Why Selling Writing Doesn’t Get Results

Why Selling Writing Doesn't Get Results

Selling writing is hard.

It isn’t that there’s too much competition or the market is saturated or clients aren’t buying or that your skills suck. There isn’t, it isn’t, they are, and they might, but that’s beside the point.

The point is that selling writing is hard because your clients don’t really want to buy words.

They want to buy results.

Now, you can’t sell results. On-demand result production is way outside your realm of ability. Why? Because no one – NO ONE – can get results out of words until the right readers see them.

Here’s the problem, though: Many clients won’t let your words get those eyes.

You see, most clients hire writers thinking they’re buying writing that gets results. So, results are what they pay for. And on delivery date, what when they get a document full of little black words on a white background…

That doesn’t look like results.

So clients are often disappointed. They thought something would happen when they opened that document. They expected an experience – but what they got was pretty boring. And they’re disappointed. They’re disillusioned. They thought they’d get jazzed and excited and hear angels sing.

Angels don’t sing until you hear the ka-ching.

Here’s what happens: Some clients start wondering what they paid all this money for. They might think they wasted it. You know they didn’t waste their money, because you know they’re going to make money…

As soon as they put your words up on the web.

But when clients aren’t feeling the music, they won’t do that. They’re still back there waiting for the angel show and thinking something’s wrong.

Very often, they think that something wrong is you.

They ask you to revise the work. Or they tweak it themselves. Or they ask for their money back. (Problem is, you can’t really refund tickets on a show that hasn’t happened yet.) They can’t tell the difference between okay writing and awesome writing.

All they see are words.  Not results. (And definitely no angels.)

There’s a huge disconnect between writers and clients. You both have very different expectations of what’s going down when you’re hired. You think they want killer web copy.

They think you’re going to change their life.

Or make their problems go away. Take away their worries. Pull them out of the red. Write words that charm their heart. Make them fall in love with their own business all over again.

But you weren’t hired to charm them. You’re not their inspiration. You can’t make them fall in love. You’re their writer, and you were hired to write words that convert prospects into customers.

Ahhh, conversion. That’s the key. That’s what you need. Conversion is the ultimate test, the measure and proof of your work. No conversion? No good. Lots of conversion? Lots of good.

How does your client get conversion? When do results happen? When your words get up on the ‘net, which is why you need your clients to be committed to the plan.

Many aren’t, though. Commitments are tough.

Sometimes even tougher than making angels sing.

Sometimes people want to lose a few pounds. They want a slimmer, trimmer body that doesn’t give them grief – but getting trim after years of packing it on isn’t easy.

First they have to decide they really want to trim down in the first place. Then they have to dedicate themselves to an exercise plan. Last, they have to put that plan into motion and stick with it.

They have to commit.

Now, no one sees results on day one. They might not see results on day two or three, either. Maybe not even after a week. And that’s when some people get discouraged.

So they give up. Quit. They don’t even give their slim-down plan a chance. “This isn’t working,” they mutter. “Forget it.”

And they go back to whatever they were doing before.

Kind of like what happens in the web writing industry.

People need to have faith that sticking with the plan gets results. And that’s the other thing about the disconnect between copywriters and clients. You already know your copy gets results. You have history, past clients and tangible proof.

Your clients? They’re taking a leap of faith.

Some of those clients know that web copy is just a marketing tool. They know it can’t produce results out of sheer existence. It doesn’t make angels sing. It’s web copy. It needs to get on the web where prospects can read it.

Most people? That’s not how it goes down. They can’t wait for delivery, they’re excited to read, they open the document with shining eyes, they brace for exalted, joyful chorus and…

They stare at words. Crickets chirp. Where are the results?

You aren’t selling results. You’re selling writing.

It’s difficult to sell writing because you can’t produce those immediate, tangible results clients expect. All you can give them are the tools that create results: your words.

The rest is up to them.

My friend Peter Shallard knows this well. He doesn’t sell results to his clients. He can’t produce them. Results are up to his clients.

Peter sells the tools, the education and knowledge his clients need to create results. The clients? They need to commit, believe in his tools and stick to the plan so they can see results.

Just like that dieter needs to stick to his plan.

So if Peter’s clients expect overnight miracles or instant, life-changing experiences, they may be disappointed. And if they look at a technique and don’t believe in it, don’t like it, or decide not to try it, then it has no chance of success.

Nothing changes. No results.

Kind of example like writing that never makes it to the web.

So how do you get your clients to commit?

Web copy needs to get on the web so it can do its job. Your clients need to give it a chance, just like Peter’s clients need to give his tools a chance. They need to stick with it, commit to the plan and believe results will happen.

