If you need excellent web content or an engaging blog article, the secret to success lies in a well-written copywriting brief.
Or as Brad Shorr's article in Forbes states, "The test of a good creative brief: if the editor, client, or company leader looks at the finished piece and says, 'This is exactly what we wanted!' the creative brief is a smashing success."
If the brief is right, you'll receive everything you expect, in the time required, for the price you want to pay.
So how much time should you invest in a brief?
"Make it your goal to put as much effort into writing your brief as you expect to get back from your writer". (Source: Digital balance.)
The good news is, I've created a briefing template to make life easier.
And I've written a guide in this article explaining how to complete every section, to save you time.
Go ahead and download the copywriting brief template. No email address required.
But before you put pen to paper or start hammering on a keyboard, read the following notes:
Feel free to skip to a section.
Although it sounds obvious to state whether you need a certain number of website pages, a sales landing page or a blog article, the devil is in the detail.
Think hard about the word count.
For example, some businesses feel they are well known in their niche and need a website to reinforce credibility.
If your website exists for presence and credibility, you might not need 500+ words on every page.
But if SEO is essential, then the more relevant website copywriting you have, the better.
Blog word counts are also important. Readers rarely see value in 500-word posts. And the average word count for a blog in position one on Google is 1600 words.
Word counts on web pages don't usually affect the price. But there's a big difference between the cost of a 500-word blog article and a 1500 word alternative.
Any information that triggered the need for a professional freelance copywriter is useful.
The more information you provide the copywriter about your audience, the better.
If you already have detailed personas then add references in this section and provide the persona docs as an attachment.
If not, start with the job titles (B2B) or consumer type (B2C). Then explain the audience's function, responsibilities, demographics (age, location etc.).
Here are a couple of examples:
Mums in the UK aged 30-50 years old with children in school. Works full time utilising flexi-hours to fit in with the school run. Hectic homelife means no spare time available for hobbies or leisure pursuits, looking for a better work-life balance.
Degree educated marketing manager aged 30-40 years old. Strategic planner responsible for integrating communications strategies across multiple B2B channels. Performance measured by an increase in lead quality and volume with KPI's. Good general written and verbal communication skills. Requires niche expertise to help boost customer engagement with high-performing content.
4. Do they have an existing perspective about your business, products or services?
Most sales and marketing communication fails because the message isn't relevant to the audience's emotional triggers (needs), or because the audience is sceptical about the claims.
A professional copywriter knows how to deal with both issues, but only if they know they exist.
For example, if you sell permanent technology, but the market perceives it as temporary, the copywriter needs to know about it.
Or suppose you sell products with clear benefits, but the audience thinks the products are expensive. In that case, the copywriter needs to know about it.
Market perceptions are extremely powerful, but anything negative is simple to overcome with the right approach
5. How would you like them to feel?
It's easy to think in terms of selling tangibles, but the truth is people buy products and services based on emotion.
People might make a rational purchase, but there's always emotion behind the decision.
Someone might buy a prestigious vehicle like a Mercedes Benz to satisfy a sense of pride. Someone else might buy a racey Alfa Romeo to fulfil a sense of excitement.
Dig deep into the reasons why people are likely to buy your product or service and add them to your brief.
Here are a few examples:
● Removing doubts● Reducing risk or fear● Avoiding frustration● Feeling inspired● Taking pride● Feeling in control● Feeling needed● A sense of recognition● A sense of reassurance● Fear of missing out (FOMO)
6. What do we need them to do?
The call to action (CTA) is your ultimate preferred outcome. And the more an audience understands what they are getting in return, the more likely they are to take action.
If your CTA is to buy tickets for an event, is there an early bird discount? Or does buying tickets early get you the best seats?
If you want your audience to get in touch with you, why? It pays to be precise.
7. Who are your competitors?
We all have competition, even though we hate to admit it.
But the more a copywriter knows about your competition, the easier it is to spot their weaknesses.
Competition research also gives a copywriter a broader insight into your niche.
At the very least, provide website links to your three most relevant competitors.
But if you want to provide additional information, feel free.
8. What makes you unique?
Your unique selling proposition (USP) is the thing that makes your business stand out.
Your USP needs to address the most important motivator in your ideal customers' minds to have an impact.
Businesses often confuse USPs with values, so many USPs contain words like passion, dedication, and excellence.
