The Vault: Bernadette Schwerdt talks copywriting

Do you have an invention or piece of intellectual property that you'd like protected? Then it's a guarantee that you DON'T need a copywriter. (Instead, you'd want someone who specialises in copyright.) A copywriter is someone who writes words that sell – and one of the most knowledgable copywriters in the business is Bernadette Schwerdt.

Bernadette has trained more than 5,000 people through her Australian School of Copywriting – and in 2015 created the highly successful Copywriting Essentials course here at the Australian Writers' Centre. In this interview, Valerie Khoo chats to Bernadette about what it means to be a copywriter and how to break into the industry…

Duration: 44 minutes


Valerie: Thank you for joining us today, Bernadette.

Bernadette: It’s a pleasure.

Valerie: So you’re a copywriter. Now for listeners who aren’t sure, because you hear this word “copywriting,” and sometimes you don’t quite know what it is. Can you tell us what a copywriter actually does?

Bernadette: Absolutely. And it is one of those words that confuses people. People often think it’s trademark or intellectual property and they start telling me about their invention, and how they can reserve, I say, “No, no actually I don’t do that.” What I do is I write words that sell. And so we’ve got a job to do. It’s a very commercial job in the sense that you’ve got to get a result from whatever you write. And it might be to make people buy something, you might want to get an opinion changed to get people to think differently, and it could be commercial. Like it might be you want people to buy a book from an online store, or it might be “Download this PDF,” or “Attend this event.”

And it can also be on a social level too, in that we’re not all about commercialism, but it might be “Stop drink-driving,” it might be “Wear a seat belt,” it might be workplace safety. So it has lots of social benefits as well. It’s really about influence. And I often ask my students in workshops, I’ll say “So who is a copywriter?” And no one puts up their hand and I’ll say, “Does anyone write an email to get people to come to something? Do you write a proposal to get your boss to approve a budget case? Do you write the Christmas party flyer?” And the hands go up, and I’ll say “Look, we are all really in the business of copywriting because we are all in the business of influence.” So I think that’s probably a good way of describing it, and also to think it’s not just about the written word, it’s about the words you use in a meeting, or in a presentation, or in a phone call because we’re ultimately wanting to get a response in our favor.

Valerie: So it’s about writing words that get people to do something – in a sense?

Bernadette: Absolutely.

Valerie: I know that you’ve done quite a few different careers, or you combined a few different careers. So can you tell us how you got into copywriting?

Bernadette: Yes, well it all began really with a business degree that I started in University of South Australia, and from there I studied marketing as my major, and then I went to live in the United States. I got a job, and I worked in an advertising agency there, as well as for a company called Unisys which was a big American company, and got a really strong foundation in the principles of business. And I was quite young at the time but they gave me a lot of work that was really beyond my ability and beyond my confidence, and so I kind of stepped up.

When I came back to Australia I got a really good job with Young & Rubicam, which was an ad agency, and I’d worked in their direct marketing arm which is called Wunderman Cato Johnson. And I was very well versed in this company with direct marketing – that was the direct marketing arm – and we were all about measurement and the relationship marketing, and really knowing people’s names and their birthdays and their kids names. And this was a while back so it set me up in a really good way for where we are now, which is all about measurement.

Then bubbling underneath all this was this passion I had for acting, and I always wanted to be an actress as a kid, and when I said to my parents what I want to be, and I said “An actor,” they kind of went, “Oh no. Five years at a girl school to be an actor.” And so I said, “Look I’ll do a backup career,” and that was business. And then I saw this job advertised with The Harry M Miller Group, which for those who don’t know, he’s an impresario, a theatrical producer, and very flamboyant and very infamous/famous.

Interestingly I got the job because I applied, and I wrote a proposal on how I could market one of his clients who was Gough Whitlam – because his name was in the business of celebrity management. And it was really the first inkling Valerie, that I thought “Wow. Words can really make a difference.” Because I got the job because of the proposal that I wrote. It wasn’t just an application. Then I got the job, and I was involved with sponsorship proposals, bringing in money to put on his big musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And again another really clear indication of the power of words for me, because on the back of these proposals, we were bringing in literally millions of dollars of sponsorship, but it couldn’t happen without the proposal.

Clearly Harry Miller was an amazing negotiator and it wouldn’t have happened without him, but everyone needs a document. Because when people walk into a meeting and have a really good presentation, the first thing they say is “Send me something.” And so that little expression of “Send me something,” that now begins the written word element. That was kind of an inkling for me that words have power. And then I decided “I’m going to go for the acting thing,” and I went out and auditioned for all the drama schools and I got into Victorian College of the Arts.

