academic or professional prerequisite, no barrier to entry such as a course, certificate, or exam, the copywriting profession has doubled in just 8 years, amounting to nearly a half-trillion dollar industry. With so many spare writers, it makes sense to put writer sourcing on the back burner while you line up other things (some of which, let’s face it, seems more fun: branding, design, funnel-building). In fact, sourcing writers can feel like a tedious, unsexy afterthought.
And then you run out of budget (see Myth #4).
Last-minute sourcing. Mismatched resources. A scarcity of great options. Depleted budget. These are the odds, against which it’s oh-so-easy to spring for a less-than-stellar candidate—one that will miss the mark..and lead to a painful do-over.
The Reality: Creativity is tangential to the actual goal: unpacking and framing business insights in a way that palpably moves the needle. This skill set is quite rare—unless it’s being cultivated through an intentional copy and content discipline.
Myth #2: We suspect the solution to our writing need is one or multiple individual writers.
Picture your perfect copywriter. This person tackles premium content needs with skill, enthusiasm, and finesse. They have strategic sensibility in spades, and use it to turn out scintillating, on-message prose on or ahead of schedule. Like Tarzan from a vine, they swing easily from one content type to the next.
They also “get” your big picture, your industry orientation, the tiniest details. They don’t mind chasing down a slew of SMEs with impossible calendars, eagerly embrace every 180-degree pivot and feedback dump, charge next to nothing, and are always available the very moment you need them—even overnight or the occasional weekend. Actually, you might want a few of these people to keep on hand as your needs ebb and flow.
You see the issue, right? Whether in-house or freelance, you’re hunting for a unicorn. While there are great people out there, every copywriter embodies strengths and counter-strengths, development areas, and weaknesses.
More to the point, even if you do find a spectacular unicorn, they typically aren’t a long-lasting solution. In addition to being in high demand, top writers of this ilk are bound to be curious and restless. Writers are notorious dilettantes, hungry for new horizons. Take it from me: I went from being a challenge-seeking freelancer to systematically hiring dozens of writers. Good writers crave growth through systematic evolution.
That’s because the highest form of the writing skill set packs a built-in adventure: how to take something uninteresting to readers—and compel them to care. This isn’t something you can easily replicate: it’s a discipline that people get better at, but inherently never vanquish. Strong writers don’t want to phone it in. They want to be stimulated, to think anew, to swing from those long, looping jungle vines and progress within the infinite journey of the brain-to-keyboard interface.
How long will your talent stay fresh and engaged? How much does an organization really have new stuff to say? Will they get to spend most of their time writing—or will they be performing legwork or grunt work, or pulled into a heavy cadence of meetings? Unfortunately, what you do may not be all that interesting for an inquisitive thinker who writes about nothing else.
The Reality: Unicorns are in dire supply: both hard to find and bound to cycle out. Stop searching for “the” magic writer. Instead, look for a discipline backed by a perpetual team of near-unicorns with a magic touch, which is precisely what we’ve built at MarketSmiths.
Myth #3: I can tell from the writing portfolio if they’re right for the job.
I get that. You’re a marketing, communications, or procurement specialist that’s been around the block. You look at a copywriting portfolio—and believe you can tell when you’ve found a winner.
And yet every week, I talk to marketers—many doubling as writers—that work for the most significant, admired, and/or fastest-growing companies in the world. They do their due diligence, reviewing samples, interviewing writer candidates, even talking to references. They look at resumes and LinkedIn profiles, note logos from past work, talk to agency account reps that give glib assurances. And still: they have to tear up, heavily revise, and rework massive amounts of writing, often personally, into the wee hours of the night.
Afterwards, many remain so nervous about the risk factor, so unsure of the way forward (see Myth #6) that they insist on a writing trial, auditioning multiple agencies, and sacrificing campaign momentum in favor of yet another similarly arbitrary line in the sand (the results of the trial).
Maybe you’ve been there.