But genuine USPs have a what and a double why.
The first why stands for why it matters, the second why stands for why it's relevant.
Here are a couple of examples:
1-minute disinfectant contact time
Why it's relevant
Most disinfectants need 5-10 minutes to kill bacteria and viruses. This makes them impractical for use in busy environments like clinical practice, supermarkets, pubs and restaurants.
Why it matters
A 1-minute contact time means faster turnaround and less potential to leave bugs and viruses on surfaces.
Permanent modular buildings
Why it's relevant
Most modular buildings are temporary or semi-permanent.
Why it matters
Permanent modular buildings offer the same longevity as traditional construction, but at less cost, and with less disruption on-site.
9. How do we need to say it?
One of the main reasons people hire a professional copywriter is to communicate with a specific tone of voice.
Your tone is how you say things rather than what you say.
Big brands spend thousands of pounds developing tone of voice guidelines to ensure continuity across all channels.
If you're an owner-managed business or an SME, it's unlikely you'll commit a big brand budget to a tone of voice exercise.
But there's still a lot you can do to help a copywriter get the messaging right the first time.
Avoid only providing one or two-word descriptors in your tone of voice guide.
For example, you might feel your tone is engaging and inspiring.
However, all professionally written copy is engaging, regardless of the tone. And the copywriter's idea of inspiration might be different to yours.
Start by thinking where you want to be in the four dimensions of the tone of voice:
1. Funny versus serious2. Formal versus casual3. Respectful versus irreverant4. Enthusiastic versus matter of fact
Then elaborate on your thoughts:
An empowering and uplifting tone inspires your audience to improve and excel.
A friendly yet informative tone sparks a sense of fun.
A professional and ambitious tone of voice is more of an academic approach, ideal to position you as a trusted thought leader.
Here's an example of patient and visitors hospital copy suggested by Nielsen Norman Group, world leaders in research-based user experience:
● Serious: we shouldn't try to be funny while speaking to patients.● Formal: the hospital has a traditional and prestigious brand personality.● Respectful: it should not look like we're making light of a serious situation for patients.● Neither enthusiastic nor matter-of-fact: we should convey some sense of empathy, but should not appear overly emotional.
Liz East's work on the Virgin Airlines tone of voice guide is an excellent example if you need further inspiration.
Liz starts by defining three overarching values:
Optimistic. Inclusive. Adventurous.
Each value expands into a more detailed explanation, like this:
Confident. Vibrant. Witty. Upbeat.
We love to fly. Every journey with us is an excellent adventure. So we turn up the optimism and write with warmth and a smile. And then we smile a bit more.
● Turn up the positives. Turn down the negatives.● Chop the waffle.● Shorten your sentences.● One point, one sentence.● Write about the benefits, not just the features.
10. Do you have any evidence to support your USP?
It's useful to know if you have things like independent tests, market research and case studies to back up your claims.
Testimonials are also useful, especially when they contain specific metrics like 'we generated £30k in lead value from our new website in the first week'.
11. Style Guide
Ideally, you have a one-page style guide to provide your writer with all of your house rules.
House rules cover spelling, capitalisation, sentence case and grammar rules. And the style guide ensures everything written for your business is consistent.
For example, is it Project 7 or Project7?
Or is the proper name for HOCl, written as Hypochlorous Acid, Hypochlorous acid, or hypochlorous acid?
What about compound words versus hyphens? Do you prefer mindset or mind-set?
Although the examples I've mentioned are quick to correct in the revision process, sorting out the impact of removing things like the Oxford comma is more time-consuming.
The Oxford comma is the last comma in a list, and it's a hotly debated topic.
If you didn't know what an Oxford comma is, or how to recognise one, okay.
But most writers use Oxford commas so if you object; it's best to make it clear in your brief.
Suppose I write 'I love my parents, Ronald McDonald and Madonna'. In that case, I'm suggesting my parents' names are Ronald McDonald and Madonna.
But if I add an Oxford comma, the sentence makes sense: 'I love my parents, Ronald McDonald, and Madonna'.
However, suppose an Oxford comma isn't allowed. In that case, I need to change the structure to 'I love Ronald McDonald, Madonna and my parents.
Some house rules also impact the tone of voice: like the use of conjunctions and contractions.
In formal writing, some readers might object to starting a sentence with a conjunction (for, and, nor, or, yet, and so).