To support myself I set up a consultancy as a marketing consultant. While I was doing that, I noticed that I was giving away the copywriting work because I wasn’t a copywriter. I wasn’t “a creative,” I was always this accounts service person. I very much had this box around what I could do. Then I discovered “Wow, I’m giving this work to all my friends, but I think I could give it a go.”

So I did, and I sort of stumbled through it and I didn’t learn it. I was obviously working within the advertising arena, but I didn’t really have the training. And that’s when I discovered “Look, I can do this,” and then I set up a course of training people because someone came to me and said “We need a training course.” So that’s kind of how the training side of the copywriting got going.

So I had these two parallel careers of an acting career, working in “Neighbours,” and “Blue Heelers,” and “Round the Twist,” and “Winners & Losers,” and “Jack Irish,” and all these interesting shows; and I sort of had this other career which was a very strong marketing and training business.

I guess that the formative moment happened when I had my son, and I realized “Wow, I’m not going to be able to travel and do the work that I’ve been doing,” and it only hit me six months into the pregnancy. Pretty slow learner. “Well I think my life is about to change here,” and so I thought, “Well I got to get clear about “Well why don’t I do a home-study?” Because people did to say to me, “You do it in Melbourne and Sydney, occasionally Adelaide, but we’re in Brisbane.” Or “We’re in Perth,” or wherever. “We can’t get to you.” So I thought, “Well why don’t I do a home study?”

And it was a little bit of a wing and a prayer; I didn’t know if I had the demand for it, but I thought “I’ll write the manual, and I’ll see if it sells.” So I wrote it and I built a website, and this is back in 2006 when things were really kind of new in the Internet world, and it was really one of those moments where I woke up one morning and there was money in my account, of people who’d bought my course overnight and who I’d never met and never spoken to. And I’m thinking “This is incredible.

This is the power of words. Just for words on a page, people will actually do something.” And that’s where my online marketing career began, and that’s where I got really interested in “How do you get on Google? How do you get people to buy off the Internet?” So that’s kind of where I stand today Valerie, in some respects. I know that’s a very long-winded answer, but I’ve had lots of different careers.

Valerie: Well, we’ll talk a little bit about the course which is very exciting because we’re going to be presenting this course together, we’ll talk a little bit more about that in a minute. But first I just would like to give people a bit more of an idea of the kinds of projects that you’ve worked on, like what kinds of clients? What are you actually writing as a copywriter?

Bernadette: You’d be amazed how diverse it is, and it can be as simple as a postcard and then it can go right up to a whole suite of content. Just as an example there’s an SMSF financial planner, and he runs a business and he needs all his marketing materials created. So from the website, to the webinars, to the video testimonials, to the social media content. You might get some clients who want you to do everything.

And then for example I’m big on sponsored content, so I’ve created an online video series. So I go out and shoot interviews with interesting people, with entrepreneurs, and then clients might want to be a part of that, and we create content for them. That’s sort of slightly editorial, but it’s sponsored in that they get a promotion through that. That’s a really growing area, sponsored content.

And then it might be this big hamburger manufacturer which I won’t name because I can’t . . . there aren’t that many. But we basically, they have all these competitions as you know, and so we’d be engaged to write the backend for the . . . or the prizes – describing those prizes. It might be telling people how to play the game, it might be doing all the terms and conditions so people understand what the legalities are. It would be doing sort of the website copy so when people move through page to page, they understand how the game proceeds.

So there’s that sort of really interesting content, and then it might be something quite technical where the company is an engineering firm, and they do big, big projects like desalination plants and gas plants, power stations, and bridges. And what they want is case studies that demonstrate their product in action. Because it’s very technical and it’s very hard to get a handle on “Well, how do they fit into the bigger picture?” So we do case studies saying: “This is the project. This was the problem, and this is how this company played a part in the solution.” So we might do some really lovely, light but detailed case studies of how that company can help other companies.

It’s really broad Valerie, and that’s what I love about it. I think what attracts a lot of people to it is the variety that if you’re one of those people – which I am – that I like short, sharp and shiny. I go in, I go deep, and then I move on. I’m like lawyers, say, where they might spend years with a case, and everyday they’re working on the case … that’s not me, and generally copywriters love the variety, and the quick in-and-out nature of something. And even if you do have an ongoing client, you might not be working on them everyday. So it’s a lovely, interesting job for people who like things to move quickly.