In my view, screening steps can be red herrings that keep marketers busy—while ultimately failing to ensure fit. As a successful employer of writers for 12 years, I suggest streamlining your process into 3 easy steps:
- Screen for industry exposure—and please avoid the one-trick pony. If you work for an asset management firm, an edtech startup, or a hospital, you don’t actually need an investment, education, or medical writing expert. Instead, look at samples to confirm familiarity with your sector, then follow step 3 to ensure they can unpack your distinct vision and viewpoint. After all, you don’t want someone who can do your job: you want a writer or team that can channel the right context, nuances, and impact. And as tempting as it may seem, do yourself a favor and pass on the one-trick pony—the writer who only works in your micro realm. Writers like this have an irksome tendency to make false assumptions or wallpaper their deliverables with jargon. Worse, these can be folks prone to phoning-it-in vs. vanquishing built-in adventures, as discussed in Myth #2. That’s not what brands need.
- Confirm format mastery. Each content type bears trademark particularities: it drives a unique journey, with 1,000 variations depending on where it’s being published, what came before, what you want them to do next, and why that’s challenging. You want a writer who has mastered this format. A journalist might have a knack for thought leadership articles but fail to hold attention in website copy. Similarly, a product description maestro (or novelist) won’t know how to make an ebook or nurture email or video script suspenseful but irrefutable—at least not their 1st, 2nd, or even 8th time around. These skills take astute training and intense practice.
- Understand how their process leads to success. Look for indicators that the writer or team has a strong method for unpacking business insights and using them to your advantage. Will they hand you a written questionnaire—or take the time to do the research, including learning interactively about your value, products, audience, differentiators? Do they regularly extract key insights from SMEs—then use these to build trust, generate rapport, and skillfully, steadily lead your unknown reader toward a desired action or conclusion? Are they connected to fellow writers and strategists who can review and improve their work so it hits the right notes—and sparkles from the first delivery? Rather than focusing exclusively on work product, dig into the details of how it was produced. Repeated success is no accident.
The Reality: The portfolio only tells part of the story—what matters is what you take away from it. Beneath samples lie a deeper layer of criteria that can act as a more accurate picture of viability and effectiveness.
Myth #4: Our content budget doesn’t cover agency rates, especially if they’re premium.
Hold onto your hats for this one. We’ve got a few things to unpack.
First off, how much does copy and content cost? I have heard zingers like We have no budget to What can you do for a few thousand? In contrast, leaders are spending six to seven figures on branding, design, technology, websites, consulting, funnel builds, media, and the like—even during downturns.
Words form first impressions, last impressions, and lasting impressions. They develop trust, win rapport, change minds, initiate one-way conversations that act like two-way connection jubilees. They magnetize people, transform fans, awaken urgency, convert leads—all the way to the edge of an easy close. Words are crisp, living ROI. And they’re as essential to your initiatives as water to life.
For 12+ years, I have and will continue to empathize with marketers that say:
- We didn’t know we needed copywriters for this (e.g. thought we could do it in-house, thought the agency was handling it, didn’t think about it at all).
- We were burned by a bad writing hire—and now our budget is gone / depleted.
- You want what for copy? I figured it’d be X (halve it).
To all of these, I patiently explain:
Easy, friction-free, consistent, on-message, unified, perpetually available, and (most excitingly) high ROI copy rightfully costs more than that which requires heavy management, generates churn, triggers internal burnout, stalls momentum, fosters opportunity cost, and fails to convert a soul.
So are we comparing apples to apples, or apples to rotten grapefruit?
But don’t take my word for it. Let’s quantify.
- Sourcing writers. Conservatively speaking, to research, vet, test, negotiate, onboard, hand hold, and project manage freelance writers or agencies costs $3,000 to $11,000 per occasion—outside of the actual work. Tack on risk factors around quality and availability (which compel you to start over again), and add $25,000 a year to the tab, just to source.
- Extra workloads. Recently, I heard a writer-turned-CMO of ABC, a Florida-based SaaS company say, “Why can’t our people just write these case studies?” But they couldn’t—and it cost him $4,000 a week to avoid spending $6,000 per month. Tragic. Add $128,000 to the total tab.
- Internal burnout and attrition. Eventually, anyone tasked with juggling multiple roles over consecutive 15-hour days will seek greener pastures—after all, marketing teams are smaller now than they were a year ago…so people are already doing double or triple duty. Factor in recruiting and training, and the resulting attrition will impact your company to the tune of 6-9 months of a marketer’s salary. For an employee making $70,000, call it $40,000 a year, conservatively—and that doesn’t include the misery building up to their job hunt, which hurts your employer brand.
