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Small Business Marketing
Nick Usborne

How to Find and Work with Good Copywriters

Nick UsborneGood copywriting is an important part of marketing, but it is a challenge for many local small business owners.

If they themselves aren’t writers, it can sometimes be difficult for them to work effectively with writers to get their message across.  Finding good copywriters who have marketing experience and know what questions to ask a business owner can also be challenging.

To address those challenges, I invited copywriting expert Nick Usborne to come on my podcast.  Nick is an online copywriter and trainer who wrote his first website in 1995. When his book, Net Words, was published by McGraw-Hill in 2002, it was one of the very first to address the new profession of writing for the web. After writing web copy for nearly two decades, Nick began teaching companies and organizations how to write better websites.

A few years later, he began converting his corporate training materials into courses and programs for freelance writers and copywriters, including his most recent course on conversational copywriting.

In my interview with Nick, we cover the following topics:

  • Where to look for good copywriters
  • What questions to ask when interviewing copywriters
  • How to work effectively with copywriters
  • What you should (and should not) expect from a copywriter

We also discuss why his conversational approach to copywriting works so well, and how you can get your copywriter to use it.

Use the player below to listen to the episode, or scroll down for a transcript of my interview with Nick.  You can also download his free guide to conversational copywriting, which comes with three instructional videos to help you get started.

Kevin Jordan:                     Nick, welcome to the podcast.

Nick Usborne:                   Thank you, Kevin. Thanks for inviting me.

Kevin Jordan:                     So to get started, I just want to talk a little bit about conversational copywriting, since that’s what you’re all about. That can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so I want to give you the chance to give us your definition and explain what exactly that means to you.

Nick Usborne:                   Okay. So, I’ve been a copywriter for, next year is my 40th anniversary, so I’ve been a copywriter writing sales copy for a long time. There are kind of different types of sales copy. You might get something through your letterbox or in your email inbox that is like really hard selling. You know, the push push shove shove, and words in bold and capital letters, and exclamation marks, and buy now, and offer expires at midnight, all that stuff. So that’s kind of hard charging, traditional direct response, sales copywriting. Then you get another kind of weird kind of copy, which is the corporate copy, where it’s all kind of long words and long sentences, and you have to really scratch your head trying to figure out what the heck they’re trying to say to you.

Nick Usborne:                   Somewhere in between or as a third category is what I call conversational copywriting. That is copy that just feels a lot more natural. If I was trying to sell you something, it’s as if you and I were sitting across the kitchen table and I were talking to you. I was trying to sell you. I want to sell you on something, but if you’re actually there in front of me, you know, two people at a table, I’m not going to talk to you in corporate speak with long words and long sentences, and I’m not going to go crazy with offer expires at midnight. It would just sound weird, and we’d both feel uncomfortable.

Nick Usborne:                   So, sure I can be super enthusiastic about what I’m selling, but I’m going to be persuasive in a much more natural, everyday language, conversational tone. And that’s what I advocate, that’s what I recommend, based on my decades of experiences, is that I think that’s the way to go. It’s how people, the people you’re selling are far more likely to be receptive to that, to open up to that kind of natural. Hey, it just feels more honest. It’s more transparent. It’s just one person to another. It’s like you’re getting rid of all that kind of marketing hype and BS, and you’re just talking one person to another. So that’s how I’ve always written my sales copy. And that’s what I teach now to businesses and to other copywriters.

Kevin Jordan:                     Could you maybe give us a specific example, or maybe not at a very specific example, but just something for local service based business owners. Say maybe an accountant, some copy on the homepage of a website for a CPA, or maybe a general contractor or something like that? How would this conversational approach to copywriting applied to some copy on the home page?

