Meet the copywriter – Iain Houten

This week we talk to Iain Houten about his journey from nursing to copywriting, and why there is no place for writer’s block in the modern agency. 13801

Q) Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get into copywriting?

A) I trained as a nurse (badly) before realising it wasn’t for me a decade ago. After managing betting offices for four years, I then went back to university to undertake an English Literature degree. I’ve been working as a writer in London during the 18 months since graduating.

Q) What does a typical day look like for you?

A) At the moment I don’t have typical days, which will be explained in the next question.

Q) Do you have a full-time job, or are you freelance?

A) After working as a freelancer during my first 11 months in London, generally as an untrained stenographer – or ‘logger’ – in medical fitness to practice hearings, I got a job as a full-time staff writer with a creative web agency, writing about sports betting for most of the big bookmakers’ news sites.

Unfortunately, due to some of the company’s contracts coming back and forth, I was taken off staff and brought back as a four-day freelancer after six months. I fill any free days with logger shifts and/or copywriting.

Q) How do you get over writer’s block?

A) At the creative web agency, there’s no such thing as writer’s block – you get through your work or you’re out. It wouldn’t even occur to me to stop writing, because I have to pay my rent.

When it comes to personal projects – such as my blog, the book I’m working on and Copify – escaping writer’s block is somewhat more difficult. The best way I’ve found of counteracting is to write down big questions and try to answer them, such as ‘Why is the Scottish Independence campaign in such chaos?’ or ‘What is going on at Liverpool football club?’ I find this helps.

Q) What do you like about copywriting?

A) I did some copywriting work for a communications agency in Kentish Town last year and found it was a useful way to supplement my income, as well as good practice. Now, after producing five/six 350-word articles per day for six months, turning around content is relatively straightforward.

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Iain’s dream client – The Economist

Q) What frustrates you about copywriting?

A) The money’s poor, but that’s a given and I signed up to Copify with my eyes wide open. However, I do get frustrated when I log in and there’s nothing but assignments on ecommerce etc. That’s not really my bag, to be honest.

Q) What tools do you use every day to get the job done?

A) For travel articles in particular, Wikipedia is a great starting point. The BBC website is a fantastic, authoritative source of information. When writing about sport in my ‘day job’, I use sites such as Racing Post (and their Soccerbase), Planet Rugby, WhoScored? and Newsnow.

Q) Content mills – necessary evil or just plain evil?!

A) Well, they work for me. As I’ve already stated, the money is poor but I signed up to Copify with my eyes wide open and not at gunpoint.

You get through your work or you’re out. It wouldn’t even occur to me to stop writing, because I have to pay my rent.

Q) How much do you know about SEO? How does it impact on how you write?

A) From writing with a creative web agency, I know plenty about search engine optimisation and what the likes of Google picks up and passes by. I can’t say I give SEO as much attention regarding Copify pieces, as many of the searchable terms in the content are provided by the client. I just make sure they are in there.

Q) Who would be your dream client to write copy for?

A) It is a dream and you’ve got to have them. The Economist.

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Q) Who are your copywriting role models?

A) Ian Write, the Write brothers and Write Said Fred.

Startup Stories – Eclectic Enchantments

Most businesses start a blog after they launch, to promote their products and service, and engage  with their target audience.

Erika Holt

Erika Holt

Erika Holt of Eclectic Enchantments has done it the other way around. What started off as a blog for her to write about her passion (jewellery) has gradually turned into a business, as more and more of her readers requested handmade pieces from her.

In the latest of our Startup Stories, I caught up with Erika to talk about her journey from blogger to businesswoman.

Q) Can you tell us how the business got started, where did the idea come from?

A) I was forced to give up work through ill health some years ago and was terribly bored being housebound. It was suggested to me that as I have a love of making things, I should try jewellery making.

So, I gave it a go and quickly became hooked. I only made for me and my mum though.

Then, I decided to give myself a make over to build my confidence and help me see more of life than just my illness, which lead onto me starting my own blog, another of my passions being writing.

From there people started to comment on the jewellery I had made and started to ask me if I sold it.  Eventually I was encouraged about a month ago to take the plunge and open an online shop.

Q) What does your team look like?