Valerie: So it is really diverse, because I think a lot of people who I come across think copywriting is really specifically about writing ads. Like the ads you see on TV, or the ads that you see in glossy pages of magazines, because I grew up watching “Bewitched,” and I used to watch Darren and Larry present their ad campaigns. And now you see it even in “Mad Men,” and they present their ad campaigns on these big boards, and it’s usually just a line and a slogan. Obviously it’s more than that kind of thing.

Bernadette: It’s really good point, and “Bewitched” was my inspiration. I love Larry Tate. I wanted to be Larry Tate, and I think a generation of advertising people were inspired by “Bewitched” and “Mad Men.” And it’s not that far removed, but this is caught above the line in that it’s ad agency work, and so often it is those “big branding” concepts, but below that there’s a world of material that has to be written. You think about the e-Books, the white papers, the webinars, the YouTube video scripts, all the email, the EDMs – the electronic direct mailers that go out – literally oodles of content. Not to mention websites that have to be written by somebody somewhere.

So really, those one-liners, and the ads you see in the papers, and the 30 second ads you see on TV and radio, they are really the tip of the iceberg. And there’s all these small businesses out there, when I say small I don’t mean micro, but I mean people with a hundred employees turning over $50 million to $100 million. They need copy. They need material to promote themselves, be it the sales brochure, or the scope brochure, their manuals written, so there’s enormous diversity within that and it’s not just your one-liners. But that’s appealing to people because they think, “I could write that. I could do that.”

They’d be amazed to see the constraints, and how hard it is to write just a one-liner. In fact Mark Twain said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” And it’s really true. Anyone can write a whole 30-page doctorate, you know what I mean, they can write a lot. But writing 50 words? That’s hard.

Valerie: You mentioned earlier that you started off in the early days of the Internet and so much has just changed. I met you I think nine years ago for the first time, and so much has changed even in that time because of the Internet. In your experience, since you’ve been in this industry, what have been the key changes and how has that impacted the kind of work that you do as a copywriter?

Bernadette: It’s really a good question. It’s huge. In fact, I think you’ll agree with this, Valerie, we live in a transformational time. I’ve been in business for 25 years, and I’ve never seen the changes that are occurring now and the impact they’re having. I’ll give you a quick example. You think about content marketing, that was a term that was not used I don’t even think five to ten years ago. Now, it’s everywhere. And content creation, that is really a copywriter.

The way it’s playing out is really interesting, and it’s because of the Internet. It’s because of a whole of bunch of stuff, but I’ll give you an example: in the old days – what I call the old days – even prior to the websites, we had direct mail, we had sales, we had radio, TV, press, print. When you put out something, people responded to that ad, and they might have rung up, and then they would be put on to a sales person, or they’d be sent brochure. And then from there you might get a call from the sales rep, and then you might go to a shop and buy it. That was pretty much the path to purchase.

Now, you think about it: you might go to a website because of an email that you’ve received. So you go to the website, you think “This is interesting, I’m liking it, I want it, but I don’t quite know that organization or that brand, or that person enough to trust them to make a decision. What I’m going to do, I’m just going to see if there’s anything I can find about them.” It might be a white paper, it might be a webinar, it might be a slide deck. People are actually looking for this. I call it the in-between medium, where they want something to go on with, so they can learn a little bit more about this company. And that’s become the step that they need to take in order to get to the purchase.

This world, which is this middle world which I call “content marketing,” is exploding. Because people just will not buy based on an email, or a brochure, or a sales call. They want something in between to learn about the company, to build the trust, to understand the personality behind the company. “What do you stand for? What have you been doing? Why would I buy from you versus somebody else?” That’s just one example, Valerie of how it’s changed.

Valerie: What would you say the demand is like? Do you think that if somebody is thinking of . . . maybe they’re a freelance writer already, but they haven’t really delved into the world of copywriting but they think that they may have the skills. If they’re thinking of getting into that career, what can they expect in terms of the demand for copywriting services?

Bernadette: If you look at the example I just gave, and you think about all the content that has to be created in order to even just get to people considering you: e-books, as I said the webinars, the videos, the websites themselves, someone has to create that. And not just create it, but you have to write it in a certain way that it gets to page one of Google, or it gets people’s attention. Because there’s a sea of content out there. We’re drowning in it. The content that’s going to rise to the top and get results that the clients want has to be written in a way that gets the result, and if you can’t do that, then the clients are going to go to someone who can.

What happens often, they often start doing it themselves. Which is fair enough, and then they realize we’re not getting the results or we’re not getting the conversions that we thought, or we’re spending it on pay-per-click. And then we’re getting them to the site, but the site’s not converting. So they realize there’s an issue. In my opinion, the content marketing explosion will continue, but it’s not just about writing content, it’s how good can the content be? And how much attention can it draw into the target market?