Nick Usborne:                   One simple thing is, instead of making statements, ask questions. If I want a website for a local accountant, I might say, “Are you looking for ways to reduce your taxes?” Super simple questions, super simple language, nothing fancy, and no accountant talk. Or, it depends on my audience, maybe I’ve got a kind of wealthy audience, maybe I’ve got a 1% audience. Maybe I’ll ask you a question like, “Hey, are you concerned about your legacy,” or “How are you going to pass your wealth on to your kids?” So I’m just going to, a great way to be conversational is to ask questions rather than make sales statements. That’s a super simple trick.

Kevin Jordan:                     Yup. I love that approach because, not just because it’s conversational and full of less formal and force, but when people type things into search engines, they’re basically asking questions. So if your copy on your site has questions and answers, that actually helps a lot with SEO in some cases.

Nick Usborne:                   So actually just touching on that, what I would do is, before I wrote that headline, I might have in mind a question. But I actually do a little bit of research as if I were doing SEO research, to find out what questions people are asking, I might get a discussion list, I might go all over the place to get a sense of what are the top three questions people ask when they’re thinking about accountants, when they’re thinking about their taxes? So again, rather than me just making stuff up, I would try to find a question that a ton of people already asked.

Nick Usborne:                   In psychology, this is called mirroring, where I mirror something back to you. Thousands of people have this question, “How can I reduce my taxes?” So I just say, “Would you like to find out how to reduce your taxes?” I’m just throwing your question back at you. And because it’s already your question, you think, oh man, this accountant really gets me. He understands what’s top of my mind. I want to work with this guy.

Kevin Jordan:                     Absolutely. Now I do want to put out there, and I’m sure you’d agree, but just to clarify something you said, I don’t want people to walk away with the impression that you don’t need strong calls to action.

Nick Usborne:                   Right.

Kevin Jordan:                     Even on the homepage of your site, you definitely tell people where to go, what to do to get-

Nick Usborne:                   Absolutely. That’s the opening. I’m going to ask you a question to draw you in. And then, as an accountant, I might say, “Hey, if paying too much tax is a concern of yours, then download my free guide. Give me your name and email address.” So absolutely, every page on every website, you should be asking for something, even if it’s like click through. If somebody goes to a page in a website and does nothing, if they just leave, then you’ve failed, you lost.

Kevin Jordan:                     Right, yeah. And the same with the marketing offers. You definitely don’t want to have pushy offers and things like that. But I don’t want people to think that it’s not important to have special offers that are strategic, and in some cases might be a limited time only.

Nick Usborne:                   Yeah, and you’re right, and I’m glad you raised it to help clarify. So yeah, I use something like an open ended question, or I could use language like, “Imagine if.” What I’m trying to do is, rather than just shouting at someone, I’m trying to engage their minds. So they have a kind of, whether it’s through a question, or language like imagine if something or other. “Imagine if you had an extra $5,000 a year to play with. Think of the vacation.” So I’ll engage their imagination. That’s how I draw them in. But yeah, once you’ve drawn them in, absolutely. You’ve got to think of a way to get them to pick up the phone, or to sign up for something, or download something.

Nick Usborne:                   And in terms of urgency, like to get stuff, if it’s accounting and if it’s coming up to the end of the tax year, then yeah, you’ve got to hurry if you want to save that $5,000 a year. You’ve got to hurry because your taxes are due within a couple of months. I was helping a copywriter write an email for a lawn care company, and this lawn care company wanted to basically come out and put your garden to bed. You know, rake up the leaves, mulch the beds and things like that so that your garden was ready for the winter.

Nick Usborne:                   And in fact, the idea there was he was offering this free service to come and put your garden to bed, but what he actually wants to do is, after he had done that, he wanted to sit down with the homeowner to sign him up for the contract for next year. So there was a free offer, we’ll put your garden to bed for free. And we were trying to think, what’s the urgency? How can we get people to pick up the phone to make an appointment? And the urgency there was, you know what, the first hard frost is coming. We can’t do this stuff after then, so if you want us to put your garden to bed for free, please call now before the first hard frost.

