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Why free copy samples are terrible for copywriters and clients

Leif Kendall

Kendall Copywriting Ltd

PRO

Do your new clients often ask for a free sample?

While this might seem like a reasonable request – a sort of creative test drive – it’s useful to break down the implications of providing samples, and consider whether samples are really good for copywriters – and their clients.

Before we continue, let’s clarify what we mean.

We’re talking about clients and employers asking copywriters to provide a custom sample, for free, as a kind of application process that might lead to paying work.

Clients and employers ask for samples for several reasons:

  1. Lack of confidence. They lack the confidence to judge a copywriter on their portfolio, testimonials and other indicators (personality, professionalism, promptness etc).
  2. Theft. They want free content.
  3. Habit. Asking for samples is their usual approach.
  4. Culture. Others ask for writing samples, so they do too.

But let’s assume that your client has a great reason for asking for a sample.

Here are six reasons why providing a sample is a bad idea that’s bad for you, and bad for them. It’s a bad salad. If it was a city in India it would be called Saladabad.

1. Free samples involve stealing your time

Imagine if every client ‘just’ wanted a few hundred words before deciding who to hire. And imagine they approach 3-5 different copywriters each time.

This is an unfair appropriation of a professional’s time, and an inefficient way to procure services. Providing a sample means working without pay.

Some would argue that you can get samples of products to ‘try before you buy’ and that copywriting should be no different. But it is different. Copywriters are generally individuals who cannot afford to give away their time and their thinking for free. Also, great copy cannot be produced without research, thinking and time.

2. Nobody else is giving free samples

Try asking your plumber to fix a bit of your toilet before you decide if you like their work. Other professionals don’t give free samples; they expect clients to evaluate them on their past experience and their professional reputation. This is precisely why Checkatrade exists. And why copywriters have portfolios. And testimonials. And websites. And blogs. And social media profiles. And ProCopywriters profiles.

3. Free samples are not representative of your work

Imagine: your client, a reseller of flux capacitors to the 3D printing industry, needs copy for a series of articles in the trade press. They ask for a sample. Ordinarily, you would begin the work by interviewing the client, then researching competitors and perusing the target publication. In short, you start with research.

But for a free sample, you attempt to cobble something together, mindful of the fact that your time is not being paid for. The client gets a half-baked lump of copy. And surprise, surprise, they think it stinks.

Even if you, the copywriter, decide to devote yourself to this task (and forget about the time and money you’re losing) you’re unlikely to have access to the stakeholders, information and other resources you need to do the job properly. Despite your best efforts, the work still stinks.

Samples are rarely representative of the job you would do if were you being paid. This makes samples a pointless exercise and a waste of time.

4. Copywriters are generally generalists

Most copywriters can sell anything. We’re generalists. We understand the science of selling, the alchemy of marketing – and we apply these principles to any business, product and industry that comes our way. This is what copywriting is.

So clients don’t need to try you out, or test your skills – because this is what you do every day.

5. Samples waste the client’s time

Clients who ask for samples may think they’re doing their due diligence, and being a sensible buyer. But as we’ve outlined above, they’re wasting their own time – and yours – by asking you to produce something for nothing. And if they’re putting multiple copywriters through this pain then their time-wasting is only multiplied – because they will have several half-baked, non-representative samples to review, and several irritated copywriters to deal with.

6. Samples fail the copywriting process

Copywriters don’t just write stuff and force the client to accept it.

Copywriters collaborate with clients.

The first draft should be the start of a conversation, not the final decision.

Clients should not look at samples and see a finished piece of copy – they should see it as the starting point.

But asking for samples suggests that the copy will be judged solely on what the copywriter throws together on the first attempt.

Dealing with clients who want free samples

The bad news is that some clients will insist on having a free sample before they choose a copywriter. And while I think that’s a bad decision, clients can stipulate anything – so long as it’s legal.

Refusing to give a free sample may cost you a client, so think carefully: are you desperate for the work? Or can you afford to let this one go?

If you can afford to lose the client, you may want to explain that samples are not representative of your work, and that your portfolio should be enough to help a client judge you.

If the client insists on having a sample, you could give them a quote for the work.

Your view on samples?

What do you think about clients who want samples?

Reasonable request or a criminal waste of time?

Comments

23rd February 2017

Helen Beckingham

Thank you! I’m SO relieved it isn’t just me… If I’m asked for a sample, I’ll point them in the direction of my portfolio and politely (through gritted teeth) explain that I don’t work for free. In my experience, clients who ask for unpaid work fall into 2 categories: 1) They don’t have the budget 2) They don’t have a clear idea of what they want. The sample process is a voice and content fishing expedition.