- Lost momentum for marketers (opportunity cost bucket A). Without viable writers, content marketer Phil is so busy writing that he can no longer perform his day job planning and driving campaigns. Product marketer Erin spends her days revising freelancers, instead of driving her go-to-market strategies. Like all employees, Phil and Erin are both slated to generate multiples of their salaries in value…but they can’t. If an employee paid $98,000 is expected to produce an equivalent value of $230,000 a year, add $75,000 to the yearly tab for 3+ months that employee spends treading water vis a vis their primary responsibilities, plus say $35,000 in additional losses for having to kill one or two good campaigns, due to missed timing windows. That’s $110,000 on your tab.
- Lost momentum for relevant campaigns—leading to low / no ROI (opportunity cost bucket B). ABC, the Florida-based SaaS company I just mentioned, produces just half a case study per month: fewer than the 3-4 they would with a solid copy team on deck. JKL, a Dubai-based IT firm, lost their blogger two years ago, and went from publishing 8 blog posts a month to 3 per quarter, resulting in a near-immediate drop in SEO ranking to page 2 or 3 for 75% of their search terms—and a heartbreaking 35% drop in inbound leads. Eighteen months ago, NOP, a Canadian manufacturer, decided it needed a new website, settled on using our services, then put everything on an indefinite pause. How many leads might they have generated by now——representing how many millions of dollars in revenue? The stop-start-stop dynamic is a massive killer of ROI—this needs to be factored into costs. Add $100,000 to millions to your tab, depending on potential campaign value plus the gravity of lost ROI.
- Overlapping costs for siloed work. Meanwhile at XYZ, a Seattle-based B2B healthcare provider, Jaclyn in editorial manages a bench of freelancers writing blog posts. John in sales enablement taps an agency to execute go-to-market strategies, including new/updated sales collateral and pitch decks for each market segment. Jamie in corporate communications partners with an outside PR team publishing thought leadership in media outlets. Jasmine in social onboarded a video company to produce a series of 15-second clips for paid and organic social media. They all could have sidestepped the high-touch, low-scale freelance market and carved the written content piece out of their respective agency contracts (many of which are fulfilled by freelancers anyway)—instead tapping a single-source copywriting agency to reliably and cost-effectively write blog posts, sales assets, PR articles, and video scripts. This would have saved XYZ a cool $250,000 in yearly spend—with some of the very-same trusted external copywriters helping onboard agencies for various initiatives. This is a radical suggestion, by the way; for any company with a little vision and the wherewithal to transform their sourcing, the cost savings, paired with unerringly accurate output, would be exponential.
The final tab? Conservatively, it’s $553,000 a year plus lost momentum for campaigns, which can add up to millions in unrealized revenue. So when people say they don’t have budget for premium agencies, they need to check their math.
The Reality: Top-shelf content and copywriting is worth every penny. Not only will this investment yield the right words at the right time, but it will save you a fortune in costs that you won’t even realize you’re paying—until it’s too late.
Myth #5: We don’t need world-class content, we just need something decent that checks the box.
For anyone who says their copy and content doesn’t have to be an A+, I’ll admit this one leaves me scratching my head. The days of creating content simply to game the system are gone. Google’s algorithms are too good. And the competition is mind-boggling.
Globally, 6 million blog posts get published daily across 1.9 billion blogs\: double 2012’s volume. Daily, content producers upload 720,000 hours of content to YouTube. But the verdict is clear: contemporary SEO rejects the glut of mediocre content in favor of the highest quality content. That’s where companies in the know, including the Fortune 500, are investing their dollars.
It’s specious to say “I don’t want to pay a lot for this content because chances are high it won’t be seen.” If 90% of the food in your refrigerator will inevitably rot, you still wouldn’t stock your fridge with rotten food. Would you?
If you’re okay with being seen by bots, the bar is relatively low for simple Google rankings. But to get something that delights and connects… Something that feels like it sees into a reader’s soul, and says “yes and!”… Something that could and should and does go viral… And to have this on a systematic basis. What could that be worth?
To evaluate this myth, ask yourself:
- What are you losing—in momentum, ROI, and handholding—to fund an agency’s 2-month learning curve, when the best option had a 1-week ramp-up period?