Kevin Jordan:                     Absolutely. I think that’s a great example because it’s a good segue into a couple of the next things I want to talk about in terms of how to work with copywriters. The example you gave was you helping a copywriter write for a local business.

Nick Usborne:                   Correct.

Kevin Jordan:                     I think that’s really the relationship we’re talking about here. And that’s the way that I’d recommend businesses approach this, it’s not, how can I take time away from running my business, managing my employees, doing all the other things I need to do as a business owner to learn this? I think what you need to learn is, how can I work with the person that I hire to do this? Whether it’s someone in-house or a freelancer, or whatever. I’d like to kind of shift to that now and, maybe first of all, speak to local business owners about how they can go about hiring good copywriters, in terms of finding them, what to look for, what questions to ask to determine if someone’s going to be a good fit, and that kind of thing.

Nick Usborne:                   Okay. So it’s like, I think when you hire a copywriter, it’s not like hiring somebody to cut your grass. As long as they cut the grass, fine, it doesn’t matter. It’s much more like a kind of personal relationship. You’ve got to get on with that person. So there are all kinds of different ways to look for and find copywriters online. You can go to a site like freelancer.com or upwork.com, and there are tens of thousands of copywriters all over the world, and you can find people. Yeah, it takes a bit of time to find the right person. If you want to work with someone locally that you can meet over coffee or whatever, then whatever town or city you’re in, just go to Google and type in “freelance copywriter Portland” or “freelance copywriter Sarasota” or Calgary, or wherever you are.

Nick Usborne:                   There are copywriters all over, there are thousands of freelance copywriters, most of them working from home. So yeah, you get on the trail and try to find people. And whether it’s a local person over coffee, or it’s someone you get through one of these online boards, you’ve got to do some back and forth. This needs to be a close trust based relationship. You need this person to truly understand your business, and your customers, and the services or products that you sell. I have a lot of experience in this from the client side and the copywriter side, and I think the mistake a lot of companies think is, it’s like I’m hiring someone to service my car. No, it’s not.

Nick Usborne:                   It needs to be a much, much deeper relationship than that. What you’re looking for in a copywriter is actually someone who is clearly excited to help you, who clearly likes your business and really wants to help you succeed. That’s the kind of relationship you’re looking for. One guy may be 10 bucks an hour more than the other, but if the more expensive person is like, you can just tell that they’re really into what you’re trying to achieve, and they’re going to put more of themselves into it, I’d definitely go for that guy or that girl. It really is a kind of 50/50 business.

Kevin Jordan:                     Yeah. It’s just like anything else, you are going to get what you pay for. I use a variety of copywriters to do a lot of the fulfillment for my clients, and I’ve worked with some, the cheap ones and I’ve worked with the expensive ones. I can tell you from experience when you work with the low dollar copywriters, you’re probably going to have to do a lot of rewriting, maybe a lot of editing even to correct for basic spelling and grammar stuff in some situations.

Nick Usborne:                   And the worst thing is, like you were saying, a lot of small business people, they’re busy running their small business. They don’t have time to study what is good copywriting or what’s bad copywriting. So the biggest danger is you hire someone who is not very good and you don’t know they’re not very good. So you can’t go in and improve or edit or think, hey, I should find someone else, because this is not your thing. Your thing is whatever your profession, whatever your trade is. Why should you understand copywriting? That’s what you hire people for. But maybe, if it’s not you, then maybe you find a friend or a colleague who feels confident that they can recognize good copywriting when they see it.

Kevin Jordan:                     Yeah. You don’t have to know how to do it, but you have to know enough about it to know what you’re getting and the quality of what you’re getting.

Nick Usborne:                   I don’t know how much time you want to spend on this, but I’ve got some tips for your listeners, for small companies on how to get the most out of a copywriter.

Kevin Jordan:                     Yes. That actually was going to be my next question. So let’s move right into that.