How does Peter get his clients to commit when he can’t produce results? Here’s how – and here’s how you can do the same for your clients:

He guarantees his services and offers a full refund: “There’s no risk. I guarantee my services, because your satisfaction and comfort is important to me. If you feel that you aren’t getting value from our consultations and haven’t received advice that helps you move towards your goals, I’ll refund your current month’s payment in full.”

He lets people test his services free of charge: “If you’d like to go for a test drive before selecting a more complete and rewarding package geared towards larger results, then my Next Step Challenge is the perfect option for you. Pick one question (related to business; I haven’t discovered the meaning of life yet) that you’d like help with, and I’ll provide you with a free report that tells you where you’re at now, and why… plus some tips and tricks to get away from there and onto better things.”

He sells based on desired results, not on tangible output: “Several of my clients achieve phenomenal insight and understanding within just one or two sessions. Some move on quickly and don’t need me anymore – which is the point, here. I’m just a facilitator to help you get unstuck and progressing closer to your goals.”

He’s clear and specific about what he provides his clients: “I learn about the goals you have, your frustrations about not being able to reach them, and the obstacles in your way right now. Then I help you understand why this is all happening – but more importantly, how to reduce, eliminate and prevent these issues from holding you back.”

He points out that results depend on the client: “It really all depends on you, and how BIG you’re prepared to think. Some clients are so energized about reaching goals that they’re off getting results almost before they even begin. Some clients require a few back-and-forth consultations, and others prefer to consult for a month or two to be sure they’re solid and ready to take on the world.”

He clarifies his ideal client and who should work with him: “People who enjoy working with me are those that don’t like to waste time, who are progress-focused, and who feel determined to get the tools they need so they can apply them to their business or career and see results.”

If you want to sell words to your clients, they need to understand that results aren’t within your control, that your words need a chance to be seen, and that angels don’t sing until the show’s on.

So don’t sell results. Sell a marketing tool that can be used create results.

Make sure you tell this to your clients too. Make sure they understand what they’re buying. Make sure they’re clear on what they have to do every step of the way. Make sure they know to give the plan a chance.

And make sure your clients commit, so they can put your words on the web and produce the results they want.

Oh, and hear those angels sing.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. “I can forge the sword but it’s up to you to swing it” …. spoke the Master Blacksmith unto the Shining Knight.

  2. Hey there, dont you think blogging is all about marketing in way selling… People use blogs to showcase their skills and sell.

  3. In Internet marketing, we call the above ‘buying the dream’. IE, folks get so hyped up upon when they can do with the results (additional income) that they fail to see what’s required to achieve it (work work work!).

    This snippet is sheer gold: “If you want to sell words to your clients, they need to understand that results aren’t within YOUR control.” Compelling customers to buy into that notion is critical for customer satisfaction, no matter what their personal outcome is…taking ownership of one’s actions is key.

    All too often online, we see that point glossed over entirely. Thanks for bringing it out into the open.

    • I checked with several other writers before penning this post, and they all agreed the situation occurs. Most of them expressed a lot of regret that their clients couldn’t commit to that single action of *trying*.

  4. “Angels don’t sing until you hear the ka-ching.” What a great one-liner. Definitely top brass copy.

    Have you heard the Hubspot chorus sing their Christmas Carol parodys? You should submit this one.

    I can hear the marketing chorus now: “Hark the Wall Street bells all ring, Angels don’t sing ’til you hear the ka-ching.”

  5. Rocking post here, James. Doesn’t it just gut you when a client starts to hack into your copy? After a one day run ffs?

    • I don’t mind revisions and changes. It’s when you realize the client didn’t really want to buy writing… they were disheartened by their current business and wanted words that would inspire them to rock it out again.

      But no writer can do that – you have to find that in yourself.

  6. Its true that content don’t turn into sales, but it does let your readers know you have great content and you’re looking out for their needs.

    “TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

  7. @James: And getting clients to commit to copy editing is like making angels sing Metallica. 😉

  8. I am somewhat on the fence about this post. I am new to blog writing but am a long-time PR writer. Selling PR is tough as well — it’s hard to sell “results” and predict who will pick up a story and what kind of results you’ll get. To me, the keys are:

    1) Managing expectations
    2) Setting reasonable goals based on experience (e.g., with a story like X, I think we can get XX impressions in these types of publications)

    However, in Web writing as in PR, I think you ARE selling results, like it or not. Just like a resume should say, “I grew sales XX percent” rather than “I’m a great salesperson.” In PR, we give clients reports of hits/impressions/etc. Right now I am trying to build up my cache of case studies that show how good writing and SEO can up your Web site traffic.

    I think what Peter Shallard does is great though — it does manage clients’ expectations, especially the part where they need to do work. Writing clients need to do work too, often more than they think they will. Keeping clients informed every step of the way, as you say, is critical.

    I also try to gently manage expectations when clients start to edit my work too much. For example, if I think something needs a strong hook to get noticed, and the client waters it down, I will tell them not to expect as much results.

