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Special report: how copywriters turn words into dollars.

Inspired by the diversity of creative thinking that direct marketing copywriters bring to new projects, The Newsletter on Newsletters interviewed four of the industry's leading copywriters to get inside their minds.

Our objective is to help publishers and marketers become more attuned to the way copywriters work--and think. The more informed clients are, the more efficient and successful will be the collaboration with those they hire.

Our copywriters panel consists of:

* Don Hauptman, direct marketing copywriter and creative consultant

* Frank Joseph, publisher, Key Communications Group Inc.

* Barbara Kaplowitz, president of Big Huge Ideas

* Roberta Weiner, an independent copywriter and consultant.

1. What questions do you initially ask of clients? What information and products do you request from them?

Don Hauptman: I like to read two or three years of issues, the premiums, internal documents, press coverage of and by the editor. I'll draw on my own research, too. But I always assume that the editor is the "grand guru," so he must know more than anyone about the subject. It's my job to translate that knowledge into language that's promotable and persuasive and makes the sale.

Years ago I prepared a document for new clients called "The New Product Discussion Agenda." It asks 32 questions. but by far the most important of them is #4: What are the prospect's biggest concerns and problems? The recurring questions, complaints, fears, threats, mistakes, opportunities? What information is needed most intensely? What are the biggest trends, events, hot issues, new developments?

Frank Joseph: I ask the client the following questions:

* Who are the readers?

* What's the competition?

* How long has it been in publication?

* What does it cover?

* What does it do for readers?

* What are the readers' "emotional temperatures?"

* What is going on in the industry- anything hot we can peg the promotion to?

* Who are the editors? Any prestige to sell?

* What are the benefits?

* What are hot topics and stories?

* Do you have an editorial calendar?

* May I see the last 6-12-18 issues?

* May I see a sampling of your lists?

* May I call the subscribers?

* May I talk to the editor?

* Are you contemplating any changes in the near future? What?

* Related question: Should a name change be considered?

* What premium(s) are we offering?

* What other formats are offered (fax, e-mail, web, etc.)?

* Any awards won? What?

* Any special things to sell--columnist, analyst, feature?

* What is the pricing history?

* May I see previous promotions? (I don't usually read the copy so as not to interfere with my own, but I may need to see the offer and how it was handled.)

* Format preference? (#10, self mailer, wrap, etc.)

* Medium preference? (Is this direct mail, e-mail, or what?)

* What is the renewal history?

* What is the new sales history?

* Can we sell anything else simultaneously or cross-sell?

Barbara kaplowitz: I try to garner as much information as possible from a client before I even begin thinking about writing a promotion.

Before we even sign a copywriting contract together, I ask for these:

* 6-12 months' worth of issues

* Previous DM packages with some basic results and list information

* A few descriptive paragraphs on what the client perceives as the focus of the publication

* The makeup of the audience.

I also ask the potential client to answer some simple questions: Why are you working with an outside copywriter, and why in particular did you call me? Usually, when publishers bring in "hired guns," the reasons are similar: dropping response or package fatigue, falling renewal rates, shifting audience, poor editorial quality, a new or more successful competitor. Any information I receive in this pre-screening process is protected by a promise of confidentiality.

I'll spend some time reviewing this material. Then I'll suggest a format and recommend a hard vs. soft offer. These suggestions come in a formal proposal, containing enough information to allow a potential client to understand the type of promotion we're both working towards.

Once a proposal and contract--which spells out deliverables, specifications for the project (whether it's to be camera-ready or turned over to a designer, for instance), payment terms, etc.--are signed, then I really begin seeking out marketing research in earnest. I'll ask for the following (among other material):

* Copies of recent reader surveys

* Any special reports or potential premiums on hand

* Renewal and conversion reports

* Marketing reports

* List research

* Price increase history

* Geographic breakdowns of subs

* Copies of competitive publications (and their promos)

Most clients are happy to provide information--it's to their benefit.

Armed with client-provided material, I then hit the library, the web, and the phone. I'll sometimes call subscribers (names provided by the client), but more often I'm likely to call or e-mail a few prospects to conduct a mini marketing survey. I'll also call relevant trade associations in the market(s) the publication covers ... scan their web sites ... check out any local meetings and industry-related events if possible (including any of my client's programs).

After a clear picture of the true market/prospect emerges for, I'll double check my impressions with my client and sometimes with the editorial staff. It's always beneficial to have the editorial folks involved in the concept stage because they usually know their audience. However, they sometimes don't know their propects--and what will turn them into subscribers--as well. That's where I come in, because the techniques and strategies that turn prospects into subscribers are what lead to successful marketing.