Nick Usborne:                   All right. So the thing is, copywriters can’t magically by osmosis understand and know what you want. You’ve really got to give them a brief. And you should write that briefing out, because it’ll help you as well. I’ve actually written down stuff here so I don’t forget what I meant to say, so I’m going to go through this. You’ve got to tell them what it is you’re trying to achieve. I don’t care whether it’s a door hanger, or an email campaign, or a webpage, or whatever it is, you’ve got to be really clear with the copywriter, here’s the outcome I’m looking for. I want people to pick up this, call this number. That’s what I want. That is the entire purpose of this piece, is to get people to call this number by such and such a date.

Nick Usborne:                   Or, the outcome I’m looking for is, I want people to download this guide. Whatever it is, and have whatever you’re doing, have one outcome. Don’t say, oh, well, let’s have three outcomes. No, there’s one thing you want people to do, so let the copywriter know that. Let them know what it is you want them to create, whether it’s a brochure, or an email, or an e-newsletter, or a webpage. Okay, here’s the outcome and here is the medium we’re going to use now. This should be a conversation too. Maybe an experienced copywriter would say, “Hey, that’s cool. Have you thought about also doing X?” So think about that, because a good copywriter isn’t just a word person, they’re a marketing person too.

Kevin Jordan:                     So I would say, if they’re a good copywriter, they’re also the marketing person. I think that, going kind of back to the last question, what should you look for in a good copywriter? I would say right off the bat, you need someone with marketing knowledge and experience and training as a marketer and not just a writer.

Nick Usborne:                   Right. And I talk about this, because I train copywriters as well. I’ve always said that for myself, even before I was a copywriter, I’ve always been fascinated by business. I’ve always been a fan of business and what makes it tick and what makes it work. And yeah, that really, really helps as a copywriter, is to have that kind of interest and fascination. So next thing you’ve got to do is, whatever your product or service, educate the copywriter. Give them all the information they need so that they know your product or service, not as well as you do because they never will, but give them a tiny bit more information than you think they might need.

Nick Usborne:                   Because what they’re going to do is, they’re going to dig through all that information. And they may find something in there that, oh, hey, there’s a fascinating hook. We could really use that as a hook to get people’s attention. And it may not be something that you would think is obvious, so don’t just give them the bare minimum information. Give them that plus a whole bunch more, because sometimes the best ideas for a promotion come out of that extra information, the stuff you didn’t immediately expect.

Kevin Jordan:                     I want to let you finish your list, but something you said there triggered a thought in my head, and maybe you can speak to this. Have you ever taught copywriters, or used yourself, an interview process in terms of recording an interview with a subject, say a business owner, who is trying to get these thoughts across, but not being a good copywriter, maybe is having trouble assembling that a brief or some type of document. Have you just recorded an interview with them to kind of let them do a stream of consciousness type of process, and then use the transcript of that interview?

Nick Usborne:                   I haven’t but that’s a good idea. That’s a good idea. I should do, that’s a great idea. Maybe we can do that sometime. Maybe you can be a business person, I’ll be the copywriter, and we’ll actually go through what that conversation would sound like.

Kevin Jordan:                     I’ve used it several times, and I’ve found it to be very effective, especially for business owners who are having a hard time describing what it is they actually really want. Sometimes they know they want more customers, but they don’t know that exact call to action or that exact process by which they’re going to get it. But when they start talking about it, it just kind of comes out.

Nick Usborne:                   And this circles us back to what you were talking about earlier, about the copywriter/marketer. If you know exactly what you want to do as a business person, and you just need stuff written, then you can probably just hire a copywriter. If you think, you know what, I don’t even get the whole marketing thing truly, honestly. I’m a cabinet maker, or I’m an accountant, or whatever, but marketing, I just don’t really know that. So be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Like if you think your marketing is, you’re good to go with the marketing, then you just need sales copy. If you think, hey, I’m good at what I do, but I’m not good at copywriting and I don’t think I’m very good at marketing either, then you to hire someone a little bit different and probably someone a bit more experienced.

