This article focuses on copywriting rates from a copywriter’s point of view – largely because they’re the ones who set the rates, even though clients have the ultimate veto! As with any marketplace, there’s a constant battle between buyers and sellers, each wanting to maximise the benefit they gain from the transaction.
Any experienced copywriter reading this will be all too familiar with some of the situations that arise when negotiating copywriting rates. For many, it will always be a minefield fraught with a wide range of client attitudes and an even greater range of copywriting projects, payment methods and opportunists who seek only to ‘commoditise’ what should be a creative and persuasive technique at the heart of every marketing campaign.
As sole operators, copywriters need to be on their guard against exploitation by larger and wealthier agencies and direct client companies. Many copywriters lack the experience and business know-how to negotiate the best rates for their services. Others will continually come up against situations they’re not familiar with so they often end up leaving money on the table.
This has all been sharpened up in recent recessionary times where extreme value for money is being sought by increasing numbers of people. The Internet is the happy hunting ground for many of this persuasion where copywriting – especially content writing – is now attracting something akin to slave labour rates. Sympathetic readers on the ‘client’ side as well as knowledge-hungry copywriters will hopefully benefit from some of the points highlighted here.
Every business transaction involving copywriting has a similar sequence of events: the enquiry; the meeting; the negotiation; and the agreed rate. On the face of it, this is no different from any other sales transaction in the service sector. There are, however, many pitfalls which can often be avoided.
Handling the Enquiry
This is the first point of contact between buyer and seller so the copywriter must obviously make a good impression. If the initial contact is by phone, it’s imperative that he or she sounds professional, knowledgeable and articulate.
It’s also important to be able to think on your feet and grasp the client’s needs immediately – and attach a ball-park price tag to whatever they’re trying to achieve. On the strength of a two-minute call may rest the potential for a lasting and lucrative client-copywriter relationship. A lethargic response will only open the door to another copywriting competitor.
Much of this also applies to how a copywriter responds to an e-mail enquiry. It’s vital to create a good impression by speed of response; format of the e-mail; well-written text; and a businesslike proposition. This will all influence whether the enquiry progresses to the next stage.
A good way of achieving this in a competitive environment where a client has
e-mailed several copywriters is to offer two or three alternative price points. Each should offer a progressively rewarding package or offer for the rate being charged: Gold, Silver or Bronze if you will.
For many clients, only a face-to-face meeting will suffice. Understandably, they would prefer to see the whites of the eyes of the copywriter they are dealing with. This introduces a new dimension to the decision-making process where personal chemistry, body language, appearance and attitudes are all taken into consideration, totally independently and irrespective of what is being discussed.
The issue of cost often only rears its head some way down the line – and only those copywriters with an above-average physical presence, articulacy level and ‘likeability factor’ will end up doing the business!
Before the business, comes the negotiation…
Clients often use ruthless tactics to browbeat a copywriter, especially if they sense any sign of vulnerability, weakness or lack of negotiating skills. Here are a few examples:
- ‘The new business pitch’ – This is a scenario that usually only arises when a copywriter is dealing with an advertising, design or PR agency who are looking to land a new client. They will say the pitch is ‘speculative’ – “but if we win the business, all the copywriting work will be yours.” This is a relatively common scenario – but an unpaid pitch is one that a copywriter should avoid at all costs.
The agency will say: “We’re committing our time, energy and resources, so why not you too?” The reason for giving it a big “No” is obvious. Agencies are paid fees for much of their work and they also charge mark-ups on suppliers’ prices. Copywriters, by contrast, have only their time to sell and they are often one-man bands. Losing out on a pitch will therefore impact a copywriter much more than an agency which has a large and varied income stream.
- ‘The promise of future work’ – This is related to ‘speculative’ projects in the sense that a copywriter is mortgaging the present in the hope of a rosier financial future. The client is saying: “Do a good job on this project at a knock-down price and there’ll be plenty of work in the future.” Only a fool would go along with this!
- ‘The thumb-screw approach’ – This is only slightly less unpalatable than offering ‘jam tomorrow’. However, by agreeing to a cheaper overall day-rate in exchange for ten or fifteen days work, the copywriter does at least have some semblance of a deal!
- ‘Playing one copywriter off against the other’ – This is a common technique among clients who go online to search for a copywriter. “We’ve had a much cheaper quote,” they will say. Or: “Is that your best price?” with the strong inference that they could easily go elsewhere if you don’t reduce your rates. In this situation, it’s always best to stick to your guns. There will always be someone cheaper round the corner, so why devalue yourself with clients who will never understand the value of quality work.
In these straightened economic times, many clients understand why copywriters ask for a deposit, especially on larger jobs or where a project may run into several weeks or months. Running the risk of a client defaulting, or having them inventing a spurious reason not to pay the bill are reasons enough. Apart from the peace of mind it gives the copywriter, a deposit improves a copywriter’s cash-flow, but also encourages a ‘commitment to complete’ on the part of the client.
