DR copywriters and portfolios: peas and carrots, or water and oil?
Every now and then, a client or prospect asks me if have a portfolio of work on my site.
An important tip for rookie Direct Response copywriters
If you’re a Direct Response (DR) copywriter, you probably shouldn’t have a portfolio on your site either.
Recently, expert copywriter and Sunfish agency boss Andy Maslen outlined his views on why he thinks copywriters shouldn’t have public portfolios in this excellent blog post.
Andy’s not just talking to DR writers like me here, he’s also addressing Creative, in-house and agency writers. So, folks responsible for tv, radio, branding and other exciting but non-DR advertising.
That’s quite a different game to mine – I enjoy discussing this sort of work with the people who do it, but I have no experience in this field, so I’ll leave ‘Creative’ copywriting out of this discussion.
So this advice is really for the benefit of all y’all hungry young DR copywriters – writers who rely on measurable conversions and tracking to decide whether you’ve just “hit a winner”, or “crushed it” etc.
(Man, I hate the term “crushing it”.
How the Marty Funkhauser did this happen?
A little while back it was just over-excited affiliate marketing parents’-basement-dwellers who were incessantly yelling “CRUSH IT! CRUUUUUUSH IIIIT!” like wrestlers on ‘roids.
But now it’s all over the place. Otherwise respectable entrepreneurs are telling you how their muffin recipes, plumbing tips and hand-knitted mittens are all “crushing it”.
Ugh. It’s such an ugly phrase.
And I mean… I can’t think of a single example of when something was crushed that actually made it better. Ok, maybe in cocktails.
Anyway… rant over.)
Why your portfolio may be costing you bizniz
In his post, Andy makes this crucial point:
Portfolios encourage prospects to make aesthetic judgements, instead of commercial ones. You present them with finished pieces, design and all, and, without any commentary, they do what a lay person would do.
They decide whether they “like” your work or not.
But whether they like it is irrelevant.”
It’s true – prospects may be ‘dazzled’ by the piece as a whole, because the design looks right, for instance… but does that really matter? Did anyone buy the product as a result?
So “liking” a piece isn’t really important.
And the flip side of this is that if the design’s fugly, that can reflect poorly on how they perceive your expert copy – which may in reality have been responsible for a boatload of sales.
Hmm. Do you really want that portfolio doing all the talking for you?
Or should you be doing the talking-to-prospects yourself?
You’re a sales copywriter, right? So… shouldn’t you be in your element here, discussing the value of your work with a potential buyer?
I know, it’s tougher selling yourself than someone else’s service.
That’s ok – almost every CW I know admits this, on the quiet.
But you still gotta do it to the best of your ability.
Leaving a few samples out on the porch and crossing your fingers isn’t enough.
Copywriting ‘battle scars’
You should also be wary of sharing samples with folks who contact you out of the blue.
Do your research. Do they seem trustworthy?
For instance, it’s not unusual for good writers to exchange ‘war stories’ –
(Like Brody, Quint and Hooper on the Orca drunkenly pointing at their sailing scars…)
About how they submitted a sample to a response to a request, and then saw their copy mysteriously repeated almost word for word in the prospect’s own marketing, after having heard not another word from them.
This is why it’s also a good idea to sign up to the email list of any marketer that contacts you about working together and asks for samples in their opening email – in addition to it being a smart place to start your research.
A while back I adopted a policy of sharing minimal samples with businesses I don’t know well.
This isn’t meant to be precious about “my lovely words”…
(Although they are lovely, apart from the word “crushing”, used above of course.)
And it’s not meant to disrespect anyone, or to turn an honest search for the right copywriter into a royal PITA.
In fact, it’s often out of respect for my existing clients that I don’t share certain project work or data with competitors, for obvious reasons.
Sometimes I’m the guy a client brings in “through the back door” to breathe life into a page that’s struggling to convert, and we agree not to share details publicly.
Agencies often work like this too, and although I’m super-picky about working with agencies these days – and about getting case studies from collaborations – it’s sometimes worthwhile to sign that NDA and just enjoy doing good work and getting paid.
How to display your copywriting feathers the right way
So, if a prospect isn’t persuaded of your suitability by the content on your blog – or your testimonials, or case studies, or raving referrals – can you still show them samples?
Well… kinda. Here’s what I do:
Send them samples from different markets.
This is actually a really good way to prove your adaptability and breadth of experience to a potential client.
They get a sense of your talents in action, but without the “Ah, that angle. I’ve seen that done before… I don’t want to go that way” feeling they may get when reviewing work in their own market.
When it comes to long-form copy, like sales letters or VSL scripts, I’ll only share the opening couple of pages.
(I know, what a diva!)
But honestly, I’d be amazed if any busy marketer or entrepreneur ever read a sales letter all the way through for a product they weren’t interested in, just to assess the quality of the writing.
Of course, we CWs are a different breed – we spend crucial hours hunkered down over controls and swipe files, like the nerds we are ; )
So remember, up n’ comers of Direct Response:
There are better ways to grease the wheels of a potential DR project than simply leaving someone alone in a virtual room wallpapered with your many triumphs in finished form.
Because that’s what happens when prospects land on an online portfolio link.
It’s in your client’s interest after all, that they’re not misled into missing out on your talents because they saw your portfolio without any context or explanation – and decided “this isn’t the right person for the job” because they couldn’t find a finished piece that matched what they want.
How could they, when every project is unique, with its own set of important ever-changing variables?
It’s up to you as a CW to manage this process, not just leave a portfolio lying around for anyone to browse through and risk drawing the wrong conclusions from.
It takes longer this way – both for you, and the client – but that’s how it should be.
This process is important. It shouldn’t be rushed.
The more engaged you are with this part of the gig, the better service you’re providing.
And let’s face it:
Any prospect who doesn’t want to invest time into this process is waving a red flag at you – and you should really pay attention, before it’s too late.