Web copywriting: an interview with James Chartrand
This is the first of a series of interviews with copywriters who specialize in a particular brand of copywriting.
First up, James Chartrand from Men With Pens. James lives in Canada and writes web copy for an international roster of clients.
In our short interview, we discussed some of the ins and outs of web copywriting and James’ quirky sense of humor.
Dean: How long have you been writing web copy? How did you get your start?
James: I began my career in early 2006 — completely by necessity, really. At the time, I had absolutely no money, and I needed it badly. Winter was coming, there were no jobs to be had, and I had kids to feed. I found out that people would pay me to write … a whole $1.50 for 500 words.
So I wrote. I took the hard knocks and learned the lessons. I hustled like mad and kept building and building until… Well, here I am today. I never expected things to turn out as fantastically as they did, and frankly, I’m still working hard at reaching even bigger goals.
Dean: There are dozens of copywriting specialties. Why did you choose to write for online clients?
James: The choice of writing for online clients was simply because the work was there to be had. Offline, I live in a French-speaking small-town region, and there isn’t much economical development – hence, no writing work, or at least certainly not enough to earn a decent living.
Online? The world’s my oyster. I can help business owners in Australia get the results they want, or I can work with people in Africa to build a business, or I can consult with those in the United States and help them achieve a larger customer base. I can work anywhere I please, with no boundaries.
Dean: Would you consider web copywriting a specialty or is it similar to other types of copywriting?
James: I think that copywriting tends to share the same basic principles no matter what the specialty. The person who receives a direct sales letter at home is typically influenced and persuaded by the same strategies used online for web copy.
But I do think that web copy is special. Consumer behavior on the web is a little different — it’s far faster. It needs to hook quickly. People read differently. There are visual distractions. The page can’t be as long or people get bored and click away — in seconds. You’re reaching through a screen to someone sitting on the other side, drawing them into your world for a moment. That’s not an easy task at all, which is why I think web copy takes a special breed of writer.
[laughs] Well, maybe that’s the same for offline copywriting as well. We’re all special breeds, aren’t we?
Dean: Back in the old days, everyone had what we used to call a “brochure site.” Basically, you’d take your print copy and slap it onto a web page. How have things changed since then?
James: Today’s business sites have become far more interactive. They don’t just give information; they invite people in and sit them down. They don’t just tell them what the business does and its store hours or how to get there. Now you can visit all sorts of sites and learn not only what the company sells, but how it sells this and why it sells this and who else buys this and whether it’s good or not good and what makes it so.
Sites aren’t about telling. They’re about welcoming new people, offering them a glimpse behind the scenes and giving them a taste of the company’s personality. Sites (and web copy) build a relationship, using personality and the business beliefs to reach people where it counts — and to make them loyal customers, because they share those beliefs.
You can really do anything these days with the business-client relationship. You can teach and educate, you can share and create change, you can provoke thought and move people to take action on all sorts of things. You can reach the housewife in Brazil or the farmer in Saskatchewan or the entrepreneur in New Zealand — and you can change their life almost instantly. That’s pretty spectacular.
Dean: You’re kinda famous for your sense of humor. Is it important to have a good attitude in your business? Because some writers are a little … um … cranky.
James: If you don’t mind me saying so, most writers tend to be a little lofty, thinking they have some special gift and how dare anyone say a word against them. That’s kind of silly, in my eyes — why have attitude with the very people who are going to help you earn a decent living?
I do believe that the good writers — the really good ones – have natural talent and a special gift beneath their skills, and that’s what makes them stand out from the rest. But even those good writers need to have a good attitude, or they’re going to end up divas losing jobs.
I think that regardless of my natural talent and gifts, I’m here to make someone’s life better — not just in results and sales, but in their everyday life. I like to make clients smile, or have readers grin. I like to enjoy my job and have fun with it, and I think people feel drawn to that happiness and fun feeling.
Eeech, who knows. You’re asking hard questions. [grins]
Dean: Web copywriters tend to write a lot of things other than just copy for websites. What are some of the most in-demand items clients want?
James: Taglines. Clients agonize over them, and I can’t begin to tell you how often I’m asked for help to come up with a snazzy tagline. I suppose I brought it on myself by showing off my talents over at Copyblogger.
Banner ad copy has to be next in line. It’s not easy to come up with a winning message that’s only five words long and that sits in a tiny square. Well, actually, it is easy to come up with five words — but to come up with five words that make people want to click that little square? Fun times!
Dean: What would you say is the biggest challenge for web writers?
James: Hmmm … There are a few, actually.
Being professional and providing top-quality customer service is one of them. I land a lot of clients simply because they know my customer service is one of the best to be had, and they’re a little relieved to discover that the rumors are true — there really are professional writers out there who do a great job AND who are easy to work with. Great service goes a long, long way towards turning a lead into a sale.
Another challenge is deciding where to set rates. This is a huge struggle for web writers, because what’s fair pay for Canada might be a king’s ransom in Thailand might be slave wages for Australia and so on. There are no rules, guidelines or gauges for new writers, and figuring out what rate to charge is a challenge. But with time, you come to settle on a rate that’s right for your skill levels and the results you get for the businesses you work with.