    • Managing expectations is key, but what I find interesting about your comment is that you showed how a client has to commit to reach his goals:

      “With a story like X, I think we can get XX impressions in these types of publications.”

      You’re demonstrating (implied) that the client has to actually send the story to that publication to get the impressions.

      And that’s the thing: Most writers don’t imply or explain that to get X sales, visits, hits, etc, clients have to do Y first.

  9. James, fanastic post here- creepy photo though, just sayin’.

    Seriously, I believe that this is a goldmine of “what to do” and how to do it.


  10. I think that writers should not promise more than what they can deliver and your tips here make perfect sense. Clients sometimes think that writers are also social media marketers or optimizers. Unless you’re super gifted with all these three and that you sell these services, I’d say you tell your client upfront what you will specialize on and that he/she needs to hire extra help to keep his business on top of the World Wide Web.

    • It’s *very* common for clients to believe writers do more than just write. SEO, more traffic, social media, increased hits, etc. Some is related to our work, yes… but typically not part of our work, specifically.

      No one’s fault, really – we writers are all a misunderstood bunch and if we start to get really clear about what we actually do, we’ll just shatter that mysterious aura we have about us. 😉

  11. Interesting perspective. I never really thought about how some products/services aren’t about providing results so much as they are about providing tools.

    To some degree customers and clients need to know what to do with your product so that it does what they want it to do. You could sell the best article in the world, but if no one can market it then it won’t bring in any business.

    Maybe part of selling your writing is also selling how to market it effectively?

    And yes, you are absolutely right about writing and conversion.

    In my opinion all good writing is some kind of conversation, even story-telling and fiction.

    Looking forward to reading more from this site soon,

    • Good to have you as a new face on the site! I went to subscribe to your post updates, but you don’t have email updates set up, it seems (cries!).

      I think that’s a good part of the disconnect. Writers know what needs to be done with the product, but very often, they don’t make that clear to clients *before* they buy. Telling them on delivery is no good… the clients are waiting for those angels and not really listening.

      So it’s client education, mostly… just at the perfect time.

  12. This is really, really interesting, and it ties into something I’ve been flirting with on my website.

    Essentially, should I be making the client fill out the web copy questionnaire before or after I’ve hooked them into making a deposit?

    Getting that deposit quicker by making it easier to invest by click a button hopefully means that there will be less hesitation and less time for them to say, “Ehhh…maybe not.” There’s more emotional investment too if you’ve already spent the money, meaning they may take the questionnaire more seriously.

    On the other hand, do I want to encourage impulse buyers who have the same impressions of “me spend money = me get desired thing (results)” that you’re talking about? By using the questionnaire before they make the deposit, they have to take the time to fill it out and may also mean that they take it seriously. Or they might just fill out one or two boxes to just get to the quote already.

    Anyways! Just interesting timing on this. Great post.

    • Maybe I can help with that, Paige, as we’ve tried both here over the years.

      Many people are curious and want to see the questionnaire, so if you tell them one is coming, they usually want to see what they’re getting into before they buy. When they see it’s not scary, they’re more likely to fill it out.

      But sometimes they get turned off, because a good questionnaire asks some questions that take time to answer. You didn’t want those clients anyways, because you want clients ready to invest the right information to get good copy.

      There’s a difference in response quality, we’ve noticed, when the questionnaire comes after the deposit, especially if the client is ready for it. So we’ll usually mention it’s coming to the client and they’re fully prepared. A very small percentage ask to see it first, but it’s rare. Serious clients know you need the right information.

      Now here’s a point, though… your comment shows you may not be eliminating false leads. “They might fill out one or two boxes just to get the quote already.” By giving people an indication of rates right on your site, you’re actually saving time and money and getting a warmer lead – people who do contact you already know they can pay your rates and are ready to buy.

      So it might be in your interest to eliminate that “let’s get the quote already!” and jump straight to posting rates, or some kind of indicator, such as “starting at,” or “between X and Y”.

  13. My oh my you’ve hit a sore point for me. I’ve been in this situation soooo many times.

    I see this issue as one of clients’ magical thinking about copy–the sense that copy is a silver bullet that can take away not only their marketing, sales and referral problems, but their operations and even managerial woes as well. It’s the mistaken belief that a tactical tool–i.e., the copy–can substitute for strategy,

    I think now, with businesses still so reticent to spend, marketers depend even more on these short-term–and short-sighted–solutions.

    It’s important to spell out the realities–or try to get clients to “commit,” as you say. But in the end, all you can do is inform them. The larger strategic moves are up to them.

  14. Hmm. Sometimes getting a client to commit is as easy as gettting a percentage payment up front;)

    Seriously though, isn’t a lot of this just more of the same? I mean, how many times have writers had to deal with clients who expect copy to rocket them to the top of the search results? How many times have clients expected traffic to triple in a week because now they hired a “real writer”?