A) My team is just me!

Q) How have you funded the business?

A) With my own money. It didn’t cost me too much to move from a hobby to business. I already had a website for my blog by the time my business started, so my outlay was relatively small.

Q) How did you get from idea to product, was there much project management involved? 

A) I try my best to record new ideas in my sketch book, making noted about specific gemstones, crystals, metals I want to work with, then I make my first attempt. Sometimes it comes out great and others I end up reevaluating the process I was using.

Every so often though, mistakes lead to fantastic new ideas!

One of Erika's creations

One of Erika’s creations

Q) How much competition is there in your space? How do you stand out? 

A) There is a tremendous amount of competition for jewellery based businesses, from small businesses like mine, to larger industrial made jewellery businesses. I feel that I stand out from the crowd as my jewellery is completely unique. I handcraft everything and no two pieces are the same. I use natural gemstones and a lot of my work is wire based, this means my work is very free form and different to what you might find on the high street. I take enormous pride in my jewellery and like to make sure that everything is just right.

Q) What does your typical customer look like?

A) My typical customer is really hard to pin down. With jewellery being such a universal accessory and my pieces being as unique as the people who buy them, it would be wrong to say any one type of person would be drawn to my work.

Q) What have been your major hurdles when starting up, how have you overcome them?

A) My illness is definitely the biggest hurdle. I don’t know from one day to the next how I will feel, so I have found I need to try and plan ahead, having stock in place and any relevant promotional work done and ready for those days where I can’t do anything.

Confidence is another big road bump. I have suffered terribly with a lack of it and realised I need to believe more in myself. I think that a crisis of confidence is most likely quite normal, but when you are working alone, you have to rely on yourself to keep up morale. Luckily I have a wonderful network of family and friends that support and encourage me, however the biggest confidence boost has been feedback from my customers.

Eclectic Enchantments

Eclectic Enchantments

Q) Are there any services or tools that you can recommend for startups who need help with getting stuff done?

A) Have a system in place before you start, plan out every little detail. I spent months before even setting the business up, planning and organising how I would make it work. What filing system would I use? How would I promote it? What are my legal obligations? Do I need insurance, to pay tax, register to VAT? I asked myself as many questions as I could and answered them.

As to services, if you are starting an online business, find a good webhost, someone you can contact at the drop of a hat, that knows about the type of site you want to have and could help with any problems that might arise. Mine have been invaluable.

Q) What customer recruitment channels are you using, and which are the most effective in terms of conversion?

A) I think first and foremost my blog has provided me with the greatest way to connect to people who are interested in my jewellery. The next most effective way has to be Twitter. It seems that everyone is using Twitter now and it is such a simple way to connect with people, in a concise and articulate way.

Q) What are your long-term plans for the business?

A) My long term plans are to connect with more people and introduce them to my jewellery. I have been told that when I am working I have a smile on my face, so long as I can keep doing that, I will be happy.

Meet the copywriter – Paul Philbin

This week we talk to Liverpudlian writer Paul Philbin about night-time writing, SEO copy and the evils of daytime telly!  DSCF0040r

Q) How did you get into copywriting?

A) 20 years ago, I was told I had to give up working on building sites due to a progressive wasting disease in my spine. I was foolish enough to ignore this advice for a while but soon found out the hard way that surgeons actually know a thing or two.

A change of career was needed and I enrolled myself into the University of Liverpool to study creative writing.

Degrees are pretty useless to someone who spends most of their time at home, and I struggled at first to find a channel for my new found creativity.

Then I discovered the world of copywriting.

Q) What does a typical day look like for you?

A) Dark is the easy answer here. After many months of trying to find the right daytime formula to be at my most creative, I discovered that night-time was the best option.

There are no kids playing football in the street, nobody knocking to sell me useless household products and best of all – the phone never rings.

The biggest plus for me of using content mills is the diversity of jobs on offer….these sites are a great way of keeping yourself sharp, and in tune with the current trend of copy in demand.

Q) How do you get over writer’s block?

A) To be honest I think this is a myth – or an excuse for a day off.

I think inspiration can be found anywhere, and… erm… erm……. ah well never mind.

Q) Do you have a full-time job, or are you freelance?

