The false economy of cheap copy (updated for 2021)

If you’re looking to hire a copy or content writer, you’ve probably come across something like this. It looks like a good deal, right?

For a few hundred dollars, you get a service that freelance writers charge well into the thousands for. Their website looks legit and is packed with positive client testimonials. On the surface, there’s little reason to be suspicious.

Except, remember the old proverb: “Pay peanuts and you get monkeys”? Yeah, that.

How can I be so sure?

I’ll let you in on a secret—once upon a time I freelanced for a content mill* so I’m all too familiar with what organisations like the one above try to pass off as “high quality content". Not to mention their shady employment practices, but that’s a story for another blog post.

*an agency offering bargain-basement copy/content writing services.

Thankfully those days are well behind me, but somehow the content mill I worked for—and many others—are still in business. Which means people are still being scammed into paying for their second-rate services.

To illustrate quite how second-rate, I’m going to walk you through a side-by-side comparison of the content mill versus what I now offer clients to show you exactly the level of service, attention to detail and quality of work you can expect to receive in each case.

Copywriting prices in context

Before we dig into the details, it’s important to put the prices content mills pay their writers into perspective.

I present to you exhibit A:

Here's the original tweet and some excellent replies.

Sadly, this isn’t an exception. My inbox archive is stuffed full of similar low-ballers:

I’m not great with numbers but you only need a basic grasp of maths to know those prices are appallingly low for any job, let alone a highly skilled one.

Working to the rates quoted in the first example, you’d have to write around 5000 words a day to earn the equivalent of the UK living wage—the minimum income considered necessary for a person to meet their basic needs.

To match the average day rate of a UK freelance copywriter (£375, as reported by the Procopywriters Survey 2020) you’d have to write a whacking 25,000 words in a single day. That’s roughly a quarter of the word count of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. A feat I hope we can all agree is nigh on impossible.

I focus exclusively on website copy now, but back when I did content writing I’d aim to write around 2,000 words a day. Clean, lean, well-edited, thoroughly-researched words. Any more than this and I’d find the balance would tip and the quality would start to suffer.

Therein lies the false economy of cheap copy and the crux of the problem. Sure, you get more words for your money, but the quality of those words is questionable at best.

Content mill vs professional copywriter

Now we’ve put those rates in context, let’s jump into the comparison of my services compared to those offered by a shady agency. Specifically, I’m going to look at website copywriting.

Disclaimer:

When I found myself working for a content mill, I’d spent more than two years as an in-house digital copywriter. Given the time, correct resources and fair compensation, I had the knowledge and skills to produce top notch website copy.

However, low pay and tight deadlines from the content mill meant I couldn’t afford the luxury of writing good copy. It was a numbers game—I needed to write words to pay the bills.

Price and timeframe

Up first for discussion is the price and timeframe for a website copywriting project. “Professional copywriter” refers to what I offer, and I know a lot of other copywriters are roughly similar.

Price

  • Content mill: £699 for a 10-page website with “custom look and feel options” and copy written by a “professionally copywriter”.*
  • Professional copywriter: from £2,500 for website copy (no design or development services).

*I was paid £10 per page. Averaging at 300 words a page, that’s £0.03 per word—not as low as some of the rates quoted earlier, but still grim.

Turnaround

  • Content mill: for website copy, the expectation was 24 hours turnaround for less than 10 pages, 48 hours for more than 10 pages.
  • Professional copywriter: two to four weeks depending on the size of the website (plus lead time of around a month).

Going by the above information, you’d be forgiven for thinking the content mill was the obvious winner. However, as I’m about to show you, dig a little deeper and the cracks start to show.

Research

Each website copywriting project starts with a research and discovery phase. Here’s how the content mill compares to my own process.

Content mill

Clients had to fill out a short questionnaire about their business, the results of which were sent to me. This was no more than a few hundred words of very basic information—location, short description of services/products, years in operation, etc.

Nothing about strategy, tone of voice, target audience, key messages and all the other information needed to write decent web copy.

I was also given a list of keywords to use (one primary and three secondary per page) and links to websites of the client’s main competitors.

Professional copywriter

Before writing any copy, I spend a considerable amount of time on research—any copywriter worth their salt will do the same.

First, I gather basic information on a project to put together a proposal and quote. Here’s an example of the questions I might ask at this point—already far more detail than I ever got from the content mill.

Once my proposal and quote have been accepted, the next stage is a kick-off meeting which is best described as a friendly interrogation. It’s more fun than it sounds. Honest.