Kevin Jordan:                     Exactly.

Nick Usborne:                   The next thing in briefing your copywriter, or your copywriter/marketer, and this is in some sense the most important thing. Describe to them your audience, your buyers, your prospects, your customers, because they need to be intimately aware of who they’re writing to. Sometimes companies think, and this isn’t just small companies, I’ve worked with medium sized companies that fall into this trap of, okay, I want to copywriter to express really well what I want to say about my business, which is legitimate, it’s okay. But in a sense, it really misses the point, because your prospective customer, they don’t really care about your business. They don’t really care about what you think about your business, or what you have to say about your business.

Nick Usborne:                   What they care about is whether your business can serve their need or their want. So a good copywriter, if they don’t ask and they should, but if they don’t, be sure to give them a ton of information and as many insights as you can into your customer. Who’s your customer, what age, what sex, where do they live, how much money do they have, what kind of car do they drive? And also dig deeper into the emotions. So let’s say you’re doing landscape work or lawn care. You’ll soon figure out that different people have different motivations when they hire you. Somebody just wants their back yard to look nice, because they’ve got young kids and they want and it clean and safe for their kids.

Nick Usborne:                   Another person wants their garden to look nice as a status thing, they want to look better than the neighbors. That’s a whole different reason they hired you. So as a business owner, you should stop and think about why, just be aware, why are people hiring me? And then you think, wow, you know what, my best customers are the people who are totally hung up on status in terms of their garden. They want to look better than the neighbors. So you’re going to speak to that. Then when you talk to the copywriter, you say, “Okay, here’s our service, here’s what we do, here are the locations we serve. And let me tell you about our ideal customer.”

Kevin Jordan:                     Yep. I think that brings up one of the next points I was going to make, which is what you should not expect your copywriter to do for you. I think that’s the number one thing that you should not expect your copywriter to do for you, is create your marketing strategy for you in terms of figuring out who your ideal customer is. And also figuring out your main selling point, unique selling proposition, versus your competition. That’s up for you to tell them.

Nick Usborne:                   And again, the more experienced copywriter, if they’re not hearing this from you, will prompt you. They’ll say, “Hey, I need to ask you for some additional insights and information here.” A younger, less experienced copywriter might not, and they’ll just run with what you say. But always consider this a high value relationship that you have with a freelance copywriter. Because what they do for you, again, whether it’s a door hanger, a brochure, a website, email, whatever, can have a huge impact. Your sales copy, the words you use, can have a huge impact on your business. This is a very important relationship. So don’t skimp on the conversation, don’t skimp on the information you share.

Nick Usborne:                   And one of the things, I think, when you are looking for a copywriter is, yes, look for some experience. Look for some experience in your kind of business is ideal. Have you worked for companies like mine before? Do you have experience in this industry? Because that can really shorten the learning curve and get you comfortable with that person a lot faster. But yeah, just give them tons and tons of information, and provide time for the process. Don’t hire someone and say, “Oh look, I’ve got to get this brochure done, and I need the copy by the weekend.” That doesn’t give the writer a chance to do a good job. It doesn’t give you the chance to have conversations with that copywriter.

Nick Usborne:                   You should be going back and forth. You provide the brief. They come back with questions asking for clarification. Allow time for conversation so that they can ask. “Hang on, what is it your customers, what’s the real trigger here? What’s the emotional trigger? Yeah, I know they want their accounts done, but what is it? Are they scared that they might get an audit? Or are they greedy and they want to save more, what is it actually drives your customers?” All those kinds of conversations, they may sound a little bit unnecessary, but they’re not. Ultimately the best copy is copy that does appeal to the emotions of the reader. I don’t care whether it’s an accountant, or lawn care, or having my house painted, or whatever.