But in most writing, conjunctions help text flow seamlessly from one paragraph to the next.
And contrary to popular belief, there has never been a rule in English grammar that says you can't start a sentence with a conjunction.
Another thing that stiffens and formalises tone of voice is avoiding contractions (they're versus they are, won't versus will not, etc.).
One again, contractions, like conjunctions (and the Oxford comma) are a style choice, not a grammar rule. But it's easy to get caught out:
A couple of years ago, I wrote the content for a professional Will writing site.
The client chose my headline 'Will writing doesn't have to be an expensive, stuffy experience you put off until it's too late!'. (We wanted a clear distinction between the more formal suited and booted Solicitors approach.)
After I delivered about 5000 words for the website and blog, the client announced they wanted contractions removed, except from the headline.
Apparently, the client didn't talk like that. They meant they didn't use contractions in formal documents. So they thought it better to have the website content written in the same style.
Unfortunately, the changes stiffened and formalised the whole tone-of-voice, countering the objective they wanted to achieve in the first place.
Whatever your particular house rules, make them clear in the copywriting brief. You don't need to add an entire page, but writing down the high-level rules is an excellent place to start.
12. If you were a high street brand or car, what would you be like?
Brand and vehicle association might seem simple. But branding experts often use the technique to get a sense of how a company sees itself.
Clients often struggle to articulate their personality in writing . . . because they're not copywriters. So the brand and vehicle association tactic is useful.
Here are three examples:
1. Alfa Romeo — spirited, passionate2. Volkswagen — dependable, trustworthy3. Virgin — adventurous
13. Is there a copy style you've seen that you like?
Businesses often hire a copywriter to replicate something that inspires them even if it's from another industry.
So if you have any examples of websites you like, add links to the brief.
14. Keywords for SEO
According to a study conducted by SEO platform BrightEdge, 51% of all website traffic comes from organic search.
Which is no surprise when you consider that internet users conduct over 2.3 million searches a minute across the world. (Source: Internet Live Stats).
Landing high up in Google's search results can generate tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of new business every month. So it pays to get SEO right.
Copywriters weave keywords seamlessly into the content, so the text seems natural. But your writer needs to know which words to use.
Google AdWords provides a free-to-use keyword planner which shows the monthly search volume and competition for any keyword:
Paid tools like Ubersuggest by Neil Patel, provide more granular information:
Ubersuggest also tells you what you're up against, competition-wise:
Now you know which tools to use, here are a few pointers to help you make the best use of keywords:
Choose a primary and a secondary keyword for each page. The WordPress SEO plugin Yoast refers to a secondary keyword as a synonym.
Why only two keywords? Because the writer uses the keywords more than once. So if you add several keywords to a brief for a single page, the copy ends up looking spammy and insincere.
Avoid highly competitive keywords if possible. They may trigger the highest search volume, but unless you have a website with very domain score, it's unlikely you'll rank high.
Conversely, check out the search volume when looking at low competition keywords (the two are related).
Last year I received a brief from a client to write a blog article centred around a keyword that generates zero search traffic.
Zero search traffic means the audience doesn't consider the keyword in their quest for product information. Which also means the keyword doesn't feature as a buying trigger.
15. Timings and deadlines
Avoid using a.s.a.p. wherever possible.
Make it clear if your copywriter needs to provide first revisions and final approved content by a specific deadline.
Good copywriters always need a little lead-in time due to workload. But they often have gaps when waiting for feedback on existing projects.
16. Do you need UX website wireframes or a hi-fi prototype?
Are you new to the wireframe and prototypes concept? Head over to my UX Copywriting page for more information. Otherwise, read on.
I'm fortunate that much of my copywriter career entailed putting real people in front of websites and seeing how they managed tasks.
It's incredible the difference it makes presenting content in different ways. Getting things right can double or treble the conversions from the same content.
Feel free to leave the content layout to your website designer. But if you'd like to get better results from your copywriting spend, leave a note in your brief to have a chat about wireframes.
17. Would you like help with graphic design, website design or technical SEO?
I'm a former digital agency director, and I've been lucky enough to work with great web designers.
Whether you need a freelance web designer or an agency, I'm happy to point you in the right direction.
Especially if you've just received quotes of £500, £5,000 and £15,000 from the same brief, it happens!