Roberta Weiner: I ask them for at least 12 back issues of the newsletter, other DM, renewal and billing series, special reports, competing publications, related conference brochures, all applicable data. And then the editor's phone number for an interview.

2. What are the first written materials you provide the client? More questions? Outlines of possible approaches? Different versions of a proposed package?

Hauptman: I prepare what I call a "proposal and outline." It contains summaries or synopses of "big ideas"--concepts, themes, platforms, teasers--around which the package might be structured. I've submitted between 5 and 20 such candidates. That way, the client and I can settle on the overall approach before I go too far in research and writing. Some may be infeasible, illegal, etc.--and I'd rather know that beforehand! The document also outlines how the body copy (letter or magalog text) would be written, but in a skeletal outline form. Again, the client can approve or disapprove and we can discuss before I begin writing. Thus, there are less likely to be surprises or problems later.

Joseph: Usually I just submit the finished package. Once in a while I'll do several versions, if I'm not certain that one approach is better than another or if I have a brainstorm.

Kaplowitz: The very first written material provided is the proposal, which reveals the format. The second is a detailed contract, which discusses specifics such as which software program is to be used, number of revisions, definition of rush fees, what charges are in addition to the flat fee, etc.

The third is generally a broad concept explanation, which includes two or three ideas for envelope teasers and the beginnings of a letter. At that time I'll also detail the offer I propose to use. The offer may vary with each of the teaser and letter possibilities.

Once the client agrees to a general concept for the promotion, I'm off and running on a first draft. If we've had good, clear discussions about the concept, there's very little in the first draft that comes as a surprise to my client. That's why I feel it's so important to stress good research and discovery upfront. If my copy's on target, then we do revisions and move on towards a final version.

Weiner: For a renewal series, I ask for an outline of the series with timing, strategy, offer, etc. For a DM package, it depends on the client. Sometimes concepts, which might include rough sketches, and certainly would include theme, package components, offer, etc. Sometimes they just want to proceed directly to copy.

3. How many versions or revisions do you typically go through to arrive at a final product?

Hauptman: Aside from the proposal, I generally write between two and five drafts before everyone is happy. For one especially technical newsletter, I did nine! But the results justified the pain. The package pulled well.

Joseph: I spend a lot of time boning up on the assignment, then thinking about it. I go into a kind of dream state for a little while, or sometimes I'll just write and take notes until it gets my juices flowing. (It usually does.) Then I try out concepts. Usually I hit on something pretty quickly--like after a page of doodling maybe, no more. Often I've thought of something well before this stage, but I don't implement it because I'm looking for something better. That first thought often winds up as the concept, though.

Kaplowitz: When I write, I begin with the reply device. If I can't encapsulate the offer in an easy-to-understand manner on the reply device, I immediately go back to the client and hash out a more clear-cut offer.

I also do a lot of self-editing. That way, the first draft a client sees has been cleaned up and tweaked a number of times already. One of the tricks I use: Read each piece of the promo out loud. If it doesn't flow well out loud, this will never be the "conversation on paper" that I intend most of my promotions to be.

Because I work very visually, many of my clients choose to have me provide them with basic two-color, camera-ready layout as part of our contract. Often, there's more revision on the graphic elements than on the actual copy.

My contract specifies a first draft, two rounds of revisions and a final draft. After that, I'm happy to correct typos and inaccuracies, but it seldom takes more than two rounds of changes to be ready to print.

Weiner: Usually there's the first version, edits, then final. So three versions, though of course it varies from as little as one to as many as five for publishing clients who are also editors.

4. Do you play much of a role in determining the price, the offer, and the premiums of either a launch or a control beater?

Hauptman: I usually don't have much control over the price and offer, which the client has previously determined via hunch or testing. I do come up with premium ideas which I think can strengthen the package and the offer.

Joseph: Yes. I always offer my ideas and I usually have some. Clients accept them probably in more than half the cases. It depends a lot on how sophisticated a marketer the client is; the more sophisticated, the more likely they have already made these decisions on their own.

Kaplowitz: First of all, I always consider my packages tests against the control, not control beaters. Only results can turn a package I write into a new control.

I play a very strong role in determining offer, pricing, premium. One reason that promotions fatigue is overuse of the same offer. I view my role as that of a catalyst for change--but only if change is necessary and appropriate. If an offer legitimately hasn't worked in the past (as opposed to being sabotaged by, for example, mail shop screwups, poor list choices, poor drop timing, etc.), I won't recommend testing it again. However, a blanket "hard (soft, premium, fill-in-the-blank) offers don't work for us" will make me grit my teeth ... and urge the client to understand why such offers haven't worked in the past ... and whether they might with a different implementation.