    A lot of the problem is due to the sheer amount of tomfoolery out there creating so much noise. When someone is looking to hire you to handle their text, it means they have their mind on other things and are looking for someone to take on part of the load that will lead them to their goal. This means that it is likely thay haven’t spent a lot of time worrying about all the ins and outs of copy, which means it’s usually up to the writer to make educating a client part of his repertoire.

    • It’s really about educating the client and ensuring you only take on those with a marketing strategy and long term plan. I would like to evolve into a commission based copywriter so that I can judge upfront whether this enterprise is sound, before I take it on, and be a partner in the results rather than a time-based freelancer.

  15. Thanks for the write up James, it makes me feel a lot better about what I’m doing at the moment. I’ve been taken on by a rather large company to ‘help’ with their content strategy. I’ve been writing two monthly online publications for a period of three months and client is not getting the results they’re looking for.

    The problem resides in the overall quality of their offering – sloppy code, cumbersome sign-up processes and a poorly considered strategy that has resulted in a plethora of niche sites that have been dormant for months. On the current platforms, the project needs an army of writers – not a lone freelancer.

    Managing expectations is tough, especially when you’re dealing with a project built on the Titanic blueprint, with extra icebergs thrown in – for strategic purposes, obviously.

    Traffic is lower than ever, and their strat team has happily sat through my presentations on what’s wrong and how to fix it with blissful indifference or shameful contempt.

    Oh well, what to do? Eh?

  16. Yes, you are right that it is very hard for writers to make money, let alone many webmasters. A great idea in the 1800’s was to sell the gold miners shovels and make a good profit.

  17. Great post James and a good reminder as copywriters, we’re only one part of the chain of services around a particular marketing effort. And everyone

    It can be a bit of a downer when you don’t have control over how your copy is used or displayed but I have a few ways to get around the disconnect….

    Firstly, I talk to my clients about the where copywriting fits in to the whole picture. Secondly, I offer to work with the other parts of the process so that my copy has the best chance once I pass it on. If I can’t do either of those and they pants it, we’ll I just let it goooooo.

    That last part isn’t so easy but I’m working on it.

  18. I can GUARANTEE results. So can you. You just have to make the client pay, say, 10-20 times what you’re already charging.

    The only way to GUARANTEE results is to test, test, test. And that means having control of all the controllable variables. You have to devise testing strategies, and set up and maintain testing procedures. You have test multiple versions of the copy. And of course, you have to WRITE MULTIPLE VERSIONS of the copy.

    Most clients are loathe to pay for one. Imagine how keen they’d be to pay for all the versions that FAIL!

    Sadly, what most clients want is an investor, not a copywriter. But they’re only offering copywriter rates, not a genuine share.

    • CopywriterJess says:

      Test, test, test – yes. Totally. Multiple versions of the copy, subject line, offer, etc.

      But the problem I run into all too often: a crappy list. The best copy in the world can’t work miracles with a bad list.

      I have learned that a really great creative brief helps me determine if a project will be successful. It tells me right away if the message is tight, if the audience is targeted, if the offer is solid – and if the list could be a problem.

      If the list seems iffy, I ask some questions and tread carefully. Sometimes a client doesn’t want to hear that their project is going to bomb if they go ahead as is. But I think they need to hear it (diplomatically, of course). Angels ain’t gonna sing if I create an email that talks to HR execs with buying power – and it gets sent to payroll specialists with the power to buy absolutely nothing.

      • Very good point, Jess. And then there’s the visual design of the message, and its usability. The delivery mechanism and timing. Oh, and what about the offering itself? These are some of the reasons I switched from fixed price to hourly rate. When you work to fixed prices, the deliverable is ambiguous (to the client). You’re delivering copy, but as James so eloquently said, they feel you should be delivering so much more. Clients understand hourly rates. They’re paying for your time. Simple.


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  4. […] miracles. (James Chartrand, of Men With Pens, wrote a very good post on this the other day: Why Selling Writing Doesn’t Get Results. She said clients want to “get jazzed and excited and hear angels sing”, and that copy, by […]

  5. […] miracles. (James Chartrand, of Men With Pens, wrote a very good post on this the other day: Why Selling Writing Doesn’t Get Results. She said clients want to “get jazzed and excited and hear angels sing”, and that copy, by […]

  6. […] miracles. (James Chartrand, of Men With Pens, wrote a very good post on this the other day: Why Selling Writing Doesn’t Get Results. She said clients want to “get jazzed and excited and hear angels sing”, and that copy, by […]

  7. […] miracles. (James Chartrand, of Men With Pens, wrote a very good post on this the other day: Why Selling Writing Doesn’t Get Results. She said clients want to “get jazzed and excited and hear angels sing”, and that copy, by […]

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