Valerie: So it’s a good time to get into the industry?

Bernadette: Look, I think so. And you think about journalists, the poor blighters. I feel for them because trained writers who are being tossed out, retrenched, and they’ve got to survive. And they’re turning to PR in droves – and that’s fine, PR is on the increase as well – but their writing skills, that’s their skill. And I think there’s a real potential for those types of writers. All they need is a little bit of a shift, a little bit of a sort of a change in the way that they write in terms of the templates and the structure, and to think commercially and think towards the results. Quite a different skill, but they’re already good writers. So it doesn’t take much to actually become a copywriter. And then you can add a lot more, to be quite frank.

Valerie: Yeah well, I’m going to get on to that too. But for those people who are interested then, they have that core skill potentially, and they’re interested in getting into this field. How then do you think is the best way to break in? Because you can sit and go, “I want to be a copywriter,” but what do you do next?

Bernadette: One thing is about your belief in yourself. And I’ll give you a quick story which is how I developed the belief that I could be a writer, because as I said I was Accounts Service, I was very much in that corporate, “I’m not creative.” And a friend of mine ran an advertising agency, and I used to see him all the time for lunch. And he seemed to have a really good lifestyle, and it was only a couple of them in the agency. I said, “John who writes all you copy?” He said, “I do.” I said, “But you’re a suit. You run Accounts Service you couldn’t possibly write the copy.” He said “Of course I do.”

And I said “Well I’d like to do that, but I just don’t think I’ve got the right to call myself a writer because I haven’t had any training.” And he said “Well let me ask you this: do you write proposals?” I said “Yes.” He says “Do you write some of the copy that comes back from the client? To amend it.” I said “yes.” He says “Have you written essays in high school or in Uni?” I said “Of course.” He says, “You’re a writer. What are you waiting for? Someone to come along and anoint you? To say ‘you are now a writer. Off you go.'”

It was a really formative moment for me because I thought, “Who else is going to tell me I’m a writer, except me?” That day I believed “I’m a writer,” I went out and started calling myself a writer, and I felt like a fraud to be honest, saying “I’m a writer,” like Fonz trying to say “S-s-sorry,” and I just thought “You know, I’ve just got to commit to it.” And then what happened was, when I did, nobody blinked an eye. The said “Oh that’s very nice. What are you writing?” They just took me on face value. That was a really interesting moment too, so from that moment on, I said, “Okay, that’s it. I’m a writer.”

That’s what I encourage my students to do, is to step up and actually commit to it. And so to get started, firstly it is saying that to people. They’ll say “Look, I’ve been a lawyer,” or “I’ve been a journalist, I’m now moving into copywriting.” It’s a very legitimate thing to say and you’ve got to tell people that this is what you do, because your first clients will come from people you know. Because once people know what you do, they’ll go, “Oh wow. I’ve got this friend who’s got this hobby farm, and they’re selling goats,” or milk, or alpacas, or whatever. “They need a website. Can you give them a hand?” And that would be the second step, is to actually volunteer to write copy for people who need that done. Now you can either do that for free, or I actually suggest do it for contra. So instead of doing it for free, which people don’t value…

Valerie: Get some goats?

Bernadette: Get some goats, get some mohair jackets. We can all do with an alpaca in our backyard. I reckon go for something that’s equally valuable, and obviously choose a five star hotel to work for, or an alcohol company, or something that you want. My first freebie, I remember this so well, was with a personal training company, and this was a long time ago when personal training was just starting. And I thought “I could have really picked a different company,” because I got free personal training. Who wants free personal training? Anyway, I did.

That would be what I recommend, and then start looking around you. I think awareness is a really important factor. Think about all the billboards you see. You think about all the signage in terms of “Don’t leave your coffee cup and your dish in the sink” kind of signage. This is all copy, and so you can start just saying “Well how can I actually improve upon that?” And looking for formulas and the templates, which is what I teach . . . but obviously you won’t know that unless you enroll.
But there’s all sorts of structures within copy that if you know what they are, then you start to see them. You go “Aha, they’re using that formula, and they’re using that,” and then you see this is just “join the dots” to some degree. And it becomes really exciting because you think “This is not a mystery any more. I know exactly what they’re trying to do, and I know how they’re doing it.” And so it becomes a detective puzzle. You think “Wow, that’s clever. Look at the way they did that.” And it really is about getting people to have influence.

Valerie: I love that piece of advice, that if you’re starting out and you need to get some runs on the board, don’t do it for free, but do it for contra. It’s fantastic. It’s a win-win, because then you get some stuff for your portfolio, and who knows? You might be able to renovate your house that way.

