Copywriters, we need to talk about ROI

But before we do, some background is needed.

This is not the article I set out to write

My original intention was to compile a list of examples to demonstrate the ROI of copywriting in lieu of case studies. Something useful for newbies or those adding a new service to their roster, and somewhere I could send clients to validate my recommendations.

When I researched the subject, I was hoping there would be copywriting equivalents of the Content Marketing Institute’s annual benchmark reports. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything that came close.

I should clarify that when I talk about ROI here I’m specifically referring to money. Cold, hard cash. And things directly adjacent like qualified leads.

You and I both know there are a great many benefits to working with a copywriter. Save time, get a fresh pair of eyes, persuasive messaging, differentiation, consistency, a polished brand image. The list goes on and a quick internet search will throw up thousands of articles along these lines.

But none talk about money in more than vague, abstract terms. And for me, that’s where the problem lies.

There’s been welcome discussion in the last few years of copywriting as an undervalued profession (spoiler alert—it absolutely is). And this has sparked important and valuable conversations about fair pay for copywriters.

But what about the other side of the coin? What about the money our work brings in, in return for our fee? Until we can find a way to satisfactorily answer that question, we’re kind of stuck.

At this point, you’re probably recoiling in horror. I get it. I find this subject painfully awkward too. Which brings to mind that Tim Ferriss quote about success being measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations you are willing to have.

Do we have to talk about ROI?

A few paragraphs up, I mentioned the well-known and widely(ish) accepted benefits of working with a copywriter.

For the C-Suite controlling an organisation’s purse strings, these might not be tangible or strong enough reasons to invest more in copywriting. Especially given the current perfect storm of shrinking marketing budgets and a culture of corporate hyper-accountability.

Not all C-Suite, I hear you cry. And yes, you’re right. Those with their ears to the ground understand why good copywriting is important, and they will already be investing heavily.

I’m talking about those that don’t.

A younger, more impulsive me would have said fuck it, I don’t want to work with people like that anyway. An older, more reflective me questions whether there’s anything that can be done to change their minds?

Younger me’s attitude wipes out a huge swathe of potential clients. Is there a way to tap into this?

As copywriters, we know that to be persuasive we need to talk in our audience’s language. And the C-Suite largely talks about money. Is the answer to swallow our noble artistic ideals and talk money too?

To some extent, I think it is.

The problem with case studies

Here’s where I digress and take two steps back to move the argument forward.

Traditionally, the answer to showing the worth of your copywriting skills is case studies. But in reality, that’s not always possible.

Maybe you achieved amazing results but are blocked from sharing these by an NDA. Perhaps you’re just starting out. Or there’s that awkward and all too common situation where your work gets “tweaked” by your client and consequently underperforms.

Clients ghost after sign-off so you never get the chance to ask about results. Or they don’t measure the right things so you have nothing concrete to show for your work.

Depressing, isn’t it? And the worst part is—I don’t have any answers. Apologies if you’ve stuck with my ramble thus far in the hope that I did.

I do, however, have some *suggestions* as to how we might approach this problem.

Do the work for yourself

My first suggestion, as the heading says, is to do the work for yourself. Much like a newbie copywriter putting together a portfolio of spec work—if there’s a service you want to sell to clients, do it for yourself first to show proof of concept. To show it works. To show it will return on someone’s investment.

This way you have complete control over the process. The problem is you also have to play the long game. It could be six months or a year before you’ve got results to shout about. Most of us can’t afford to sit and twiddle our thumbs for that long.

So what else have I got?

Educate your clients

My second suggestion, and something I’m starting immediately, is to educate my clients on the importance of defining and properly measuring success, and ingrain this in my process.

I start every project with conversations about “what success looks like” and how it will be measured. But to be brutally honest, after the sometimes fraught process of feedback and revisions has concluded I’m just happy to get sign-off, launch the copy, submit my invoice and move on without a backward glance.

It’s on me to do better and take back control.

Look to other industries

While us copywriters skirt around the subject of ROI, our content marketing colleagues positively embrace it. Much has been written about content marketing attribution models and how to calculate ROI—why doesn’t the same body of work exist for copywriting?

To be fair, conversion copywriters do this well. But that’s only a small slice of the copywriting pie. What about the rest of us?

Again, I don’t have the answers here but it’s something I’m actively exploring.

How can we reframe the conversation?

You’re still here? Bravo for sticking with it. For someone who likes having answers, this has been frustrating to write so I imagine the reading experience isn’t much better.

In place of answers, however, I hope this gets you thinking. How can you do better at measuring and shouting about the ROI of your copywriting work?

Because it strikes me that this is the first step to reframing copywriting as an investment rather than an expense in the minds of decision-makers.

Yes, we can write beautiful words to define brands. To bring their story to life and put them on the map. But until we can more confidently and conclusively connect these things to money in the bank, we’re fighting a losing battle.

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