I don’t know if this happens to other copywriters, but my family and friends love to give me books about writing. I have stacks of them on my bookshelves: The Elements of Eloquence, How Not To Write A Novel, memoirs of famous writers, collections of essays…
My latest acquisition is The Personal MBA, by Josh Kaufman. So far my favourite tip is: shop the competition.
It didn’t make much sense to me at first. I tend to think of other writers as inspiration or support, not competition. But then I started to think about my freelance copywriting website.
I’d thrown it together when I was just starting out, without really thinking about content design or market research or calls to action or keywords or any of the stuff that I make sure to include in writing for clients.
I had no idea how other freelancers built their websites or acquired clients. I had neglected my own business.
But then I thought… why not learn from other freelancers? Why not shop the “competition”?
Here’s how I did it: I went through the list of people I follow on Twitter, and clicked through to the website for every freelancer I know. Most of them are writers, but a few were musicians or museum curators or translators.
I discovered so many interesting trends, great ideas and (occasionally) missed opportunities that I thought it was worth writing up. Hopefully, this blog post could save you a little bit of research.
Idea 1: Yes, you need a website
OK, I know this one is super obvious. But I was surprised to learn that a significant minority of freelancers don’t have a website.
Here are some of the most common issues, you:
- have a website, but you don’t include it in your social profiles or directory listings.
- have a website, but you spelled the link wrong.
- used to have a website, but you forgot to pay for the domain registration.
- used to have a website, but it got hacked and you never bothered to build a new one. (Yes, this really came up.)
- started building a website, got as far as “coming soon”, and gave up.
Honourable exception – an increasing number of freelancers are using link hub services (such as Linktree), instead of having a website.
This can work really well if you know what you’re doing. This is the Linktree for Alex Francis, a freelance designer and illustrator. It shows just three links: portfolio, shop and a quirky project.
Don’t use a link hub service if you have more than 3-5 links to share, or if you can’t commit to keeping links up to date.
Idea 2: Choose a photograph with context
This is a really interesting trend that was clear all the way through my research. Leave the headshots to LinkedIn and corporate team profiles. For your freelance website, you want to show a photo in context.
What do I mean by that? Well, some freelancers have photos at their desks. Curator Stephen Welsh emphasises his home roots in his work. So he has a photo showing him out and about.
Mairi of Salzkammergut English Vienna English Copy has a photo of – what could be more Viennese? – a coffee break.
None of these ideas are especially unusual or ground-breaking. But they show real people, at work in their natural habitats.
That’s why my website photo shows me lounging on a sofa.
Idea 3: What should a website include?
You’ve got a web address, you’ve got a photograph. What else to include?
Most freelance websites include most, if not all, of these standard sections:
- About me
- Work samples/portfolio
- Contact page
- Clients and testimonials
Social media links, qualifications and membership badges are also popular – often included in a website header or footer. (For example, have you got your ProCopywriters badge yet?)
While it’s nice to have an intro or welcome message, you don’t want to make people scroll too far. Hayley Maguire’s website is a great example of how to establish your identity, and then move quickly on to describing your services.
If you work on very varied projects, then check out Hugh Morris’ website, which very neatly advertises his work as a composer, writer and performer. (Design by Joe Chesterman-March.)
Idea 4: Be consistent, be yourself
This is two points in one, but they’re very closely related. Early on in my survey, I realised that some websites gave off kind of a weird vibe. And it was always due to one of two problems:
- Inconsistency. You spend hours posting bad puns on Twitter, but your website is written in pure legalese. Or your LinkedIn presence is upbeat and punchy, but your website barely has a word to say. As a copywriter, people are hiring you for your style: so have one.
- Invisibility. This may be a controversial point, but I’m not a fan of freelancers pretending to be agencies. You are a brave lone rider – own it! I felt instantly more welcome and engaged on freelancer websites written in the first person.
If you want an example of how to get this right, take a look at The Wrinkly Writer. Mary Cameron is a brilliant copywriter who leans in hard to the things that make her unique: experience, personality and purpose-driven work.
Idea 5: Accessibility rules
If you don’t personally have any accessibility needs, then it can be easy to overlook. The internet is so fast and easy to access, right?
Well… not so much if you use a screen reader, are colourblind, have hearing difficulties or a host of other requirements.
The good news is that accessibility is not as complicated as most people imagine. Most of it is really simple stuff, such as…
- Using h1s, h2s and so on to correctly format your content. Using the right heading tags helps screenreaders navigate your website more easily. For a quick test, try using the Read Aloud tool in your browser (on my computer, it’s Ctrl+Shift+U). How far can you get through your own website?
- Checking the colour palette you use – I like Who Can Use. It gives you a quick visualisation of how your site looks to people with a range of vision types. Be extra careful about layering text over images; is it still easy to read?
- Don’t use autoplay on videos or audio. Autoplay content can be startling, distracting or difficult to shut down.
- Add alt-text to your images – especially if those images include text. Alt-text is not for hidden jokes or SEO, it’s there to help people who can’t see the images but still want to engage with your site.
If you need more help with accessibility, WebAIM is my go-to site for information, ideas and training.
Idea 6: Design for clients, not yourself
Now for my last point. Now, the joy of a freelance website is that it belongs to you. It’s all yours. You can do whatever you want!
But don’t lose sight of why the website exists. It’s not a canvas for pure artistic expression. It’s a sales tool. So while it should absolutely reflect your personality, it should also offer clear value to your clients.
For me, this boils down to two golden rules:
- Tell clients what you can do, not what you’ve already done. Testimonials and samples of past work are important. But in the first few seconds of landing on your page, readers should understand how you can help them, specifically.
- Fulfill the client’s goals, not your own. I’m a bit ruthless on this point. I don’t really want to read about which kind of coffee helps you focus best, or how you feel when a new email lands in your inbox. I’m more concerned about whether the work is good and you answer emails on time.
I love Richard Steele’s website as an example of writing for clients, because he’s crystal-clear about what he offers and who his ideal client is. His personality still shines through, but all the focus is on helping the client.
So, after all this research, what did I change on my own website? And did it work?
- I upgraded my web hosting so that my website address is just my name – no distractions.
- I swapped out a headshot photo for one that showed me writing and having fun.
- I split my portfolio into sections based on project type, instead of industry. This works better for me because I’m a generalist.
- I added two more sections to the site: client testimonials and a dedicated contact page with a contact form.
- I updated the welcome page so that it sounds more like “me”.
- I used a screenreader to check whether my page navigation made sense.
- I made my welcome page clearer, by adding a direct invitation to contact me and work together.
And did it work? Well, according to my web hosting service, views are up by over 100%. And the contact form is already being used by potential clients. I’d call that a win.
Feeling inspired? Annoyed? Argumentative? Let me know what you think of these ideas, plus any other tips you have for freelance websites!