To paraphrase Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' (and that's not something I do every day!) - 'There's something rotten in the state of Denmark'...
There's a general feeling that ease-of-entry into the online copywriting market is having a depressing effect on creative standards - as well as copywriting rates overall.
This isn't just restricted to copywriting either. Other creative marketing activities are increasingly coming under the commercial cosh as demand for online 'content' grows inexorably.
It's inevitable that copywriting purists will feel aggrieved at this threat to their livelihood posed by hordes of content writing arrivistes. The downward pressure on rates has also been exacerbated by the inevitable publicity that rock-bottom 'Third World' pricing has generated.
On the face of it, the advent of lower rates is good news for clients. In straitened economic times, clients will always look to cut costs. In the current recessionary era (which has persisted for around five years), there's plenty of reason to look at revolutionary ways of financing key aspects of the marketing mix.
Every recession throws up its own novel approaches, whether it's taking work in-house and stripping agencies of much of their work; or maybe using new technologies such as desk-top publishing (circa 1992). New kids on today's austerity block include giving new responsibilities to junior staff, or using search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques which effectively try to blow online competitors out of the water at minimal cost.
Economic pressures have obliged clients to look at new ways of getting bigger bangs for their marketing buck. For many, it's not crucial that their online copy is perfect. If it's 'good enough' - that's good enough for them!
This is fed by myths such as the one that web users only 'skim' copy online. If that were true, no-one would ever sell anything or act upon the millions of other successful business propositions that make the Internet such a potent commercial force world-wide.
There may be confusion in the minds of clients that content writing and copywriting are one and the same, and should therefore be recompensed as such. The strands of this argument are many (and tangential) and have no place in this debate.
Suffice it to say that content writers have a valuable role, but theirs is not comparable to that of copywriters whose involvement should be at a more strategic level. That said, it's important not to be too precious about the copywriting process. An unacknowledged 'trade secret' is that not all aspects of 'copywriting' are necessarily as far-reaching in their commercial impact as some might imply.
However, an experienced copywriter should be expected to bring some kind of business perspective to the table. The words used by copywriters do not exist in a vacuum. Their commercial context and relevance has to be of the highest order - and if 'creativity' can be thrown into the pot to spice things up, so much the better!
Content writers, on the other hand, do what clients tell them. They provide descriptive prose that fills a void. It's not their job to enthuse or persuade. All in all, it's a pretty sterile exercise in information provision.
This can be seen in certain areas of e-commerce, for example, where a client's customers are provided with all the information they need. Likewise with the details of travel agency packages, or more complex online products and services where only the client can provide the raw information for content writers to finesse with their paragraphs, punctuation and spell-checks.
Another major problem with the poor quality of a lot of content writing is that it flies in the face of Google's determination to reward only high quality content in its search rankings. The recent move in SEO circles towards the strategic placement of high quality articles and blog posts on so-called 'high authority' sites is muddying the water simply by virtue of the sheer quantity of content that is being produced. Laudable though Google's intentions might be, there's no way robots can assess the qualitative value of all the world's verbiage!
High quality copywriting takes time to produce. It involves client co-operation and very often the involvement of an art director or designer whose visual input will complement the copywriter's work. This is not a negligible process. When it's done well, the commercial results can be astonishing.
Achieving outstanding results from high calibre work will inevitably cost money. It means employing talented people who are committed to the proven values that permeated the Mad Men agencies of yore. Above all else, it means investing in quality.
Unfortunately, another mistaken notion that abounds with clients is that mediocre content can be offset by using aggressive online marketing techniques. 'Use more SEO, social media and link building' is the cry. This is putting the cart before the horse. Impressing the search engines is no substitute for impressing the end user, the customer who ultimately pays everyone's wages.
There's just a hint of 'railing against unstoppable economic forces' about all this. Comparisons could be made with the thousands of craftsmen who were put out of work not so long ago by machines which could do things quicker and more cost-effectively. The quality of what was produced may not have compared to the hand-made version, but did it matter? 'Consumption' was now available to everyman!
Today, machines, computers and the globalising features of the Internet are placing similar financial pressures on those offering 'craft skills' such as copywriting and design. The past few years, for example, have seen the emergence of 'crowd sourcing'. This is an online phenomenon where websites have been set up to enable companies to source creative services at highly competitive rates. Clients submit their online brief together with a maximum budget for the project. Freelance creatives then come along and submit competing bids for projects they are best equipped to fulfil.
Much of the writing work on 'crowd sourcing' websites is for projects which often require vast volumes of content writing for very little reward. Sums of $5 per 500-word article are not unusual. That may be acceptable if you live in India where the cost of living is relatively low, but anyone working for those rates in a 'Western' economy would have to be insane.
Nevertheless, the fact that 'crowd sourcing' businesses exist widens the competition globally among providers of creative services. Inevitably, the new expectations created by all this will permeate into the mainstream thinking of clients in the West. If an article can be written for five dollars in India, why can't an Englishman do the same for twenty pounds?
Companies like 'e-lance' have been around for a number of years now. The development of 'crowd sourcing' as a broader concept has engulfed entire creative processes where no-one had previously thought it was possible.
To mass produce creative marketing solutions is very much a product of the Internet whose voracious appetite for 'content' and SEO success is distorting the way we communicate. Call it a revolution if you like, but information for its own sake that is produced by people working for slave-labour wages has a disturbing ring to it.
Outsourcing craft skills to Third World countries has become commonplace in the clothing industry. To see similar patterns emerging with marketing functions involving the written word is a puzzling phenomenon but one where the difference between content writing and copywriting should be made regularly, clearly and - most of all - financially.
About the author:
Mike Beeson is a highly experienced UK journalist, financial copywriter and PR consultant who writes extensively about copywriting and marketing issues. Mike's company, Buzzwords Limited, was established over 20 years ago and is located in Knutsford, Cheshire (south Manchester).