Bernadette: I’ve had my deck done that way. Don’t tell the ATO. Anyway, but also it’s about confidence too because you think, “I don’t want to charge for my services because I’m not quite sure, I’m not certain.” But by giving contra, it’s kind of a low-level sort of exchange, and if you muck up, or it doesn’t work out, you say, “I’m really sorry, let me try it again.” But when money’s involved, it does take on a different tone. I think while you’re getting started it’s really nice just to build up your confidence by using the contra method.

Valerie: Let’s talk about money. I agree with that approach, but once you’ve got your confidence, and you think that you can start charging, how actually do copywriters charge? Because when you write a postcard as you mentioned before, or a small ad which is only a little in the newspaper, or even webpage or whatever, it’s so different to what many editorial writers are used to. Because they’re used to being paid per word, and there’s not going to be that many words on a postcard…

Bernadette: There’s $3 for you. Go out and crazy.

Valerie: So how do you price your projects?

Bernadette: We definitely don’t do it by the word. And actually when I heard that, because I’m not a journalist, I’ve done quite a bit of writing for papers, but I’m not a journalist in that true respect. And when I heard, a girlfriend of mine’s a journo, and she was writing some amazing magazine piece – really detailed, really long, and when I heard what she got paid for it, I was shocked. I just thought “Wow, what a bargain for the magazine, but terrible hourly rate for you.” I know that’s how it’s done in a lot of respects.

In terms of copywriting . . . we could talk for hours on this, Valerie . . . but I’ll just sort of sum up by saying: I try and get my students to charge by value. And by that what I mean is . . . I’ll do it by way of example. There’s a client that I just worked with recently, and he has a training company, and he was putting a tender into a council for a major $300,000 or $400,000 project over a five year period, and the tender was very important. As you know with these government things, they absolutely look at the tender. And if it’s not on the tender, it’s not on the page. So that tender was very valuable to him. Then you think, “Well the work that I’m doing for him is equally valuable, because if he gets this, there’s $300,000 in his pocket.” And it might have been 15 hours work, but you’ve got to value what you bring to the project.

There’s one way of doing it, which is value. So it’s not hourly based. I really encourage my students not to do hourly rate, because what happens is let’s say it’s $100.

Just pull a figure out of the air, and then they go and price check that against someone else, and that person says it’s $80 an hour. So right there you’ve kind of lost the job, because they think “Well I’m going to go with the cheapest.” Now, they might take a different number of hours to do the job, so right there it’s not even a valuable measurement.

So firstly, I recommend a project fee. It’s a flat fee, and that can then be negotiated, because there’s no union here, there’s no price card. So it really does come down to the copywriter having the confidence to state a fee. And then there is a bit of a dance in terms of like any product, unless you go to a hairdresser and they say “That’s $50. Thank you.” And you pay it, and that’s done.

But in a service like this where every job is different, it does come down to a couple of negotiation tactics which I teach in my course, but obviously we won’t go to that right now. So it’s a business, and you have to stand up for what you believe in and what you represent, and know your bottom line. Say, “I’m not going to do for that.”

Valerie: I absolutely agree with the project fee because also in one of the things that I teach my students is that when you’re quoting on something like that, it also depends on your client.
Because they could be a really efficient client who really knows what they want, who can brief you really well, or they could be a client who you know to be very nice to people but take a lot longer to extract the information from, have to go through multiple levels of approval, and all that kind of thing. So you would actually price it differently based on your experience with them as well.

Bernadette: Absolutely. And the other factor is complexity. If you think about . . . just take a personal trainer, it’s not that hard to get your head around what they do, but then you get a job with an insurance company, or a financial company – SMSF like I’m doing at the moment – very complicated. So you’ve got to really understand that industry. It’s like danger money, you’ve got to put a premium on that.

Valerie: Exactly. I’ve mentioned to people I’ve also charged danger money when I’ve dealt with some clients who I know I have to deal with a difficult person within their team. And I said to them “If I have to deal with that person that’s no problem, but it’s a double rate.”

Bernadette: And hope they go away.

Valerie: It’s true danger money. But anyway, now apart from obviously an interest in writing and skills in writing, what other characteristics or personality traits, or what does a person need if they want to be successful as a copywriter?