- Do C students get into the Ivy League? Maybe if their parents can fund a new basketball stadium. For most students, the answer is no. How do you win great brand awareness, top rankings, and a full pipeline with less-than-stellar content?
- What does your competition spend on content? If they have A+ content because they spend more and you have C content because you spend less, who becomes the industry thought leader? Probably not you.
- What is the cost of missed awareness-raising and sales opportunities because your content over-promised and under-delivered on search engine results? Bounce-backs to search results harms SEO.
- Your target audience is savvy enough to know when you’re putting on a show and when you’re authentic. Do you want to be inauthentic? How do you regain your target audience’s trust once you’ve lost it? What do you really have if there’s no trust?
Bottom line? You can no longer send your B team.
The Reality: Good content stands out. Mediocre content doesn’t. What’s the point of paying for content that does nothing for your audience, your brand, or your marketing efforts? Content for content’s sake, is just a waste of money.
A campaign to rebuild got a solid foundation
After Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York in 2012, the city needed to rebuild fast. But without an engaging website, the Build It Back campaign was struggling to engage homeowners—the very people the new scheme was hoping to help. But by working hand-in-hand with Build It Back’s creative team, MarketSmiths soon created a raft of sparkling copy, covering everything from taglines to branded language. Soon after launching, Build it Back had reached 25,000 registered applicants, exceeding original expectations by at least 20%.
Myth #6: “We can just use AI to solve this.”
Businesses everywhere are understandably hopeful that AI writing technologies like ChatGPT will solve the content problem once and for all. Optimism is justified: innumerable technologies, from recruiting platforms to accounting software, have come along to automate or streamline time-consuming and manual aspects of their jobs.
But not all content is created equal. The question is, what do you need your content to do? If you simply need to relay information, a bot may be able to do the job—that’s literally data. Or if you want help with formatting or structuring a piece, that’s also something an AI tool could assist with. An AI bot can even provide thought starters for articles or taglines by drawing upon ideas that already exist out on the Internet.
But if we need our content to create a connection or a new understanding with another human being, we need more than data or a rehash of what’s already been said. We need fresh insight, new meaning. We need a point of view—a way of seeing things that we can relate to.
That’s one of the big concerns about AI. Because it draws on what already exists, there’s the potential to end up with generic content that’s been recycled again and again. Sounding like everyone else is the polar opposite of standing out—and it’s the cardinal sin of marketing.
Let’s let ChatGPT tell us why it’s an insufficient solution.
[Me] Describe why a client would hire a human copywriter instead of using ChatGPT.
[ChatGPT] A client may hire a human copywriter instead of using ChatGPT for a few reasons:
- Creativity and Originality: While ChatGPT is capable of generating content that is grammatically correct and semantically accurate, it may not be able to provide the level of creativity and originality that a human copywriter can. A human copywriter has the ability to craft unique and compelling messages that resonate with the target audience and stand out from competitors.
- Understanding of Brand Voice and Tone: A human copywriter can understand the client’s brand voice and tone and tailor their writing accordingly. They can also take into account the client’s specific messaging and goals for the marketing campaign, something that may be difficult for ChatGPT to do without additional context.
- Flexibility: A human copywriter can quickly adapt to changes in the marketing campaign or adjust their writing style as needed. They can also collaborate with other members of the marketing team to ensure that all messaging is consistent and effective.
- Emotion and Empathy: A human copywriter can connect emotionally with the target audience and understand their pain points and desires. They can then craft messaging that speaks directly to these emotions, creating a stronger connection with the audience and driving higher engagement.
Overall, ChatGPT concluded:
“While [our AI] can be a useful tool for generating content quickly and efficiently, a human copywriter offers unique insights, creativity, and empathy that cannot be replicated by an AI language model.”
Well done, ChatGPT! Copywriting is about connection—and what connects us as humans is inherently unpredictable. It’s empathy, reason, inspiration, hope, laughter, and 500 other things, to varying degrees. It cannot be stale, generic, or formulaic. In their current iteration, GPT-4, Bard, and others provide decent thought starters—which may or may not save time and improve effort for the most seasoned copywriters.
If you’re wondering whether to use AI for your own marketing, ask yourself these 3 things:
- Do you want to share surface-level ideas, or go deep to lead your readers through a transformational journey?
