Six Tips on Hiring a Technology Copywriter

It’s a nice relief point when you find a copywriter, internal or contracted, where the whole thing’s easy. You tell them what you want, they go and write it, they deliver it on time, and you like it right away. They understand what you do—eventually to the point where they find topics on their own. They learn the lexicon of the marketplace. They become reliable.

It’s great when it’s that easy.

But finding that writer isn’t so easy. How do you tell when you’re interviewing someone—across a desk or a satellite link—if they can deliver that? A little part of that answer is you can’t. All hires involve risk. But there are some tell tale signs you can follow—beyond the portfolio and the testimonials—that can give you a hint or two as to the quality of goods you’re buying.

With that out of the way . . .

If I were you . . . and you were me . . . and I liked your portfolio and was interviewing you to take on some copywriting projects . . . what would I be looking for?

  1. How much about my company and my technology do you already know?

The whole tabula rosa thing won’t work for me. My first question is whether you’ve had a chance to learn who we are and what we do. If the answer is any of the billions of versions of “No,” it’s Beulah the Buzzer time. (I wouldn’t be much gentler if you said “yes but I didn’t understand it”—a flat dud when it comes to demonstrated research skills.) You don’t have to master the topic. But you have to show me right then and there that I’m not looking at the prospect of delivering Product 101 courses.

  1. You have to know what you charge.

My fillings start to hurt when I hear the dreadful phrase “it depends.” I don’t mean that, sight unseen, you should be able to quote a particular project that exists only in my head. But you should be able to tell me how you structure rates, your range and rationale, how you discount larger or retained engagements and so on. If all I get is “every job is different”—or if I have to answer a ton of questions—I’m thinking you don’t really look on your business as a business.

  1. You have to know how technology marketing organizations operate

Since we’re on the subject. I want you to understand how I operate. People above me. Below me. People outside of my world who read and comment on the copy. Things take longer to review but deadlines are unmovable. Ten plates spinning at once. Budget struggles. My probe here is on how your other client organizations operated, and how well that worked for you. I’m listening for clues that you were uncomfortable or unfamiliar with it. Writers without that experience can get frustrated quickly.

  1. You don’t expect me to make everything tidy for you.

I once had a client tell me that another copywriter sent her a nine-page questionnaire to learn about her company. Bad idea. I don’t have time to do that—although I will put some effort into orientation at the start. After that I’m just going to send you links or dump files in Dropbox and leave you to handle it. During the interview, I’m going to initiate a process discussion and ask about the source material you received from other clients, how you processed it, and how you managed holes in the information or your understanding of it (the correct answer for this last one is “I looked it up”).

  1. Explaining how you work should take about a minute.

The process of writing is pretty simple. You learn (the data dump). You write. You revise. You deliver. Honestly, if there is much more to the process than that—you know, multiple meetings and orientation sessions and abstract reviews and so on—I’m thinking I need someone a little more confident.

  1. You don’t tell me how important great writing is to revenue

Or any other similar nonsense. In fact, you do as little talking as possible, listening instead to me explain what I need and what my company does, and answering my questions—including the ones I’ve brought up here. Your work already speaks for itself, I brought you in for the interview: please don’t give a value pitch to me.

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About Agencies, Content and Tech Marketing

As a rule, we don’t hire marketing agencies because of their rich understanding of our expert markets and buyers, of our technologies and processes. (Those of you who can push back on that—those with a truly tech savvy agency—should thank your lucky stars every day.) We hire them for many other—solid as rock—reasons. We talk with them about brand and style and imagery, but not often about product: about the way it connects data streams to rules engines to tiered, secondary storage. (Unless you’re in one of those moods where you feel like making someone’s head swim. And which of us hasn’t been there?) It’s almost a given that they just really won’t understand. When it comes to expertise, that’s your job.

But that’s OK, isn’t it? Agencies don’t need to go in the weeds to professionally present your product. To get ads placed in the right rotations. Or design signage. Or produce videos. Or write content.

Wait a minute.

What was the last one?

Write content?

How does that work? How can an agency that doesn’t understand what you make or sell—nor to whom you sell it—write smart, relevant content about it?

The answer is: it can’t. It can’t create smart, relevant words about something it doesn’t understand. It can create well-written words. It can create clever words. It can create all kinds of words. But not smart, relevant ones.

I’m thinking maybe you’ve experienced this. Your agency delivers the copy and you read it and all you can think is: “O well this is going to need some work.” All the bullet points you fed them are there and they’re all so nicely dressed, but the conversation is still not peer to peer—two experts sitting around having a beer. It’s very clear that it’s Marketer to Technologist. Like a Brit and a Yank having a beer: the same language but two culturally distinct lexicons.

So you—often, you personally—have to turn your attention to those words, and you correct it, or you rewrite it, and eventually it’s what you want and the end product satisfies you. But it took a lot of your time—often to the point where you say the dreaded phrase: “it would have been faster just to write it myself.” Which often is what you end up doing moving forward. All bad ways to allocate your time.

Some agencies understand this and ask you to provide the content (I get a fair amount of that work). But there’s money to be made in content, and many agencies want that revenue. If your agency wants to take on content, make sure you set the rules. Insist that it assign a copywriter who knows how to spin a sweet sentence, and who understands what you sell and who you sell to. That means you have to interview those writers—and be ready to do some rejecting. When you do select one, you have to do the briefing directly: you can’t expect the agency to do it. You have to open direct communication, so questions (of which there should be a few—fewer and fewer as time goes on) can be answered simply and quickly. If the agency doesn’t have one of these birds on staff (the most likely case), have them subcontract to someone who meets that standard (and put those subs through your approval process). And of course you can always find one yourself on your own and require the agency to use the copy.

This is why the role the copywriter plays in tactical marketing is unique. We’re not supposed to be just talented. We have to be informed and knowledgeable. After all, we’re the ones making the words your expert markets will read.

I can’t think of another craftsman on the agency roster who carries that extra burden—another that has to really know what they’re talking about.