Bernadette: Journalists, I have to go back to the journalism because every journalist I know – I’ve got lots of friends who are journos, I don’t know why but I just have – you ask questions. You’re really interested in people. The people who make great copywriters are curious. And they don’t just stop with “What do you do?” They go “But why did you become that?” And then “What do you like about being in that occupation?” They absolutely drill down, because they’re keenly interested in other people. They’re keenly interested in popular culture, what’s going on in the news, what’s going on in world politics. So this tends to be the people that I have in my student base. Generally really well educated or very smart, that’s not to say if you haven’t had a degree, because sometimes the best writers are those who are absolutely really lyrical, they speak in the vernacular.

And that’s another talent as well, is being able to actually speak as you write, because I actually get a lot of academics too. And interestingly they kind of struggle sometimes, because they are so used to writing in a very formulaic way, very formal and very accurate. And in copywriting you’ve got to be really loose. It’s conversational. You want people to start reading that as they were hearing it. So it’s kind of a different skill to academic writing but those types of people do tend to like it, because they’re writers. So they’ve written a lot and they think “Well, I wouldn’t mind loosening up a bit.”

Valerie: So those people for example, the academics or the other people who you come across who want to move into copywriting, typically why? Why do they want to move to copywriting if they’ve been academics or whatever career they’ve been in? What’s the main reason people have moved to copywriting in your experience?

Bernadette: There’s lots of reasons why people want that. One is flexibility, in that if you want to become a freelance copywriter, it’s enormously flexible, because you can write at any time of the day, you can write wherever you want, and you choose your clients. If you’re a freelancer, you choose your clients and you choose the products that you work on. So it’s enormously attractive from that respect. You work it around your family.

Like I pick my son everyday from school. I just have total control over my diary. I think the other thing is it is well paid. If you’re going to do it, and you do get some experience and you do have some runs on the board, you can make really good money and with no overheads. There’s no staff, there’s no product, there’s no office required. And it’s a very portable job, so a lot of people like it because they can travel with it and they can go on holidays, but it doesn’t matter where I am. As long as I’ve got a computer, I can work.

So from the academic point of view, I think also people want to have some more freedom in their lives. They don’t to work for bosses any more. Those days of having to put up with really toxic work environments I think is coming to an end. And people are searching for something that they can do, maybe it’s even part time. They do three days a week at whatever job they’ve got, and maybe two days a week copywriting, or building their business. So lots of people do for different reasons, and I think it’s just interesting. If you’re interested in the world if you’re interested in what’s going on, then I believe every product has a story.

I’m just looking at my desk here, and there’s a stapler. I had to buy a stapler the other day and they range from about $3 to $30, and I’m thinking “How could they be so different?” And so I’m thinking there’s a world within the stapler world. There’s obviously weight and the type of metal it’s made from. If they were my client, that’s what I’ve had to get into. I could say, “Well what makes this stapler different to another? And what are the benefits of that? And why is this $30, and that one’s $2?” Every product has a story, and I’m interested in that. It’s until you really get into it, you don’t realize.

Valerie: I’m going to put you on the spot a bit because . . . but I feel it’s important to ask this question because I know that it’s a question on everyone’s lips who’s listening, and that is: obviously you’ve been doing for many years and so you’re earning a certain amount, but for some people who are interested in it, you said that you can make a lot of money, or you can make more money than potentially in the world of journalism or whatever, or other types of freelance writing.

So let’s say somebody is starting out, they’ve done their contra with the fitness trainer, they’ve done their contra with the goat farm, and with the decking place, so they can . . .

Bernadette: They’re sorted.

Valerie: . . . add a deck to their house. So they’re now going to charge money, and I know that you’re not a fun of the hourly rate. But can you give us some kind of indication, whether that’s giving us an idea of what a brochure might cost, or what a website might cost? And obviously that’s going to be different whether you’re working for Coca-Cola, or you’re working with the small to medium business down the road. But you put the parameters on that, and perhaps give people some kind of idea or even a range?

Bernadette: Yeah, absolutely. The thing to think about is it does come back to the copywriter because I’ve had students come through the course, and they haven’t even been in the course a month, and they are out there charging $350, $400 for a webpage. Off the bat. That’s just their belief, they believe they’re worth it, they’ve got the skill. Even if they don’t, they’re out there charging that and they’re getting it. And there other students who think “You know, I’m happy with $50 an hour, or I’m happy for $150 a page for a website.”

It’s really about who’s actually quoting and it’s what the client will bear. Because some clients will absolutely pay $500, $600 for a 400-word blog, no problem at all. And other clients say “I’m not paying more than $250 for a blog.”

And so it depends on the client that you find and it depends on what you quote. So I hope I’m answering the question, but I say to my students, “What would you be happy to do it for?” And so they might say, “Look, I’ve only been earning $20 because I’ve been working at a chemist, so for me $50 an hour is an absolute win. I’m happy for that.”

