No matter how intimately we know our business, DIY writing almost always stinks. Perhaps we know (or think we know) our work so well, we can never look at and describe it the way the customer views it. Therefore, if we were smart we would assign a copywriter to every web development project … but good luck explaining that to your client!

I asked my associate Paula Tarnapol Whitacre to help frame this discussion so we can take it to our clients. Paula is principal of Full Circle Communications in Alexandria, VA. An experienced writer, she manages writing, editing and content strategy for businesses and nonprofits.

Interview with Writer and Editor Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Q: If you don’t mind, Paula, let’s cut straight to the chase: When including copywriting services in a proposal, what’s the best justification to offer the client?

A: Developing and designing a new website is a big investment of time, money, and energy. Copywriting services, which are typically a small percentage of the total budget, help ensure the investment pays off in terms of satisfied customers, donors, and other target audiences.

Q: How else does a writer contribute to the web project?

A: Copywriters contribute to a project in three ways. First, we have the skills to create effective content. Second, we have knowledge of best practices, including writing for search engines. Last, but not least, we take responsibility to get the project done on time. How many times have you pushed a project like this to the side because other things demand your attention? Your web project IS what demands the copywriter’s attention!

Q: So many websites are ho-hum (if not outright boring) to read. How do you keep a website visitor on the page long enough to connect, i.e. how do you interrupt the urge to click away?

A: Make the text EASY to scan – lots of white space, easy-to-read heads and subheads, a mixture of long and short sentences. And, of course, interesting topics and visuals keep people engaged.

Q: What is your process for ferreting out a compelling story? Are business owners surprised by the questions you ask?

A: For organizations, whether business or nonprofit, I gather as much information as possible. Ideally, we meet in person, at their site, at least once. If not, I read, ask a lot of questions, talk to a lot of people.

The surprise comes when a business has a disconnect: What they think is routine or ho-hum, readers find interesting or useful, and vice versa. Remember that in most cases, people are coming to a website to do or learn something they think they need to know – not what you think they need to know.

Q: Clients often feel they know their business better than anybody outside of the organization; if they want to write their own copy and hire somebody to edit it, what are the pros and cons of that approach?

A: Pros: The out-of-pocket cost may be less. Also, if they have a very small niche and that is their sole audience, they might be in the best position to write the content. That does not apply to too many organizations these days, but definitely some.

Cons: If they have not thought out what they want to say, then the editor is revising ineffective content. Also, as noted above, they have to figure in the opportunity cost – they will be paying the contractor less, but spending their own time on the project.

Q: One of my clients claimed that he had “wasted” thousands of dollars on copywriters over the years. That makes me wonder if there is a right and wrong way to hire a copywriter.

A: Sad to hear. This sounds like a communication problem. If clients do not feel they are getting what they need, both they and the copywriters need to solve the problem. For example, in addition to getting as good a sense of the project as possible up-front, I always provide a small sample before moving ahead. That way, there are no surprises at the end.

Q: Likewise, if a client hasn’t worked with a writer before, what are some do’s and don’ts to ensure a good experience and effective result?

A: Do: Think of the project as a team effort. Provide background information, examples of other sites you like and don’t like, and feedback.

Don’t: Don’t expect the copywriter to be a mind-reader.

Thanks, Paula, for your insight!

An awesome design without well-written content is like a Ferrari with an empty gas tank; it won’t gain much traction. Search engines are data-driven in their quest to identify quality content that customers find useful and relevant. Copywriters have the skillset, which most of us lack, to help make the website a satisfying experience for the customer; that they will share, interact with, or return to.

Paula’s site hangs out at FullCircle.org, and if you want to explore quality content development she can be reached at ptw@fullcircle.org.

Janet Chiu, Strategic Team Blog Author

The creatives I work with ask provocative questions about the latest trends in website marketing. Strategic Team is where we work out the answers (and have a little fun).