Nick Usborne:                   The ultimate driver, every purchase decision is more emotional than it is rational, and copy needs to reflect that. So a copywriter is not somebody, he’s not like a window cleaner. It’s not just, yes, I’ll come and do that job. There’s got to be more of a conversation. You’ve got to get into more of a relationship. You’ve got to find someone who’s going to be enthusiastic about helping you. So yeah, it’s a bit of work, but if you can find, if you put in the time upfront, invest the time, and maybe interview five different copywriters until you find the one that you think, hey, I feel comfortable with this person. It’s well worth the investment, because it can have a huge impact on your business, and that relationship can last for years.

Kevin Jordan:                     Absolutely. And I want to also encourage business owners, not just to think about hiring a good copywriter as an investment, but maybe training that person a little bit. I think that’s where someone like you can really help out in the course that you have. Let’s say you hire maybe someone right out of college, a college marketing course, or even an intern, or maybe someone locally that might not have worked in as many different types of situations.

Kevin Jordan:                     Training that person up to the standards that you want and the specific type of copywriting that you’re looking for can be a great way to take that lower dollar value person, and turn them into someone who’s going to give you a really good product. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the training opportunities that you have available, and even other opportunities that a business-

Nick Usborne:                   Sure. So I have a website called conversationalcopywriting.com. I’ve put together a page, it’s conversationalcopywriting.com/minute, just for you guys. And there’s a couple of things, there’s a download there. What I do is easy. You can go there, or you can send you a copy. Actually, there are two things. I think anyone, there’s a free PDF download that I offer, and there just five tips there on how to make your writing more conversational. That will apply to anything you do, any kind of writing you do for business, super simple. You don’t need to be a fancy copywriter to get value from that download. I think any business owner can get value from that.

Nick Usborne:                   Beyond that, there’s some free instructional videos, which again, is probably better suited to a copywriter you might hire. And then there’s the full course. But there’s a bunch of free stuff you can get on the site, you don’t have to invest in the course. But you might want to encourage, like Kevin is saying, you might want to encourage your copywriters to get this kind of training. Because I think this conversational approach, this across the coffee table approach, is ideal for any kind of small local business. Honestly, I’m thinking of in fact the times I have been sold across my own kitchen table.

Nick Usborne:                   And it’s been with roofers, house painters, people working in my yard, local people, that the sale tends to actually be closed over my kitchen table. People come by, and we talk face-to-face. So I think this approach, the conversational approach, it is ideally suited to local smaller businesses. And yeah, grab that free PDF for yourself. I think that’ll help with everything you do in terms of writing and communicating about your business. And if you’re hiring a copywriter, encourage them to dig in and maybe take that course, because it’ll give them the skills that a business like yours really needs when it comes to promoting yourself.

Kevin Jordan:                     Absolutely, and that link again is conversationalcopywriting.com/minute. We’ll put that link in the show notes for this episode so you can just go to the page on my site for the podcast. Go to this episode and find a link there as well. Nick, thank you so much for coming on the show and telling us about the conversational copywriting approach. I think the recommendations you gave for hiring and working with good copywriters were spot on, and I can say that because I’m coming at it from the perspective of the middleman who has to communicate between the business owner and the copywriter. So I’m doing a little bit from both sides, and I think if people follow the recommendations, they’re going to get a much, much better product.

Nick Usborne:                   Good. I’m glad that was helpful. It’s been great, because I love, I’ve worked with large companies, medium sized companies, and small companies. Small companies are always my favorite. I love the courage of small business, you know, I love the fact that people put out there, the creation of small business. I’ve always been such a fan of that, and I see that most in small business, so I’ve always been super happy to help smaller companies.

Kevin Jordan:                     Absolutely, I feel the same way myself. So thanks again, and I encourage people to go check out those resources you’ve provided and put them to use to get better results from their copywriters.

Nick Usborne:                   Okay. Thank you very much.