And others will say, “Look, I’ve been a marketing manager. I’ve been on $200,000 a year for years. I’m going to charge $350 an hour, and I’m an SEO copywriter, so I’m going to charge a premium on top of that. And they might charge $800 for a webpage, including SEO.

So SEO is, for people who don’t know the sentence “Search Engine Optimization.” It’s a style of writing that if you got to focus on the web and digital writing, it helps you get found by Google, and there’s a certain art to it. There’s dance between writing for the person who is reading it, and there’s a certain art in writing for Google, and you’ve got to marry those two disciplines together. And it’s not difficult, but it is an art. So people who are focusing on becoming an SEO will absolutely be able to charge a premium, because nobody just wants to get on Google now, they want page one of Google. And you’ve got to be a good writer to marry those two disciplines of Google and the human persuasion, and make that work.

Valerie: There’s a huge variation, but I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, “What would you be happy to get?” I have to emphasize to listeners that Bernadette and I have not colluded on this. I did not ask Bernadette this question beforehand, because this is something that I bang on about a lot, is that you should charge an amount that you would be happy to get and that you would not resent, and if the client is happy with that amount, then you both are happy. So it’s a win-win right?

Bernadette: Absolutely, and that “resentful” is a really good word because . . . and we have not colluded, I’ll back you up on that. But I say to my students – and I’ve certainly done this – I’ve agreed to a fee, even though I’ve been like “I don’t think that’s enough,” but for whatever reason I’ve said yes because I wanted it, or I needed it, or whatever it might have been. And then I get into the job and see how detailed and complicated and hard it is, and how much time, and I go “I wish I’d never taken it.” And I get resentful, and I don’t want to do it, and I don’t do my best work, and I think “I’m not going to do that again, because it’s not a good feeling.” And I say that to my students, “If you go for it you go for it, but you accept it knowing that you’ve got to live with it for however long it takes. And if you’re going to feel resentful, don’t accept it.”

Valerie: Yes, absolutely.

Bernadette: Unless you really need the experience.

Valerie: If you’re starting out. So one of the things that magazine and newspaper writers and book writers, I often hear this from them because they think of copywriting as . . . because you’ve defined it earlier as writing words that influence people, and often that’s influencing people to buy. Not always, but they think of its sales copy. So it’s like they’re allergic to the word “sales,” and they don’t feel that they can or want to write sales copy or there’s something about it that they find difficult. What’s your suggestion of how to get over that so that they can break into this more lucrative field?

Bernadette: It’s a really interesting area, because nobody likes to sell anything, and nobody likes to be thought of as being a sales copywriter, because it’s got that connotation. In fact sales has got a really bad word these days . . . a really bad rep for some reason. Firstly, I think there’s two questions within that, Valerie. One is: I don’t believe we have to sell our services at all. I don’t do a hard sell on clients; I don’t encourage my students. People either want copywriting or they don’t. And then the time will come when they might need it, and then the first person they should think of is you, because you’ve been setting a marketing process in place, so that you become the first choice.

So it’s actually a marketing process that I encourage my students to go through, where they set up . . . again I won’t go in to too much detail, but set up a business so that you’re building a database of people who are interested, you’re keeping in touch with them on a regular basis, you’re giving them great content, entertaining, useful. When the day comes, when they want to sell the company, or when they’ve just got a big client, or when they want to do a tender, and your email happens to land in their inbox, “Copywriter. That’s who we need.”

So it’s about the need, and people come into the market and out of market for all sorts of reasons. So when you think “I’m going to sell copywriting services,” you don’t sell it. People need it, and you happen to be there, and they choose you. So that’s the kind of the perspective I use.

And even from the perspective of “I don’t want to be writing copy for companies who I don’t believe in,” or “I don’t want to be this hardcore Internet sales writer, using these really long Internet letters which are really in your face, very sort of American in some respects,” even though we do them here . . . my perspective is there’s lot of companies out there, really ethical, and all sorts of companies who need copywriting. I was just on a coaching call earlier today with a student who is in the natural organics area, and they sell chemical-free cosmetics, and creams, and sunscreens. That’s a really reputable product and it’s a really needed product for people who’s got issues with chemicals.

So you might think, “I’m really passionate about a certain topic,” or “I’m really passionate about human rights,” or “I’m passionate about books.” Well then write in that industry. Write for companies who do that. I actually say to my students, “Tap into something you already know about, you might not want to write about it forever, but to get started . . . ” If you’re a teacher, then write for an education company. Do what you know, and then move on to other areas that you want to work in.

