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July 5, 2012

Copywriting Rates and the Collective ‘Cri de Coeur’

Every time I’ve written articles and blog posts about Copywriting Rates, the response has been overwhelming. It’s no accident that the page covering this topic on my company’s main website attracts far and away the greatest number of visitors – and easily the highest click-through rates.

A recent article of mine entitled ‘Copywriting Rates: Preparing for the Price War’ generated so much interest (particularly on LinkedIn) that it’s provided enough feedback to form the basis of a qualitative research retrospective!

It’s important, of course, to ask the very real question as to why this subject is so popular among copywriters – and other people too. It goes without saying that remuneration or ‘compensation’ is something that’s dear to the hearts of everyone in business, especially sole traders as many copywriters tend to be.

Few things fire up an individual more than a sense of injustice – and the state of the copywriting market right now is clearly full of it, if the responses to my articles are anything to go by.

A major problem for any sole practitioner is that they are overly dependent on market forces. This is fine when economic conditions are favorable and business is booming everywhere. In a slump, however, it’s a buyers’ market.

Other factors which compound this sense of injustice and vulnerability include the changing nature of copywriting work itself. Waves were first made a few years ago when it became clear that ‘Third World’ copywriters were entering the market. Their dollar-a-day rates helped them gain a foothold in the ‘contract copywriting’ side of the business where masses of descriptive words were required for applications such as e-commerce.

In the eyes of many seasoned copywriters, this wasn’t playing fair. Writing content of this nature simply isn’t copywriting – or at least that was what the general consensus became. Adding to this ease of entry into a field that once demanded an ad agency background has been the massive growth of ‘content writing’ for online applications.

This mainly involved web pages. To many website owners, these were yawning areas of white space that had to be filled, one way or another, with words. If these included a high density of ‘keywords’, it would also fit the bill as SEO copywriting. So-called ‘copywriting’ became a commodity overnight and, with it, a tendency for Dutch auctions to follow where rates were concerned.

A Volatile Online Market

The Internet is price-driven, so any copywriter hoping to make a living in the highly competitive online marketplace will be at the mercy of harsh economic forces. Straightforward ‘content’ that will describe a company’s offerings in a reasonably accurate way will do the business in many cases. As this has become widely accepted as the ‘norm’, copywriting has become de-skilled and rates have been driven south.

In the process, they have created a divided market. On the one hand are the jobbing wordsmiths who churn out words at bargain basement, commercially non-viable rates; on the other hand is an army of aggrieved copywriting purists who have suddenly seen their livelihoods swept from under their feet in just a few short years.

Fortuitously, it looks like Google’s recent algorithm updates may have saved the day. The spotlight has suddenly been turned on ‘quality content’ as the foundation of successful SEO. Until this stroke of good fortune, it looked as though copywriting as a valued creative and commercial skill was heading for the marketing scrap-yard.

Gone, apparently, was the need for ‘creative concepts’ where great ideas presented in an inter-linking visual and verbal way could persuade people to buy. Gone was the need for persuasive copy that made direct response such an effective mechanism for so many decades. Or at least that’s how it was looking.

Enter Stage Left: Colonel Penguin

Along came the cavalry in the unlikely guise of a Penguin. Google’s recent update has probably saved the skin – and the careers – of many a desperate copywriter. ‘Quality content’ is now trumpeted as the life-blood of SEO. Well-written website pages, blog posts and articles are now seen as essential if any company wants to avoid being consigned to online history.

This sea-change has come about largely because Google now has the technical wherewithal (and the determination) to sift out the spammy copywriting and SEO that was beginning to devalue its search results. SEO companies and their copywriting confrères had been attempting to manipulate search results for long enough.

There’s nothing particularly immoral about this. By tracking what worked as far as SEO techniques went, they provided a valuable service for clients, and still do! The big change of course is that there has been a massive shake-out in the way web pages are ranked (with some pretty spectacular casualties along the way!).

The new challenge facing freelance copywriters is convincing clients that plain old fluent copy (without the jargon of things like meta tags to fall back on) will make a measurable contribution to the link building side of their SEO. The scenario where clients would claim that ‘quality content’ should be a ‘given’ as far as professional copywriting is concerned is easy to imagine. The stick that it hands to clients to further beat down copywriting rates is clear to see.

Looking at the handful of issues touched on above, it’s no surprise that ‘copywriting rates’ is such a hot potato. This is exacerbated still further by the ease with which almost anyone from almost any type of background can call himself a copywriter.

Somehow, despite this seething cauldron of change, it looks as though the comments witnessed daily on the social media sites I frequent are a collective ‘cri de coeur’ that will continue to go unheard.


Mike Beeson is a UK freelance copywriter, journalist and PR consultant specializing in website and SEO copywriting. Mike’s company, Buzzwords Limited, was established over 20 years ago and is located in Knutsford, Cheshire (south Manchester).

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