Deposits taken for work such as website copywriting are typically 50 per cent (with the balance payable on completion). Larger projects, or projects that may extend over several months, can be split into three or four tranches. On rare occasions, payment in advance can be justified – in the case of a new overseas’ client, for instance, or with a new business start-up.
In general, copywriters charge by the hour or day, on a monthly retainer basis, or ‘per thousand words’ for journalistic-type work. All of these methods have pros and cons. Hourly and day rates tend to devalue a copywriter’s services by somehow suggesting you can ‘measure’ their output. Monthly retainers usually end up with a client being ‘over serviced’ for the fee they’re paying, whilst anyone who asks a copywriter to charge by the number of words they write is encouraging attacks of verbal diarrhoea and probably has little idea of the work involved.
‘Price Shyness’ – and How To Overcome It
Many copywriters are shy about demanding their true worth because they fear rejection. Paradoxically, clients often have more respect for someone who charges higher prices – PROVIDING THEY CAN JUSTIFY IT! The best way to do this is to add value to your proposition and enhance the perception of professionalism.
As an example: this can take the shape of providing ‘strategic business solutions’, especially with projects where developing and integrating multiple marketing techniques is involved. In situations like that, a copywriter should adopt a ‘consultancy’ approach where a more strategic involvement in a client’s business justifies a higher day rate, and possibly an additional ‘Project Management Fee’.
All of this merely scratches the surface of how copywriters arrive at the rates they charge and how they can secure optimal reward in exchange for their essential marketing skills. Many copywriters have an inferiority complex about their true worth. Compare this with the average designer who can often make much more money.
Maybe it’s because of something as primitive as the fact that the ‘average’ client CAN write but CANNOT draw or paint very well. They therefore think that copywriting is in some way less valuable. In the real commercial world where what you say and what people read about you matters more and more, this is a dangerous assumption.
Thank you for sharing this blog post and interesting points you make about the minefield that is copywriting rate negotiation. Nice work!
Great article. I have always had the issue of ‘price shyness’ and have to constantly battle to overcome it. My personal hate is the client who tries to downgrade the importance of what we do by referring to it as ‘just a few words to tie things together’.
5/5 very informative, this is very helpful information that I’ll be referencing when I need my confidence boost.
I voted this article a 5 star, but was tapping on my iPad and it showed up as three. Sorry to the writer.
Great piece and really useful information. Thank-you! 5 stars from me but I can’t see where to vote…(possibly being dim). Mel
Mel glad you like! There is a voting system at the top of the page! 🙂
As a relative newbie in the copywriting world, this article is really useful. I am plagued by ‘price shyness’ and have often agreed to do it for a reduced rate as I’m just starting out … of course this is setting myself up for a struggle in the future. Having read this, I will stop doing that now and will charge what my experience and time is worth. Thank you. PS – I voted!
Top tip: Get yourself a pricing buddy. You write the quote, email it to them, they double it and email it to the client.
This will definitely help budding copywriters in negotiating with their clients. I agree with you that there are some agencies or contractors out there who still offer slave labour rates. Most of the times, newbies fall victim to this.
The information you’ve provided is equally applicable to art directors. Strangely enough, there is still a common misperception that copywriters generate the ideas and art directors make them look good. And therefore a writer is worth more.
I was recently asked by a small agency to come up with “designs” for Facebook postings for a fast food client. These “designs” were actually concepts that required writing and art directiOn. The aGency wanted 6 concepts and wanted to pay $300. They needed to be fully thought out with headlines, response mechanisms and key frames.
I turned the down, but sadly they probably got someone to do the work. Recessionary times s indeed.
I left a similar comment on your LinkedIn thread, but to reiterate:
The problem is that clients see one writer or designer as good as another. Copywriting and design are seen as commodities. And any time some is seen as a commodity, price becomes the deciding factor.
I think the basic idea is to take on yourself as a client. A copywriter helps clients articulate the benefits of a brand, and they should do the same for themselves. Think of yourself or your style of writing as a brand and then communicate those brand benefits to your clients. For some (like me), this can be very hard. I’ve always found it easier to talk about clients products than myself. But you have to figure out how to do it, or the client will never see your value. And once you establish a fair price for yourself, stick to it. Yes you may lose work at the beginning, but if your are the cheapest copywriter out there you will never get the best assignments. Psychologically, people place a higher value on things that are more expensive. I.E., If it’s cheap, it’s not good; if it’s expensive, it’s better quality.
For your consideration, and to help any other copywriters out there, I wrote a blog post on some reason clients should hire a professional copywriter.
I’ve been earning a living with words since 1993 and I STILL have problems when it comes to pricing. 😉
Excellent article, Mike, have referenced it in a LinkedIn post…
Good article Mike, and it’s a topic that comes up again and again. Writers should never fall into the low cost trap – it’s the road to overwork and poverty.
Great article and good idea about the pricing buddy Jackie. I’ve just mentored someone through pricing for editing a major web site and she now has a contract worth £17,500 in the bag. But after more than 20 years in the business, I still find quoting the most stressful part of the job myself.