Tuesday, 26 February 2013

An interview with Martin Harrison, co-founder of Copify

A while ago I wrote about the copywriting-services company Copify on this blog, and then I wrote this follow-up article for the Guardian.

For the latter I conducted an email interview with Copify co-founder Martin Harrison (as well as three other writers). Due to the constraints of the word-limit, much of this interview was not published as part of the latter article; so Martin has given me permission to publish the Q&A in full on my blog.

Here it is:

Alexander Velky: You originally positioned Copify as "A platform for publishers to source written content quickly, easily and cost-effectively." That seems a pretty neat summary for clients; how would you sum it up to a prospective contributing writer?

Martin Harrison: A platform for you to earn money as and when it suits you, without the hassle of having to prospect for work and sending out invoices that may, or may not be paid.

AV: How do you vet would-be writers' credentials? And how do you decide whether they are "professional" or not?

MH: Writers are assessed based on their CV and a written sample. Around 90% of writers approved start out as standard, and based on feedback are considered for promotion. Only writers who are exceptional, based on their experience and their written sample are approved immediately as a professional.

We reject 60-70% of all applications.

You can read more about what we look for in applications here.

AV: You charge different rates to clients for using professional or non-professional writers. What's the thinking behind this? And what's the take-up like for each option?

MH: I wouldn't describe any of our writers as 'non-professional', the term we use is 'standard'. The reason we have a separate 'professional' tier of pricing is twofold. Some clients want the assurance that their copy will be written by a more experienced writer and some writers deserve to be rewarded for their experience by being paid more. 

In terms of take-up, the split between standard and professional is approximately 70/30 in favour of standard, which should tell you a thing or two about attitudes towards pricing.

AV: From a writer's perspective, are they only shown job adverts corresponding to their level of professionalism?

Professional level writers can access all orders, standard level writers only those at that level. 

AV: When talking to clients in public you've frequently advertised fees as low as 3p per word. The lowest price I saw on Copify offered to a writer was 1p per word. Does this mean you take, on average, a 66.67% cut of the total fee charged to clients?

MH: I'm not going to comment on what exactly our average cut is, but I can tell you that it is far lower than this when you factor in the costs associated with running the business. And just to be clear, we don't offer 1p per word on every order, far from it.

As a professional writer (as your site described me) I was offered 1p per word jobs. Do you think this is an attractive proposition for a professional writer?

MH: Clearly not for you Alex! But we wouldn't be in business if there weren't some writers who were happy to work for this amount, and paying customers who were happy with the end product. It all depends on your circumstances.

AV: What's the lowest rate offered to non-professional writers?

MH: 1p a word is the lowest we have ever offered. I can't see us ever offering any less than this.

AV: The Professional Copywriters' Network (with whom Copify has exchanged argument on several occasions, I think) says "By the word pricing positions copywriting as a commodity rather than a professional service", and discourages the practice. Do you agree with their statement?

MH: No. Our clients like to pay by the word so they know exactly what they are getting. They are not comfortable with paying for an indeterminate amount of copy. It has nothing to do with being a 'professional service'. There is no viable alternative to this model for a business like ours.

AV: Do you feel by-the-word pricing can be reconciled with professional practice? (If so, even at 1p per word?)

MH: If someone can come up with a practical alternative to by the word pricing then I'm all ears! But but so far, in all of the debate we've had, no-one has actually suggested anything that is viable. Alastaire Allday wrote a piece about this last year and his conclusion was ultimately that the solution to content mills was to create another, more expensive one!

AV: Would you agree that Copify is a more attractive proposition for aspiring writers rather than professionals?

MH: No. As I've said before, it depends entirely on your circumstances. Yes, we like to give aspiring writers a shot but we also have plenty of experienced, agency staff and freelance copywriters on our books. They use the site when in need of a bit of extra income, or maybe when they are a little slow with other business. 

AV: One ambivalent blogger (Andy Maslen) suggested copywriting could never be a "profession", but that it was a "trade"; do you think this is an important distinction? (And why?)

MH: I think he is right to an extent. Until there is a recognised union or trade body to govern things then it is something of a 'wild west' industry and it will be difficult to call it a profession. The PCN have tried to be this body, but as I've said previously, until they get real about pricing they're going to do more harm than good.