Oh, a last challenge: Getting clients to understand that the little five-word tagline they want me to whip up at the drop of a hat is worth way more than they believe it is. “But it’s just five words!” Yes, but those five words take years of experience and knowledge to create if you want them to really work for your business!
Dean: In your experience, where do writers typically go wrong when writing a web page?
James: Where should I begin? [laughs] Yeah… Interest value has got to be the big one — most web pages I read are incredibly boring and do nothing to stir the emotions of potential clients. It’s generic and stiff, with language that isn’t real.
I think that’s a big one right there — it can’t just be words on a screen — it has to be emotionally compelling. It has to be written in a way that makes it sound like it’s from a real person, with real personality and real feelings. And those words have to be delivered to a person on the other side of the monitor who’s just as real. That person reading the web page has very real needs and desires and goals, and it’s crucial to reach that person to make him or her feel something. Because if that reader feels nothing … CLICK! He’s gone.It’s that simple.
Dean: Do clients want web writers to handle social media as well? If so, how?
James: Hm. I haven’t had much request for that in a while — the requests I do get, I turn down, because that’s just not my area of specialty, and I don’t want to dilute my skills into other areas like marketing and promotion.
There are much better people for the job, like those who specialize in social media and who know exactly how to tweet and build followings and use Facebook and do all sorts of funky relationship marketing tasks. That’s their job, and it’s a completely different specialty than mine.
Dean: What’s the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
James: Well, as a rule of thumb, the speed of a flying creature is roughly 3 times frequency times amplitude, or (U ≈ 3fA). But I was never very good in math. Which is why I became a writer, of course.
[Giving the wrong answer, James is flung into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, but climbs right out again to continue answering questions about less dangerous subjects.]
Dean: What does a writer have to know about design to write effectively for the web?
James: Design gives an instant visual impression of mood and emotion. A black and silver site “feels” slick — so warm, fluffy copy on that site is going to jar the reader and create a mismatched feeling. Likewise, a bright, colorful, English garden imagery paired with bold, authoritative writing will just come off as all wrong.
When you know the visual impact that’s being created, you can style the words and personality of the copy to match — and that makes the reader feel right at home.
Dean: Give us your quick take on SEO and web copy. What do writers have to know?
James: Never write for search engines — always write for people. They can’t even realize that you’ve included keywords and optimized the web copy for search engines, or they’ll be put off by the obvious tactic and less likely to take action.
But do use those keywords — effectively, and in the proper locations to attract that search engine’s attention. Because if you don’t SEO your copy, it’ll never work hard to help bring visitors to your words, and they’ll never be able to read them. Or take action, of course.
Dean: There are over 200 million websites out there and growing. So, is demand increasing for web copy?
James: I’d word it a little differently — I’d say that demand for effective web copy is growing. Anyone can write — not everyone can make a business stand out from the competition and draw in new customers to turn them into loyal fans. That’s what matters at the end of the day to clients — their bottom line, profits and results.
I’d also say that demand in certain areas is decreasing. There used to be huge focus on creating volume content — articles and blogs, for example. But businesses are wising up now, and they’re beginning to see that more results can be had from one piece of stellar web copy than 30 pieces (or even 300 pieces) of average blog posts or articles.
Conveying value to readers is what counts. Not conveying volume.
Dean: Sometimes it seems like there are just as many “web” writers as websites. How is competition affecting the pay writers can expect to get?
James: Tough question. For sure, the varying pay rates writers promote affect what the next guy can earn for writing. And people do shop by price — but they make the purchase decision based on emotion, not logic and price tag.
That’s why it makes conveying value to potential customers crucial to earning a decent living. When a serious potential client can clearly see that this writer is the best person for the job because he or she can get the desired results — or even exceed expectations — then there’s rarely any hesitation on price.
Think about it this way, too: If a writer finds himself struggling to earn a decent pay, it might be a better idea to look to what he can do to increase his “wins” instead of blaming the other guy who charges half the rate.
Dean: What do you think about those nasty, evil crowdsourcing sites that make writers bid 5 cents an hour for work? Is that really the future as some people claim?
James: Doubtful. The really good writers aren’t going to go sign up and open accounts for a nickel an hour. They know their work is worth more, and they know that no nickel and dime writer is going to get the results they can. They’ll always have work, because they’ll be sought after by the clients who want real results measurable in cold hard cash.
Dean: If I asked you to give writers just one solid piece of advice for writing better web copy or making more money (or both), what would you say?
James: Improve. Improve, improve, improve, all the time, every day. Read books on influence and persuasion and practice the techniques. The money’ll follow, but you have to put in the hard work and time to learn how to create words that sell. Learn about sales and marketing and branding, and not from wannabe amateurs — get books by recognized authorities on the subject who can really teach you how to write words that make a difference — to your client, and to your wallet.
Dean: I’m so sorry, I asked for just one solid piece of advice. That’s more like four.
[James is again flung into the Gorge of Eternal Peril and the interview comes to an abrupt end.]
- Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck
- Email copywriting: an interview with Ivan Levison
- B2B copywriting: an interview with Pete Savage
- PR copywriting: an interview with Kathleen Hanover
- SEO copywriting: an interview with Heather Lloyd Martin