The Copywriter's Crucible

Surviving the Vagaries of the Freelance Life

What information does a copywriter need from a client in order to start writing?

Posted by rachelwriter on July 20, 2009

Photo Courtesy: San Mateo County Library/Flickr

Photo Courtesy: San Mateo County Library/Flickr

Whenever a new client hires me, one of the first things I do is e-mail that client a Background Material Checklist and a Product/Service Questionnaire. 

What the heck are those, you ask?

Well, the checklist is basically a compendium of all the materials I need the client to gather for me so that I can strategize, conceptualize, and crank out custom, kick-butt copy for that client—things like the client’s current marketing copy, Web site URL, past sales literature, product specifications, and even examples of his or her competitors’ copy.  All the client has to do is review the list, compile the required materials, check ‘em off the list, and send ‘em over to me. 

Badda bing, badda boom. 

The questionnaire forces the client to brainstorm a bit.  It asks him or her to—among other things—explain what problem his or her product solves, describe what that product’s key features are, tell me who the intended audience is, and define what sets his or her product apart from the competition’s.  (Don’t worry: the responses need not be worded perfectly.  And, no, I won’t chastise anyone for any misspellings, grammatical blunders, or plain ol’ bad writing.  After all, there’s a reason they’re hiring me, right?) 

Within the last few months*, I’ve also started having clients use the questionnaire to rate how edgy and creative (versus how formal and traditional) he or she wants the copy to be: does the client want it to read like a scholarly article in a peer-reviewed academic journal, or like the script of an irreverent comedy?  This information is vital.

Anyway, I bring all of this up because experience has shown me that some clients feel like their initial phone consultation with me suffices.  Like they don’t need to provide any additional information outside of what we already discussed by phone.  Like I should have already learned (perhaps through osmosis?) everything there is to know about their product/service.  Like they shouldn’t have to spend anymore of their time on a project they’re paying me to do.

The truth is, though, it’s not my job to have to do all of the research on a client’s product or service.  My only job is to write outstanding copy—hence the title “copywriter.”  And the only way I can write that outstanding copy is if the client provides me with the background information I need to get started. 

So, in the spirit of helping clients and copywriters better understand each other, below is a sampling of the types of questions I ask my clients up front, as well as the types of materials I ask my clients to provide me before I begin writing their copy.  I’ve also included an explanation for why I need that specific information/material.

* * *

What’s needed: Product brochures, data sheets, catalog pages, and/or any other sales literature (both old and new) describing your specific product or service.

Why:  A couple of reasons.  If a client is hiring me to write a new brochure, data sheet, catalog page, or other form of sales copy, chances are good that the client doesn’t want the new stuff to read like the old stuff.  Therefore, I need the old stuff to make sure the new stuff is, well, new.  If, on the other hand, the client would like the new copy to resemble the old copy, then I need the old stuff as a template.  Either way, though, these materials give me a lot of additional information to work with—stuff the client more than likely forgot to tell me during the initial consultation.

 * * *

What’s needed: Consumer product reviews and letters of testimonial from satisfied customers. 

Why: Glowing product reviews and testimonials can have huge selling power because they give the illusion of being more “objective” than traditional advertising copy.  In fact, a consumer product review or testimonial may very well be objective—but, the subjectivity comes into play when I cherry-pick the favorable reviews and testimonials to incorporate into the copy.  Still, customers are more likely to be convinced by “real people’s” experiences than by the company’s sales copy alone.

 * * *

What’s needed: Letters of complaint from customers. 

Why: Seems oxymoronic, doesn’t it?  If I’m writing copy that’s supposed to SELL your product or service, why the heck would I want information that could drive customers away?  Simple: because a skilled copywriter can use that information strategically to downplay the negative and emphasize the positive.  If customers are complaining about a particular color of your product, and your product happens to be available in 12 other colors, let’s drive home the fact that customers can “customize” the product by choosing from an array of colors.  Without the complaint letter, we’d never know the product’s weakness and, subsequently, we might inadvertently highlight that weakness in the copy.

 * * *

What’s needed:  Specific examples of marketing copy, perhaps from another company, that the client would like to emulate. 

Why: Sometimes, it’s difficult for a client to articulate his or her preferences regarding the style, tone, and overall direction of the copy he or she would like.  In cases like these, it’s very helpful when the client comes armed with a series of examples of what he or she considers “good” and “bad” copy.  A competitor’s Web site or brochure is often a good place to start.  Does a client want his or her copy to read just like the competitor’s?  Or 180-degrees differently?  A copywriter will always appreciate having these references on hand. 

 * * *

It’s important to remember that copywriting isn’t just creative writing.  It’s smart writing.  It’s strategic writing.  It’s writing with an intent and purpose.  And, in order to make sure it’s effective, a copywriter absolutely, positively needs ample background information.



*P.S. — So you know, I’ve always asked for information regarding the client’s creative preferences; the only difference between now and a few months ago is that I now have clients write down their preferences instead of just telling me verbally.  Just wanted to make sure we’re clear on that.  🙂

3 Responses to “What information does a copywriter need from a client in order to start writing?”

  1. Natalia said

    THANK you.

    YOU understand.

    A few months ago, a company hired me to rewrite the web content for one of its websites. Great. They gave me the old copy, we had a meeting in which I asked questions and took notes, they told me what they wanted and promised to send me the remaining info. Well, after I turn in my first draft and one of the bosses tells me she loves it, I learn from another boss that what they really wanted (or want now?) was essentially the opposite of what I had been originally told. I had to redo it. Fine.

    But then, I had to speak to the guy who knows the place inside out. He said it needed to be even more different. Okay. But he couldn’t tell me *how*.

    Him: “Instead of describing it like this, make it wild and full of testosterone. When that happened, it was like WHOA, you know?”

    Me: “Like WHOA?”

    Him: “Yes.”

    Me: “Can you put it in your own words to give me an example?”

    Him (after putting the same nonsense into different words 5 times, 40 mins later): “No.”

    I almost tore out all of my hair that day.

    Oh, and that info they were going to send me? Yeah, I never got that. Apparently it didn’t even exist.


    Moral of the story for the kids:


    *Deep breath*

    Thank you, Rachel! I feel understood now 🙂

  2. Brent said

    Great list of important items. Hopefully clients can first read this THEN hire you!

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