- Do you want to sound like everyone else—or stand out? Remember, this is marketing.
- Do you care about getting the facts right? ChatGPT is built for representational accuracy, not actual. So you get falsehoods, such as the 8 that turned up when my partner asked the tool to tell us about me as CEO of MarketSmiths. In two paragraphs, ChatGPT made up lots of stuff that sounded plausible. The AI engine provides a blurry rendition of the web—not a fact-based one.
22squared, our partner agency, combined Midjourney, an AI design tool, with ChatGPT and other AI tools to create a fake design portfolio by a fake art director. As they later told AdWeek, they noticed a lack of deep thinking within the copy, and asked Chat GPT why. Here’s how it responded:
“I cannot have spontaneous breakthroughs, be surprised by my own creations, or have the subjective experience of feeling creative,” said the AI.
The Reality: AI is a tool that can be incorporated into the creative process. But to truly capture, engage, and build lasting trust with an audience with your copy communications, you’re going to need a human at the helm.
Myth #7: “No matter what, my choice of a content producer is a risky one.”
Here’s a true statement shared by a contact of mine:
“We don’t think there’s a single solution to our content dilemma—one that will hit both the quality and scale we imagine. As a result, we are planning to line up 8-10 agencies: 3 in Plan A, 3 in Plan B, and 4 in Plan C.” —A Series C-funded startup in high growth mode.
I can’t think of another profession that would govern this kind of risk-oriented thinking. If my toilet’s clogged, I book 1 plumber, with maybe a backup. To get my taxes done, I have 1 CPA, plus his associates. To create our brand identity and launch our new website, we hired 1 agency (and it was a fun process). To give yourself 10 alternatives seems insane.
But let’s look closer.
It’s not uncommon for someone to find, say, a great video company—and not think twice about using them for every video you need: from an explainer script to client success stories to webinars. No one questions that.
But somehow, with writing, people think a single-solution content vendor is overreaching.
Marketing execs pride themselves on vetting and finding the exact right resource for a specific need. But it’s expensive to curate these fits one at a time—and content is often the hardest piece to get right, for all the aforementioned reasons.
So how do you remove the risk?
You do it by baking quality control into the process—and that takes the right support.
Consider this: My friend Maria—a former freelance writer—was job hunting. She turned down 3 in-house roles for the same reason: none of the companies had any systems in place to ensure she’d succeed as a copywriter. Her hiring managers weren’t editors. Plus the roles were quite junior, so she wouldn’t be able to gain top-level insights firsthand.
As we discussed in Myth #2, people think writing is a solitary effort. But in truth you need backing. All great writers have great editors and other partners in the process. Often freelancers and even in-house folks lack these resources. But it’s a key part of ensuring quality.
Another key to de-risking content and copy is being able to unpack what constitutes high-quality writing. In other words, to know what you’re looking for.
Strong commercial writing stems from a writer’s ability to download insights and know what to do with those: how does this particular audience feel and act? What do they want to know—and need to know—to move forward? What level of sophistication is required to instill confidence and build rapport?
From there, the writer needs to put that insight into practice. For example, a website has to pluck a person out of random space, put them in your headspace, and do so with every word digestible, every word breathing “I know you. I see you. I get you.” The path is fraught with landmines: If you come on too strong, spew jargon, or do things out of a sequence, you’ve lost. Can you be serious but punchy? Easy to read but substantive? Playful but not cheesy?
Next: writing effectiveness. How do you make it digestible and engaging—but also momentum-driven and substantive? It can’t be wordy—that’s the universal killer. Ever edit something wordy and realize it took you longer to edit it than to write it from scratch?
Finally, there are the soft skills: Can the writer manage themselves, their time, their workload? Are they timely and communicative? Are they detail-oriented? Do they have good research skills, side-stepping plagiarism?
These are the qualities we’ve codified at MarketSmiths to create a process that channels the power of the collective to yield predictable results.
The Reality: Writing doesn’t have to be a risky endeavor—if you know the ingredients of what drives effective, ROI-producing words in the first place.
At MarketSmiths, we’ve built a discipline backed by a rigorous process and a team—and they address each of these myths squarely, fulfilling client campaigns with an easy and effective single-source content solution. Simply turn on the tap, and watch the high-quality copy and content flow. Get in touch to learn more.