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Justifying the cost of web content to the ecommerce Finance Director

Author's avatar By Mel Henson 11 Sep, 2015
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How to keep web content costs down without compromising quality

As the person in charge of the numbers, you probably have very little interest in the creative side of content. It’s a cost.

What you probably are interested in is how you can lower that cost.

The answer is not simply to negotiate harder with the writers to get the price down. In fact, that can have the opposite effect by limiting your sources of copy only to inferior writers who deliver poor copy that sells fewer products.

It’s more about looking at what your content requirements are and how you manage them. Done well, this can bring you huge time savings, both internal and external. Rigour in this area also allows you to identify when you can use lower-priced junior copywriters and when it’s worth spending the money on higher priced heavyweight writers.

money thoughts

Content and copy costs money

Most businesses, when they think about commissioning copy, only think about the cost of the writer. However, there is also a huge management cost as well. In fact, for each piece of copy, there is probably about twice as much management time as writing time.

Let’s say you have a website with 500 products, all needing a piece of copy 150 words long, with 5 bullet points and a sub-head. If it each one takes 5 minutes to brief out to a writer, and 5 minutes to read through and approve internally, that’s 5,000 minutes, or 83 hours – a good two solid weeks of someone’s time.

If there is some inefficiency, resulting in each piece of copy requiring just one extra minute read through and approve internally. In other words, taking six minutes per piece instead of five, that’s an extra 8.3 hours - an extra day. And to be frank, most copy takes longer than six minutes to read through, check it’s factually correct, all the key points have been included and that the brand tone of voice has been captured.

Cutting costs

Cutting the management time can, therefore, result in huge time savings which frees up internal resources. But how do you do this without compromising quality?

If you have two or more people involved in the approvals then you’re not just doubling the time, you’re possibly tripling or quadrupling it, because you also need someone to co-ordinate all the comments.

Cutting the management time can therefore result in huge time savings which frees up internal resources. Clearly, if you can make the approvals process more efficient, and speedy, there are huge savings to be made for the business.

Streamlining the approvals process

But how do you do this without compromising quality? The copy needs to do its job and sell; if the copy is rubbish, sales go down, so it’s a false economy.

The key is to treat product copy like you would any other product that you commission. Have a tight specification. Ensure that this is adhered to at each step. Use a checklist to ensure that all points on the specification have been addressed before the writer re-submits the copy for approval.

Use the same checklist for the internal approvals. Do not allow subjective personal opinions – simply assess against the spec. If the copy supplied ticks the boxes it gets approved.

A typical spec will include tight guidelines on items such as framework, word count, format, tone and style, keywords, fonts and layout. Using this system, it is possible to have multiple writers working on a project and keep the style and framework consistent across all products.



Allied to this is the need for a robust project management system. Ensure you have a master list of all the products for which copy is needed. Include key information – product name, code number, colours, prices, etc.

It’s also vital to have the buyer’s notes in this document. Why did they choose it? Why did they think the customer would like about it. If this information is not written down at the point when it’s fresh in the mind of the buyer it will be lost. Often there is a long time gap between when the buyer makes the decision and the marketing department are uploading copy to the web. If the copywriter or project manager has to try and get the information from the buyer at that stage, they’ve often forgotten the details. That means that crucial selling points will not be communicated in the sales copy. The buyer is the person who has had first hand knowledge of the product. The writer cannot guess or read the buyer’s mind.

Do not start the project until the master in place. If possible, have the writers write copy directly into the master list. This will help ensure that time is not wasted trying to track down what copy has been briefed out, out for amends, approved, etc.

Another tip for reducing the copywriting bill is to encourage the use of bullets in product copy, if it’s appropriate for your brand. They are much quicker to write and to approve than prose, and frequently preferred by the time-poor consumer, as they are easier to both skim, read and compare.

Horses for courses – choosing the right writer for the job

Choosing a writer can be a minefield. Rates vary wildly. If you pay top dollar, what extra do you get? How do you decide what is a fair price for the job?

As someone who has seen dozens of applications from potential writers, I am sorry to say that the industry is littered with deluded individuals who believe they can write, but simply can’t.

Good copy always tends to be similar in tone, style and structure, especially on websites where, thanks to Google, copy needs to be clear and transparent rather than creative. (One of my favourite headlines is for a baby changing mat with safety features that prevents the infant from falling. It reads: ‘ No bumps-a-daisy after a whoopsie’. It works beautifully in print as an eye-catching headline, but as it contains no relevant keywords, it doesn’t work on the web).