A) Yes! Freelancing is my only source of income, but one of the drawbacks to night writing is having to become the Cook, Cleaner and Child Picker-upper, while everyone else is at work.

This also helps you to realise that day time TV is the Devil.

Being a freelancer means resisting the temptation to watch Bargain Hunt

Freelancers must resist the urge to watch Bargain Hunt

Q) What do you like about copywriting?

A) I enjoy the challenge of finding new angles to be creative.

The diversity of projects on offer is staggering and each one brings with it an opportunity to blow the client, or audience away.

Achieving blow-ability every time is demanding. This is a great motivator and a source of self satisfaction when you get there.

Q) What frustrates you about copywriting?

A) Clients who value keywords over content.

Stifled creativity syndrome is the bane of my life.

Q) What tools do you use everyday to get the job done?

A) Good coffee and great music are my weapons of choice.

Trying to write without background music, would be like having a T-bone steak without first opening a bottle of Merlot.

The coffee is essential – especially for night watchmen like myself. Anything instant would be sacrilege.

Q) Content mills – necessary evil or just plain evil?

A) The biggest plus for me of using content mills is the diversity of jobs on offer. Pay per word rates are not always as important as honing your skills and these sites are a great way of keeping yourself sharp, and in tune with the current trend of copy in demand.

Q) How much do you know about SEO? How does it impact on how you write?

A) This ever changing beast has to be considered in almost everything I write, but many clients make the mistake of using it in the wrong way.

I believe the most effective SEO is in the long game. Regular quality content is far more valuable than quick fixing someone’s ranking, and will keep you near the top for much longer.

Q) Who would be your dream client to write copy for?

A) Anyone with a great idea – and a blank canvas.

Claude Hopkins

Claude Hopkins

 

Q) Who are your copywriting role models?

A) Claude Hopkins – David Ogilvy – John Carlton.

Modern day choice would have to be the Copyblogger tribe. Awesome.

Was M&S new £150m site money well spent?

Marks & Sparks have just spent a reported £150m on their new website. How they managed it is anybody’s guess, but let’s take a look and see if from a content perspective, it was money well spent…

M&S New Homepage

M&S New Homepage

First impressions

On first appearance, the new site doesn’t look any different to other department stores such as www.debenhams.com. The navigation is clear, there’s plenty of white space and lots of pictures.

The headings on the home page are big and bold, text is minimal and there’s a clear call to action. With Mother’s Day approaching, the main emphasis is on this with all links leading to Mother’s Day gifts.

So far, so good.

Tone of voice

The style of voice they’ve chosen is informal and casual, e.g. ‘perfect present for Mum’, which reflects a down to earth approach; presumably to shake off the ‘where fusty old grannies shop’ image  (apologies to grannies out there).

Clicking onto a page for flowers, M&S have, again, gone for the minimal approach with only pictures of flowers and a brief description, e.g. ‘Tulip Gift Bag’. However, on this page for skin cream, there is more copy with a post from M&S’s beauty editor, which M&S are using to give the cream some authority.

They further play on the authority theme in the copy with words such as ‘hyaluronic acid’, ‘peptides’ and ‘patented compounds’, which makes it sound scientific, even if no one actually knows what these words mean.

On a more down to earth level, appealing words such as ‘natural’, ‘ideal’ and ‘youthful boost’ have been used. They’re not averse to the odd cliche with phrases like ‘a powerful cocktail of ingredients’.

Many pages are editorially-focused

Many pages are editorially-focused

Editorial focus

The new site features a magazine-style layout and M&S are relying heavily on links to ‘editor’s picks’, which, considering their customer demographic (according to retail-week.com, M&S’s fastest growing online customer is affluent females aged between 55 and 65), could be construed as condescending.

Aren’t their customers intelligent enough to make their own decisions about quality? Do they really need to be told what they should be buying?

Summary

M&S customers don’t want fancy gimmicks – they want to find what they’re looking for quickly and easily. It could be argued that this new magazine-style design goes against that fundamental ecommerce functionality.

With regard to copy, there’s not much copy to talk about really. While no one wants to be bombarded with too much text on the internet, a bit more to read on certain pages wouldn’t go amiss.