Why you shouldn’t ask copywriters about ROI

Douglas Smith

Look Here Copywriting

When it comes down to it, no matter what a copywriter’s history is, they can’t guarantee success. They can only guarantee great copy.

Freelancers see a lot of job gigs where a client will ask a copywriter: ‘Tell us how you give ROI on your work’. Or: ‘What were the conversion rates on your past projects?’. Or even: ‘What KPIs do you use to measure success?”.

These are all understandable questions from the point of view of a potential client. They feel it’s a risk to spend good money on commercial writing when the writer cannot guarantee the outcome.

But what needs to be mentioned at this point is this: a copywriter can’t ever know exactly how their writing will perform for a client. For 3 reasons:

1. There are too many factors outside of the copywriter’s control for them to guarantee anything

Yes, they will write text that conveys the message in the most effective way possible, using keywords and phrases that they researched, make it reader-facing and in the right language for the target audience. But they are not able to influence several key things:

  • The product. If the product or service or concept is simply not something that a lot of people want, then no amount of charming language is going to make them interested. If the client has not done their market research, then the campaign copy will come to nothing. A pig’s ear is still a pig’s ear, no matter how much you dress it up as a silk purse.
  • The distribution. A writer could create a great sales email, press release or lead-generating sequence for your funnel. But if the client’s mailing list is not large enough, or composed of the wrong type of prospect, or they have not developed an audience, then it’s not going to work.
  • The design. Writers can craft great ways of selling things, but the words will be let down by a poor layout with the wrong priorities on the page and/or a dated design. Similarly, if the photos are uninspiring and the colours jar, then the audience is going to skip it.
  • The timing. Even with fantastic writing, sophisticated design and a hot list, if the timing of the campaign is wrong, then it will go badly. It might not even be the campaign manager’s fault – a celebrity might die, a disaster could occur, or a war might break out. But, equally, you should know not to launch a project around a big sports event, an election, a rival’s launch or anything else that will distract your target audience’s attention.

The great copywriter Bob Bly openly talks about humbling moments like this in the profession. A team lovingly puts a campaign together, but it simply doesn’t work.

And conversely, sometimes a writer didn’t feel they’d done a great job, but it pulls like hot cakes. Sometimes, these things happen for reasons we simply don’t know about.

Ask a copywriter about ROI - see how tetchy that can make them.2. They’re writers, not analysts

You don’t hire a chiropractor to treat your broken ankle. Nor a software engineer to change the fan on your computer. Similarly, you can’t ask a copywriter to also know about every aspect of marketing and analysis.

True, at the time of writing, it is fast becoming the norm for copywriters to use online marketing measurement tools and understand performance indicators. This is understandable now that so much is easily measurable.

But at the same time, it is often easy for a copywriter to lose their way while considering all the peripherals. That is the business of marketers and agencies. They need to start with the audience’s premise of ‘What’s in it for me?’, create a narrative through the writing and remember that people make decisions based on emotions, not logic.

Google’s algorithms have become more content-focused than ever and discarding many SEO tricks. So, remembering the core values of copywriting is just as important as it ever was.

3. Sometimes, it’s a secret

Copywriters frequently deliver copy way ahead of its use, and even further ahead of when results can be seen. So most copywriters often don’t know how things have panned out. It’s up to the company to let them know.

But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it’s because everyone has simply moved on and is dealing with other work and issues. Other times because the organisation doesn’t want people to know the results of a campaign – for reasons good or bad.

The long and short of it is, you can’t ask a copywriter to have data to back up their work. Only the organisations they wrote for will know for sure. And, if it’s commercially sensitive (and pretty much anything to do with the company’s profile is), then the information will not be easily available.

The upshot: a copywriter knows their job, but not the future

It is, in essence, deeply educated guesswork. Nobody has a crystal ball. A copywriter will have researched the target audience, the language used, tone of voice, keywords and phrases, and possibly what output on the subject has already done well. Then they will structure the writing to work as best it can. Beyond that, no one can promise anything.

you can't ask a copywriter to see how everything will work out

A phone shop can guarantee to supply you with a phone that works. A DIY shop can guarantee a drill that drills, and a roofer will guarantee your roof won’t leak. These are all tangible things. But a copywriter cannot guarantee results.

I will say one thing though, even if it does sound dangerously close to some kind of guarantee. Getting a copywriter to work on your project will make it more successful than if you had not involved a copywriter at all.

I’ll come back to something I mentioned near the start of this post, about clients feeling it’s a risk to pay money for a good copywriter. It’s not a risk. It’s an investment. The client receives a useful, re-usable deliverable that will work for them while they get on with other things.

Even if the timing for a particular campaign was wrong, the copy can still sit on their website, or the client can send it out as information again and again. It can still win over people and sell a business beyond the initial reason for it being produced.

And if you are going to get effective copy written for your business, then you have to hire a professional. You can try sourcing copy from the intern, or from someone on Fiverr, but the results will be mediocre at best and you’ll end up paying someone else to do it again. And possibly again. As the saying goes: ‘Cheap copy is the most expensive mistake you will make.’

Asking for guarantees on conversion rates or ROI really annoys a copywriter because whatever they say could end up being wrong. Their job is to write, and to make that writing as strong as possible. The rest is mostly out of their hands.

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