Some things I might ask about include:

  • the history of your organisation—does it have an interesting backstory? 
  • your target audience and why they should care about you
  • the problems you solve for customers
  • customer objections—why wouldn’t someone buy from you?
  • your competitors and what makes you better
  • tone of voice and style preferences
  • objectives the copy needs to achieve and how success will be measured

Remember that last point, we’ll revisit it later.

I’ll also conduct independent research into your customers, competitors and the market you operate in, along with brands you admire and, of course, SEO stuff like search intent.

All in, this can take anywhere between six to ten hours, sometimes considerably more.

Writing

Once the research is done, it’s time to get down to the business of writing copy. Here’s what that process looked like at the content mill compared to what I do now.

Content mill

As I’ve already said, at the content mill my primary aim was to write quickly to earn money—I had bills to pay, a life to live and a business I was trying to start. I’d aim to write two web pages an hour but probably averaged around one and a half.

Every page was broken down into sections, and for each one I was given a brief description. Something like: “Services, similar to this: [link to a page on a competitor’s website]”. I was expected to recycle copy from the link I’d been sent and shoehorn in the required keywords.

Plagiarism, in other words. With a sprinkle of keyword stuffing for good measure.

Once I’d got the words (and keywords) down on the page there would be just enough time for a quick spell check before moving on to the next.

I didn’t feel good about doing this sort of work, in fact, it made my soul cry. But at the time it felt like I didn't have many options. Sadly, most other freelancers I’ve spoken to have been in a similar boat at some point in their careers.

Professional copywriter

Now, thankfully, my writing process is a little different. I spend much longer working on each page—a couple of hours at the very least but it wouldn’t be unusual to spend half a day making sure I get it just right.

I allow myself the time and space to put my many years of copywriting experience to good use. Something impossible to do if you’ve barely got enough time to get the words down on a page.

Once I’ve reviewed my research and consulted my trusty swipe file for inspiration, the first draft usually comes pretty quickly. But these are just raw words—I redraft and finesse the copy multiple times until it’s perfect.

I’m a big fan of Copyhackers’ Seven Sweeps editing process. That’s right, seven separate sweeps, each focusing on a different aspect of the copy. Much better than the lone spell check my content mill copy was treated to.

Depending on the project, I might write the copy in a wireframe or upload it onto a staging site so it can be viewed in situ. Making sure the words and design of a website work together is a hugely important part of the process.

Back at the content mill, I wrote copy in Word docs without a clue what the websites were going to look like. Although I have a sneaking suspicion they were all from a generic template with the colours changed.

Revisions and review

A website copywriting project doesn’t end when the final draft is finished—revisions and reviews are equally important parts of the process.

Content mill

Cards on the table here, I’ve no idea what happened to my copy once I’d submitted it to the account manager at the content mill. I never got any feedback, so either the words were plugged straight into the website without input from the client or revisions were made by the account manager (with no copywriting experience). Neither are desirable options.

I also don’t know what was offered in terms of post-launch review so I can’t comment on this either. However, since neither I nor any of the other outsourced copywriters were involved, I’d hazard a guess at it not being particularly valuable.

Professional copywriter

My project quotes always cover two rounds of revisions, within the scope of the original brief. These also include a follow-up review three months or so after launch. I’ll usually have access to Google Analytics to see how the website is performing but I like to hear the client’s point of view too.

Have they seen an upturn in enquiries? Are these from qualified leads? Are there any questions or concerns the copy isn’t addressing? And so on and so forth (I ask A LOT of questions).

This review might highlight further changes and fine-tuning needed to get the copy performing at its very best and meeting the objectives outlined way back in our kick-off meeting—remember them?

Objectives and results

My whole copywriting process is built around objectives and results, because that’s what my clients are paying for.

At the content mill, I was only ever writing words to fill spaces. There were no goals to be achieved or problems to be solved. They could have saved themselves the paltry fee they were paying me and stuffed their websites full of lorem ipsum, it would have been about as effective.

(I might be exaggerating here, but you get my point).

That’s the value of professional (i.e. expensive) copywriters like me and my lovely colleagues of the ProCopywriters Network.

When we’re paid properly and our skills are respected, we can help you solve your marketing problems, connect with your ideal customers and make your wildest business dreams come true.

Pay us peanuts and you’ll get a big pile of monkey poo.

...

What if, with the best will in the world, you just can’t afford to hire a top-class copywriter? Here are some suggestions about what to do next.

meet beacon

Are you a copy lover?

Every Friday, I share swipe-worthy website copy and what makes it awesome. Subscribe to get Copy Love in your inbox.

subscribe