The hardest projects for me are the ones where a client has set-in-stone ideas about what exactly the premium, offer and price will be. While I'm happy to work under such constraints, I'll sometimes urge the client to do a split test, just to make sure the predetermined idea was, in fact, the right one. I consider this a part of being an outside hire--playing the devil's advocate to get the best results.

Weiner: It depends on the client. Sometimes I play a large role, other times I'm "just" the copywriter. For renewals, I almost always participate in all of the above.

5. How do you charge clients? Flat fee, royalty, a combination of both? If it's a flat fee, what does that include as far as revising copy is concerned?

Hauptman: I work on the basis of a fee that's an advance against a per-package royalty (some say "mailing fee"). Royalties are not payable until the advance is "worked off." This practice is common for consumer newsletters but less known among B2B publishers. Still, I have convinced some of them to do it, because it is the only way I work.

Because it's in my self-interest to keep the package in the mail, I'm always willing and eager to revise without charge other than the ongoing royalties.

Joseph: I do not charge royalties--like to, but most of my clients are B2B and it just doesn't come up. Mostly I charge a flat fee; sometimes I charge by the hour. I don't impose hard-and-fast rules about revisions. I want my clients to be happy, and in most cases they are happy with the first draft or a slight tweak. If a job goes into many revisions, at that point the client is probably unhappy anyway; I have never met a client who insists on revision after revision beyond, say, three revisions, because at that unfortunate point clients usually would rather finish it themselves.

Kaplowitz: For b-to-b packages, I charge a flat fee. For consumer packages, there's a flat fee and royalties for any roll-outs thereafter. Most of my contracts spell out a transfer of copyright ownership as soon as all outstanding fees are paid. I'll also work with clients to handle the production side of a promotion--but that's under a separate contract from the copywriting one.

Weiner: I charge a flat fee.

6. What are your biggest complaints about clients?

Hauptman: I guess, telling me that they want something done one way, then when I do it, suddenly changing their minds (sometimes without even an explanation or apology!).

I'm not opposed to being edited. Indeed, collaboration between the copywriter and the client often helps improve the copy. What drives me crazy, however, is when my copy is changed without my knowledge or consultation. This sometimes occurs in the production stage, well after my final draft is approved, although it could have been dealt with earlier. What can result is copy that is inaccurate, ungrammatical, contradictory, or nonsensical. I don't regard my words as sacred. I'd simply prefer that the client ask me to make the changes. In the event of a disagreement between us, I can usually come up with a compromise or alternative that solves the problem.

Joseph: Clients habitually pay late. For some reason, they think the consultant's needs are less important than those of their other creditors. I think some of them wait until the results of the package are in before they pay. This could not be more unjust. The consultant's only source of income is his billings. (Except in my case, where I have a publication to act as a flywheel, thank God.)

Kaplowitz: Most clients are wonderful to work with. When there's a good fit between clients and copywriter, it's a collaborative effort. All I ask is that clients be open-minded to judiciously testing new ideas ... and also be open to criticism of potential problems with past marketing efforts or with that often-sacred cow, editorial.

My biggest complaint: copywriting by committee. This rarely yields successful, control-beating packages. If you're going to have a team review a draft, then, please, compile everything into one coherent set of changes. Decide internally which conflicting comments should be accepted and which rejected.

There must be one final decision maker for each project--and unfortunately that person is often not an outside copywriter's point of contact. The "real" decision maker needs to be closely involved from the get-go. It's unfair to make an outside copywriter run into the prejudices of that decision maker after the first draft is complete.

Weiner: Complaints?! Never! Actually, I don't have much in the way of complaints. The best advice would be: Be clear in the assignment (this is why I always write a contract which restates the project) . Also, select one person from the company to be the contact and have that person combine all of your comments into one--it's tricky for a copywriter to have to look at a variety of comments and select which ones to take and which conflicting ones to ignore.

Don Huptman, 61 W. 62nd St., New York, NY 10023, 212-246-8229, fax 212-397-1964, donhauptman@compuserve.com

Frank Joseph, 5617 Warwick Place, Chevy Chase, MD 20815, 301-656-0450, fax 301-656-4554, keycom@bellatlantic.net

Barbara Kaplowitz, 7702 Whiterim Terrace, #200, Potomac, MD 20854, 301-983-6634, fax 301-299-2935, CoolCopy@aol.com

Marjorie Weiner, 360 Woodland St., 2nd Fl., Holliston, MA 01746, 508-429-3470, fax 508-429-3471, weinerdrct@aol.com

(C) The Newsletter on Newsletters. Additional copies are available for $20 each.
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Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:May 31, 2002
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