Online copywriting: be as big (or small) as you want to be

Posted on 7 July, 2020 by Paul Walden

I recently discussed brand strategy with a client who, like most others, relies on their website to make first impressions. We were talking about SEO, Google ads, paid social, video content, blog article writing, downloadable whitepapers, user experience and everything else that goes into creating a solid digital marketing platform. It was at that point that the client turned around and said, “…well, we’ve got a concern that we might appear too big”.

I was flabbergasted. This is a client whose product is technologically superior to those of their competitors, and whose production capacity and distribution network are proven beyond doubt. Indeed, this particular client is an innovation driver in their field. They were the very first company in the world to develop technology of their kind. Yet here they were, worrying that they might appear “too big” to first-time website visitors.

Maybe they thought about the fact that their offices aren’t like the Google headquarters or that they don’t have shopfronts right around Australia? But none of those things matter. The entire point was that they had a great product and a potentially nervous target group. Their prospect customers would feel more at ease dealing with a “big company”. Fortunately, online, you can be just as big as you need to be.

You would be amazed if you realised how many seemingly “big” companies are actually run out of someone’s lounge room or out of fairly humble commercial facilities. Companies that have a great product, a huge online following and an impressive turnover. (I have some insight here, because I do a lot of work with SME clients.)

The experience also made me think about my own background. Before I started my career as a freelance copywriter here in Melbourne, I worked at advertising agencies both in Australia and overseas. I was used to working in creative teams that included a range of different specialists – copywriter, designer, art director, project manager, traffic controller, account executive, typography expert and whatever other professional might be needed for the clients’ advertising campaigns. I started my career almost 20 years ago, when full-page print ads were still more important than social media.

So when I launched my freelance copywriting business, my kneejerk reaction was to present myself as an agency online. After all, I did have the capacity to pull teams together to deliver on whatever creative brief came through, and I thought that the my desired clientele would prefer working with “an agency”. But times change, and I soon learnt that I had made the wrong assumption.

During my time as an online “agency”, I only had one memorable instance where it was clear that the agency shopfront was a deal breaker. One day I was asked to look at a big strategic project for a group of government stakeholders. They had hit the wall working with an agency and now they were looking for the right “team” to take over the job. With so many stakeholders breathing down their neck, I got the distinct impression that they wouldn’t have dared handing it to a solo-flying freelance copywriter.

Anyway, I was naturally happy to accept the project and even happier when the completely restructured and rewritten strategic plan that I delivered was approved within a couple of weeks. When I had thus proven myself, I put the cards on the table, and we all had a good laugh about my online “agency” shopfront.

It wasn’t long, however, before I realised that the advertising landscape has shifted. Savvy clients are today well aware that contracting an agency means paying a premium just to cover the overheads brought by swanky offices, boardrooms and staff who might never touch their account – and that the results will not necessarily differ from what they could get by working with freelancers. Almost all projects are digital these days anyway; there is seldom need for a shared physical workspace.

By and large, only clients who need a creative team at their daily beck and call and those who are happy to pay for the bragging rights of having an agency opt for the traditional route. The quality of the marketing strategy and creative ideas has finally come to outweigh the romantic notion of cosying up with a stylish bunch of Mad Men.

That’s why I am today very clear about the fact that I’m a freelance copywriter. Clients are quick to understand that I’m much more than a simple wordsmith either way. They only have to review my online copywriting portfolio to realise that I always conduct thorough research and base all creative on solid strategy, and that I can fill a lot of other roles, advising on website information structure and visuals, directing photography shoots and video edits, and so forth. A thorough understanding of storytelling gives you the insights you need to cover a lot of disciplines other than copywriting (but that’s a topic for another article). So they give me a call. And that’s all I need my website to accomplish.

Moral of the story: don’t ever worry as to whether you will appear “too big” or “too small” online. As long as you can deliver a great product, be whatever you need to be to inspire website visitors to make that purchase or get on the phone.

It’s a fairly worn cliché, but it does bear repeating here:

Perception is reality.