PRO
28th June 2017

Sue Keogh

Great post Leif. The other issue as well, is that it’s the first few bits of copy that take the time – all the research, refining the tone of voice, really getting under the skin of the project and understanding its objectives.

So whereas at the end it would be quite easy to just dash off a few paragraphs that you know will work, at the beginning it’s much more difficult. Worse than that, this is what you’ll be judged on – what if you don’t get it quite right and you actually lose the work!

A good way round this instead is to talk through the approach. You’ll research competitors, you’ll chat to the different stakeholders, you’ll come into the building, you’ll do X number of drafts, this is how the feedback process works. Then the client gains an understanding of the process and gets lots of reassurance that you’ll do the job properly…and you’re not giving away work for free.

PRO
21st May 2018

André Spiteri

Great post. Free samples aren’t conducive to good work. You’ll cut corners, whether you admit it to yourself or not. And there’s a good chance you’ll be more concerned with making an impression instead of coming up with something that actually makes sense for the client’s audience and goal.

That said, I’m disappointed to see you think it’s fair to ask prospective employees to do tests or free samples though. I think it’s just as exploitative as asking freelancers for free work. If you want to make sure a candidate is a good fit by testing them in a real-world situation, there are probationary periods for that.

PRO
29th May 2018

Leif Kendall

Hi Andre – you’re right, in that copywriting samples are never a great idea because they will always be rushed, and always involve a degree of time theft. I’ll update this article. 🙂

PRO
11th February 2019

Sarah Butler

Thanks for your post, Leif. I’ve only been asked for sample copy twice, both times by potential clients who found me through ProCopywriters. Both times I refused and heard nothing more (I explained why I wasn’t going to write sample copy, using pretty much your arguments above).

Once, I took a ProCopywriter client on, delivered the first element of copy for feedback and the client then revealed he’d assumed it was a sample and he didn’t want it after all. After a certain amount of resistance from him and emails from me pointing out that I’d been clear what I was doing, and that he owed me X, and that I had the backing of the NUJ should he refuse to pay, he paid up. I’m pretty sure he was after free copy.

I wonder if ProCopywriters needs a quick guide for clients looking for a writer, telling them how it works? Happy to write one!

PRO
12th February 2019

Leif Kendall

Thanks Sarah! We do have some advice for clients on hiring: https://www.procopywriters.co.uk/hiring-copywriters-guide/

The trouble is that some people are just plain dodgy – and they will try all kinds of things to exploit freelancers. Fortunately, most clients are good people who want to a pay a fair rate for great work. The trick for freelancers is to spend as little time as possible dealing with bad clients so we can focus on helping genuine businesses and charities.

21st June 2019

Ronald Crawford

There are two sides to every story. Our test pieces aren’t free work. They are two pieces that we’ve worked on over the years and it gives us a very quick understanding of the level of expertise of the writer.
Our clients normally have urgent requests so we don’t have a lot of time to training and it has been our experience that writers that survive well in our environment are of a certain level and have the ability to write a press release in the morning and in the afternoon a sustainability report.
Someone wrote that “probationary periods should be used”. Maybe in an ideal world but our real world reality means that we normally only get one chance to get it right.

PRO
27th June 2019

Leif Kendall

Thanks Ronald. Interesting to get your perspective as a client!

What you describe sounds very reasonable – and quite different to some of the exploitative practices that freelancers can face.

22nd September 2019

Alexander Sandoval LeDonne

I’m new to the title of Copywriter as an actual title as opposed to the hat I am wearing that particular day so forgive me if I am repeating this notion or sound trite, but…isn’t this the whole point of a Portfolio? I mean, if a potential client likes your work and can see something in the form of a case study that has a proven track record or ROI from a previous client then isn’t that enough?

In my early days of being a copysmith I was asked to subimt a writing sample for a potential client and got the job before the days of having real world writing examples to be able to offer. At the time, I thought nothing of it most likely because I was new, wanting to prove myself, and wanted the job. Now, I think I would say I have writing samples of previous work that will show my ability to convey your idea. Just my thoughts at least.

4th August 2020

Tom Rigby

get asked so often that I now just refer them to my FAQ section where I try to explain, in the nicest possible way of course, why I don’t do samples. They usually understand.

http://tomrigby.com/copywriting-faq/#1593704123059-c74f1e3d-24f8

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