AV: I wrote a blog about my experience with your site and you pointed out in a threatening but not unreasonable manner that I'd breached site T&Cs by mentioning a client's name; would it be a breach of those same T&Cs if I'd tried to use work submitted via Copify in a portfolio either published online or sent privately accompanying my CV?

MH: If you hadn't been granted permission then technically yes it would. That said, unless there was a serious conflict of interest, we would probably turn a blind eye to our writers using a piece in a printed portfolio or emailing it to a prospective employer.

Publishing on the web, however, is a big no-no. This might be seen by some as pretty extreme, but there's a very important reason that we do it. In many cases, our customers are punting on our copy as the work of their internal 'team of writers' and usually at a vastly inflated rate. Were your blog post to have been indexed by Google, we would have been in hot soup with the client, and they with theirs. 

Ironically, the furniture company you were attempting to name and shame probably had no visibility of the process at all.

AV: What makes Copify preferable (or a viable alternative) to the well-trod path of an unpaid copywriting-internship at an agency?

MH: Again, this all depends on circumstances and the type of copywriter you want to be. An internship is as much about getting an insight into the world of work (which for me as a lazy graduate was a pretty rude awakening!) so I'd always recommend that people go down this route if they want to work in an office.

AV: Presumably you're a professional writer yourself. (I haven't seen that many typos in your blog posts.) How might you have used Copify to further your career when you were younger?

MH: I am yes. I've been a staff copywriter agency-side, a freelance copywriter, a contract copywriter client-side and in my last role before joining Copify full-time I was in charge of copy in the SEO team of one of the UK's largest retailers. All of this has given me a pretty well-rounded knowledge of the industry and crucially, the commercial side of things. This is something that a lot of our detractors don't really have a handle on.

I've gone on record as saying I would have given my left arm for an opportunity like Copify when I was starting out and I meant it. Bar one or two outrageous day rates, the sort of rates that we pay are what I was accustomed to when I was freelancing. 

AV: How quickly could you satisfactorily complete a typical 1p-per-word brief?

MH: Me personally? Well that depends on a number of factors, the word count and the subject matter primarily. Let's say for argument's sake that it's an article of 400 words on a subject I have covered before, therefore not requiring hours of research. I could probably write a  decent piece in half an hour.

AV: Do you agree that "[Your clients] don't require writers; just people who can type"?

MH: No, not at all. If this was the case, why wouldn't our clients just do it themselves?

AV: Tom Albrighton (of the PCN) has said "Your best chances of republication (propagating backlinks across multiple domains) come with a compelling, high-quality article." Are the sorts of articles produced for your clients (particularly at the 1p-per-word) ever likely to be read from start to finish by a human being (as opposed to a crawler)?

MH: Yes, the days of copy being written and published purely and simply to be crawled by Google are over. 

AV: Your background is in SEO; do you think it's fair to say that SEO practitioners tend to be reactive rather than proactive?

MH: It's a generalisation to say that all SEOs are reactive, it really depends on how good they are. With regards to content, however, my experience is that the SEO industry has very much been forced to react by Google's recent algorithm updates.

'Content is king' is a phrase that is often bandied about, but very few SEOs were really practicing what they preached until recently, when they have been forced into it by penalties for low quality and duplicate content. Some SEOs are now even rebranding themselves as 'content marketing specialists'!

Up until now, there has very much been a 'cheap as possible' approach, which is why sites like Textbroker have flourished. Now there is a great deal more editorial integrity, which is why SEOs are investing sensible money in content, rather than seeking to have it written overseas for $0.000003 per word. 

That said, I'm still frequently challenged by SEOs for being 'too expensive' which always makes me laugh when I consider the rates that are supposedly fair according to the PCN.

AV: A friend of mine once described SEO practitioners as "snake-oil salesmen". As someone who described all SEOs but Amazon’s as “a little bit grey,” do you think there's any truth in that?

MH: It's important that I clarify exactly what I meant by this. I was referring to the fact that almost every SEO has to bend the rules a little bit in order to get things done. For example, Google openly condemns any form of paid linkbuilding, but I don't know any SEO who isn't buying links in one way or another. 

There are some 'snake oil' SEOs out there for sure, but also some very good, innovative SEOs who appreciate the value of great content.

AV: You've been going for a few years now: You must be doing something right. Do you ever worry that clients won't see the return on investment they expect from the sort of articles you're able to provide at the prices they're willing to pay?