However, when it comes to bad copy, it’s quite extraordinary how creative people can be. Everyone gets it wrong in their own way:

Typical mistakes you get with rookie or wannabe writers are:

  • Putting the most important point last
  • Writing about features rather than benefits
  • Adopting a high and mighty tone to show how superior they are to their idiot reader
  • Trying to be clever with long words or I nappropriate wordplay that doesn’t sell the product
  • Writing sentences that seem appear to make sense, but don’t really (Eg; ‘With its two pockets, this coat really keeps the wind at bay.’ How does a pocket keep out the wind? ).
  • Starting sentences with an unengaging, passive word (This vase, This cushion, This scarf etc)
  • Writing in the future tense rather than the present continuous tense
  • Writing as if addressing a crowd (For those of you who….) rather than to an individual

Heavyweight copywriters are not simply more experienced than lightweight and medium-weight writers. They possess skills that others have yet to learn. For example, they

  • Truly understand what the difference between a product’s benefit and its features. They know how to interrogate the product and relate it to customer needs to discover the benefit. They also have the confidence to lead with it in the copy.
  • Have the vision and understanding to develop a positioning for brand new product from scratch
  • Know how to simplify complex concepts into simple explanations
  • Understand how to structure copy using a framework such as AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) which increases sales.
  • Understand when and how to use techniques such as call outs, bullet points, flashes and roundels and when prose is more relevant
  • They also tend to get the brand tone of voice right, which can save a lot of time, money and frustration.

But experienced, heavyweight writers cost money, which is why you should only use them when you have to.

This is why a spec is so crucial to efficient provision of large quantities of product copy. Nearly all the errors that a junior writer would make can be eliminated with a tight specification system. It improves the quality of the writing, ensures consistency across several writers and speeds up the approvals time. In fact, done properly, it can almost eliminate the need for copywriters at all, by making it part of the buyer’s responsibility when they are completing documentation for the products.

It’s worth mentioning here that there is a huge difference between a Content Writer and a Copywriter. Content includes all text including sales copy and blogs. As a rule of thumb, blogs to not require most of the skills mentioned above, because most blogs are not designed to sell but to engage. Instead, the ability to tell a story or make a point in an interesting way is more important. You may find it’s more cost-effective to have journalists write your blog posts and copywriters write your sales copy.

Spend the money where it gets noticed

Another way to budget for copy is to weight each type of copy according to how much it is seen by your customer. The more customers who are likely to see it the more care you should take over the copy.

On a typical ecommerce website there will be several different types of copy – home page, static pages, category pages, product pages, buying guides, blogs, checkout, contact us.

Some of this copy will be seen by everyone who makes a purchase. Typically:

  • All will see the Checkout Copy.
  • Most will see copy related to Delivery and Returns and the Guarantee
  • Most will see the home page, and category page copy
  • Some will see the About Us Page

Only a fraction will see any particular product page copy – because no customer reads the copy for every product. They will only see the product copy for the product they actually buy and a few others they considered along the way. Furthermore the product page copy may well have a short lifespan. Unless your business is mainly selling continuity products, the products are updated each season, so the cost of the copy created for it can only be amortised over short period before it’s no longer needed.

Yet often, the pages that are seen the least get the most attention from marketing departments. The team get emotionally engaged with products, so that’s where people focus goes.

But by and large, the copy required for product pages is not especially skilled to write. By the time a web visitor has clicked on a particular product, they are well on their way to buying. They don’t need fluffy words, they need salient facts, in a particular order, to help them make their final decision. That’s why this type of copy benefits from being written to order, with a checklist for both briefing and approvals.

By contrast, the checkout copy, delivery and returns and guarantee are unlikely to change much from one year to the next. Ironically, many companies don’t even regard these as needing to be professionally copywritten, and are happy to leave screeds of didactic or legalistic-sounding text on those pages.

This can be a real sales killer. Every customer reads them and they play a huge role in the decision to purchase. In A/B split tests I have seen significant sales increases, purely from improving the way the Delivery and Returns copy was presented to the reader.


However, each one needs to be bespoke, so it can’t be done with a specification sheet. It is really worth getting an experienced writer to create engaging copy for these one-off pages.


To summarise, if you want to save money on copywriting, then don’t be cheap – be smart:

  • Use a tight specification to make cost and time savings in copy
  • Simplify the approvals process – this is the biggest cost drain on producing copy.
  • Put in place a robust project management system, which incorporates all key information in one place and can be used for tracking pieces of copy through the key stages of briefing, first draft, amends and final approval.
  • Set up a process to ensure that buyers communicate key sales points about the products they are buying.
  • Use trained, experienced copywriters for copy that needs to sell and journalists for other content like blogs and articles
  • Use lower cost copywriters – or even enthusiastic junior staff members – and Invest in heavyweight copywriters for important and long-lasting copy that will deliver a good ROI.


image credits: dartington, michellerafterkellerinkwpengine

Author's avatar

By Mel Henson

Mel is an author, consultant and copywriter specialising in multichannel retail and Amazon. She is Head of Content at Optimizon, an Amazon consulting agency and Head of Creative at AWA digital a conversion rate optimisation (CRO) agency. Her personal website is www.wordsthatsell.co.uk/, and you can follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn

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