So I think it’s a mindset, Valerie. It’s not about “I’ve got to be a sales type person to sell it.” It’s like, “No.” It’s not my style, and I certainly don’t encourage it in my students.

The other thing I didn’t really touch on, because I was sort of focused on journalists because you were asking “Who does it remind me of,” the copywriters. But writers of novels and creative writers are actually very well cut out for copywriting for one really good reason, and actors too. People who are in the business of channeling. You think about when you’re writing stories and you’ve got characters, you’re living that character. You are absolutely embedded in that character’s emotional world. The ability to do that is very related to copywriting, because you got walk a mile in the shoes of your customer.

So if I’m writing for senior citizens who are choosing a retirement agency, a retirement home, I can’t write from the perspective of Bernadette, because that’s not my world. I’ve got to live that world of that 68 year old woman who’s a widow, who’s getting dementia, say. And even from her children’s point of view. They are going to make the decisions about what home that mother goes to.

So I’ve got to walk a mile in those shoes of those people to see “What are their issues? What are their worries, their fears?” And that’s – I think – really related to creative writing and character driven content. Because you’ve got to understand other people’s point of view, and you’ve really got to write from that perspective, and that’s what I love about it. Because you literally are channeling the voice, you’re channeling the tone, the personality of the audience that you are writing for. So it’s extremely connected to creative writing.

Valerie: I must admit I’ve never actually thought about it that way, but you’re so right. But one of the things I’m really excited about is the fact that you are working with us, and you’re bringing your course to the Australian Writer’s Centre, and I’ve been wanting for the Australian Writer’s Centre to have a copywriting course for ages, and I’ve searched high and low for the right copywriter, and finally…

As I’ve mentioned I’ve known Bernadette for nine years and I have actually watched her, what she’s done over the last nine years, and she is one of Australia’s most respected copywriters, and I really admire the way she teaches. And I have gone through the course and I think it’s fantastic, I think it’s an incredible amount of teaching, an incredible amount of value. But perhaps you can tell us Bernadette, what can people expect from the course? Which is called “Copywriting Essentials: Get Started As a Professional Copywriter.” What can people expect from it if they do it? In terms of what they’re going to get out of it.

Bernadette: Yes, I think what people . . . if they’re thinking about becoming a copywriter but they don’t know how to get started, or they don’t have a starting point, it can be very confronting to just start thinking “I’m going to do it. I’m just going to become one.” And then you get a client, and think “Well what do I do now? I’ve got this blank screen, where do I begin?”

So what this course gives people is almost like the driving instruction manual. To say “If you get a client this is the first thing that you do, this is the second thing that you do, and this is how to write any number of pieces of copy.” So it’s actually not medium driven, whether it’s blogs, websites, social media, press, print, TV, it’s irrelevant. It’s the process by which you write it.

It’s the process by which you interview your client. I go through a briefing process, and it’s very important that you may not understand anything about staplers, but by the end of this briefing process – this 21 point briefing document – you will understand everything you need to know and more about staplers. And then you apply that to every product. Because a girlfriend of mine says “Look, with all due respect Bernadette, how do you know about that product? What gives you the right to write about that product you’ve never touched, bought, or needed?”

And I’ll say “It doesn’t matter. I’ve got a process of questioning so no matter what it is, I can get to the heart of who that market is, what they need. What are the benefits? What’s the tone? What’s the objective?”

You go through this whole process, so it gives you a road map, Valerie. And the analogy of the driving instruction is, just say you want to drive a car. You can sit in the driver’s seat, and you got the steering wheel, and you got the pedals, and you got the buttons, and you got this and that, and theoretically you could probably drive it.

Go bunny-hopping, make a few accidents, but you could drive. And it’s the equivalent with copywriting. You could start on your own, no question. But if you had a guide, if you had a template, if you had structures that enabled you to sort of do one step in front of the other so you know the right order, you can save a lot of time. And you can save a lot of headache and heartache, and make money a lot more quickly because you’ll be proud of your content. You’ll be able to say to the client “This is good. I know it’s good, and I need to be paid for this.” So it’s about having a pathway I guess, to expertise.

Valerie: Well I can’t wait to launch the course, because I know it’s going to help so many people. But thank you so much for sharing your insights into not only the course but also your life as a copywriter. Really appreciate it.

Bernadette: Thank you Valerie, thanks for listening.

Valerie: And thanks for being on the show

Bernadette: Pleasure.

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon

Do you have a passion for writing? Save up to 40% off 50 courses SEE COURSES


Nice one! You've added this to your cart