MH: Copy alone is something that is very difficult to put an ROI on. You can write articles until the cows come home, if you're not promoting them in the right way you won't see much of a return.

We frequently supply articles that are published on websites like The Independent and Marie Clare. There is a relationship between our client and these publications, but the copy would not be published if it wasn't up to scratch. 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Bad Language: Deconstructing BAE Systems' FAQs copy for WHICH COUNTRIES DO YOU SELL TO?

BAE's upside-down flag.
Which countries does BAE Systems sell bits of murder-weapons to?

It's a simple enough question, and one which is asked sufficiently frequently to have its own page on BAE Systems' frequently asked questions (FAQs) website section.

But, judging from the shocking ineptitude of their answer, I imagine people will be continuing to ask with frequency for years to come.


I remember, back when I used to leave the house sometimes, I'd see bad adverts  usually on billboards  and then write about them. One such advert I never got around to discussing was a BAE billboard that towered over the teeming masses at Waterloo Station in London town. It was a giant union flag (upside-down, mind you) with a short strapline about how great, and (I guess) British, BAE Systems is.

It was a bad advert  vague, pompous, loaded with all kinds of unnecessary baggage. Flags will do that to your adverts. Especially huge brazen ones the like of which are only normally seen accompanying royal celebrations or far-right rallies. (Or both.)

But what alternative is available to BAE? They can hardly depict children in far-off countries being blown to bits by the cluster bombs they once had no qualms manufacturing. It would be the equivalent of Ronald McDonald showing you a clogged artery or, I don't know, tobacco companies showing you a cancerous lung. (Oh, wait...)

But the economy is more important than anything else, and we know this because BAE isn't legally obliged to show shrapnel-ravaged corpses in its advertising properties. It is allowed to claim ownership of the national flag, however, because of its importance in its contribution to UK employment, trade and international diplomacy.

But, leaving all that aside, let's copy-edit that terrible FAQ answer into something actually resembling an answer to that damned pesky frequently asked question. And let's do so making the ridiculous assumption that the brief is to tell something close to the truth.

BAE says: 
"Like all companies we have to prioritise where we do business."

I say: 
[Nothing. That sentence is utterly meaningless and could happily be discarded.]
BAE says:"In setting these priorities we take into account a wide range of commercial, legal and reputational factors."
I say: We'd rather not tell you which countries we sell to. 
BAE says:
"BAE Systems will only pursue business opportunities when we are satisfied that our strict policies and governance systems can be complied with."

I say: 
But we'll sell to pretty much anyone we're allowed to.
BAE says:"The sale of export equipment, whether it is the sale of weapon systems, platforms, equipment, and/or services is highly regulated."
I say: It's tough being an international arms-dealer these days.
BAE says:
"BAE Systems works closely with and maintains a regular dialogue with governments in our home markets in relation to all our export sales."

I say: 
Especially when Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US spend such little time invading people.
BAE says:"All export licence applications are considered by governments on a case-by-case basis and take into account the proposed customer country, the type of product or service to be exported, and its future use."
I say: The government frequently tries to piss on our chips.
BAE says:
"Our applications comply with trade regulations and the requirements for end-user undertakings."

I say: 
But even they cannot deny that murder is good for business.
BAE says:"Our Responsible Trading Principles help us make informed decisions about the business opportunities we pursue and help employees apply our values in their decision-making."
I say: We do what we want, as far as they'll let us.
BAE says:
"See more on export controls." [Linked.]

I say: 
Now piss off.

That's it.

So, my rewritten FAQ answer in its entirety goes... (all together now)

We'd rather not tell you which countries we sell to, but we'll sell to pretty much anyone we're allowed to. 
It's tough being an international arms-dealer these days. Especially when Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US spend such little time invading people. 
The government frequently tries to piss on our chips - but even they cannot deny that murder is good for business. We do what we want, as far as they'll let us.
Now piss off.

For anyone actually wanting to know which countries BAE sells to, reportedly: Bahrain, Saudi ArabiaZimbabwe, Indonesia, Tanzania. Anyone who'll buy, pretty much; countries with dubious regimes, often using BAE's products to persecute minority populations and... well, what do you expect people to use murder weapons for? Defence???

In future I suggest such answers are filed under an FEQs section  for frequently evaded questions. And one can file this blog under an FRLs section in tribute to everyone's favourite far-right Hungarian political party's "frequently refuted lies".

Now that's copywriting.