The emails come almost weekly. And while they take different routes, the copywriters sending them all pretty much end up in the same place:
Marketing is changing

“How do I build a career as a copywriter?”

The answer is not what they expect.

Your ability to build a lasting career as a copywriter will not be based on your knowledge of “The Ten Headlines That Always Get The Sale” or a Super-Secret, Can’t Miss Sales System or knowing by heart the “Five Reasons Twitter Will Change The Universe Forever” blog post.

In fact, no post, article or book will prepare you for what’s to come.

And while businesses would like you to believe otherwise, the success of your copywriting career doesn’t rest on your choice of smartphone, Twitter client, or high-bandwidth wireless connection.

So exactly what is the key to long-term survival?

Simple. It’s your ability to adapt.

Marketing – Now With the Great Taste of Chaos

I just hung up the phone after a lengthy client conversation – but only after agreeing to teach several more online marketing classes.

Teaching was never a career goal.

In fact, I never considered it prior to the last couple years. Yet here I am, teaching classes. A lot of them.

It’s something I couldn’t do if I was close-minded about my career.

But then, when I typed my first paying copy jobs on an electric typewriter (I wasn’t man enough to go manual), I never imagined I’d write ads for high-end racing helmets, sell $10 million semiconductor manufacturing systems, eventually derive most of my income from consulting, or be successful enough to live on a beautiful property located on the flank of an inactive volcano.

In short, you may think you’ve got it all planned.

But history suggests your long-term plan is more fiction than reality.

Guess what?

For the smart, aware and adaptable copywriters reading this, that’s a good thing.

Really.

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

If you’re building a copywriting career today, you’re facing a fast-changing marketplace, fickle customer base – and a marketing universe which will look very, very different when you wake up five years from now.

In prehistoric times (as little as ten years ago), you could handily pay the grocery bills writing corporate capability brochures. If you sprinkled in a handful of B2B direct response packages, life was pretty good.

Annual report gigs were the frosting that funded retirement accounts and new cars.

Today, two of those markets are largely toast. The other is a shadow of of its former self.

And the copywriters who specialized in the above – and didn’t see the fast-moving bus that was the Internet – became roadkill. (Ask veteran copywriter Copywriting Maven Roberta Rosenberg what happened to a couple of her print-only copywriting friends – who never made the transition to online marketing.)

The World Is Spinning Faster

If a decade seems too long ago to feel relevant, simply consider online marketing’s recent history.

Only a few years ago, every business “needed” a Second Life presence. Then a MySpace presence.

At one time, email was hot. Then it wasn’t. Now, it’s hot again (proof common sense sometimes prevails).

And let’s not forget the latest “hot” channels: Facebook and Twitter.

Twitter’s cruising, though Facebook is experiencing the inevitable backlash against their ham-fisted handling of their users and partners.

It’s tempting to say the old media channels are fading, but they’ll likely be back, albeit in different forms.

They’ll fight for survival alongside the new marketing channels, which are springing to life almost hourly.

Simply put – even within the narrow confines of the online marketing universe – much has changed in just 12 months.

And don’t doubt that more change is on the horizon.

Has your business changed with it?

All The Little Fingers, Typing

Here’s an unpleasant reality: There have never been more sets of fingers willing to type for hire.

And many of the emerging copy markets are – how do I put it tastefully – sorta low rent (the product of a [hopefully] transient lack of taste on the part of search engines, which are still in their infancy too).

And while we’re toting up the bad news, copywriting’s customer base has never been so reluctant to pay a living wage for words.

Which means today’s novice copywriter faces:

  • A chaotic media landscape
  • A search-engine derived emphasis on quantity over quality
  • The accelerating obsolescence of existing media (which will soon include some of the current “hot” channels)
  • Free-falling fee structures
  • Intense competition
  • Media channels which encourage “do-it-yourself” client marketing
  • A guarantee of more of the same

What keeps a new copywriter fed and dry in a landscape like that?

Hint: It’s Not The Alphabet

Clearly, the basics of copywriting will never change; “what’s in it for me” will still be the first question asked by prospective buyers, and your ability to answer it will determine the health of your bank account.

Still, even the basics of marketing may be bending a little under the strain of the Internet.

After reading uber-thinker Nicholas Carr’s latest book (The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains), I’m fairly certain my current thinking is right; we’ll have the same sales conversations as before.

But we’ll have them in smaller chunks.

An illustration?

When I first wrote corporate web sites, the word count on the average page was far higher than today’s sites.

Then we went through a spell when “clean” design was hot (I cynically named the trend “corporate sterile”), and the pages hardly said anything at all.

Thankfully, that phase passed.

Today’s site is fast becoming a convergence point for an organization’s feeds and streams (“Feed and Stream” is likely the best unused social media magazine title ever).

Home pages can no longer be considered a site’s main landing page, and in fact, the readership of many business blogs far exceeds that of the rest of the site.

Those copywriters and marketers who can’t adapt to streams, or chunking, or insist on writing web sites the same old way because “they worked before and they’ll work now” (something I once embarrassingly said) – will see their business (especially the interesting stuff) wither away.

The Big Finish

It would be wonderful if I could boil down a foolproof survival tactic into three short bullet points.

That would be highly tweetable, but not very real.

Instead, I can offer you the following:

Challenge Your Assumptions

What’s true today could be tomorrow’s empty (and cashless) cliche. Conventional logic suggested Amazon.com was never going to turn a profit (neither was Facebook or Twitter).

Something changed, and those who recognized that change prospered as a result. I have my own ideas about the future of marketing as it concerns copywriters, but what are yours?

And more importantly, which of your assumptions (“the annual report will never go away“) are about to go down in flames?

Let me add one thought. Listening to everybody else – and accepting it as gospel – is simply a cheezy way to substitute their assumptions for yours.

The Internet is full of parrots, con men and weak-minded fools, and like Carson Brackney said, it’s your job to avoid them.

Stay Aware Of Your Revenue Streams

This is manifestly not sexy, but it is critical. Small shifts in the kinds of projects you’re seeing – and in your own revenue sources – may herald a larger, long-term shift in your business.

Ideally, you’d stay ahead of those shifts, but that’s expecting a lot.

If multiple clients start asking for the same new project, is that coincidence? Or a whole new (and largely untapped) revenue stream?

Make Things Happen

If there’s one constant on the Underground, it’s that I constantly flog my readers to go out and find the clients/work/projects they want to write.

It’s truly marvelous when the world comes to you, but you don’t have to be a statistics whiz to know your chances of achieving happiness are a lot higher when you decide what happiness looks like — instead of the next guy to call.

Have a Sense of Wonder

Admittedly, this concept hasn’t found a home in too many MBA programs. But it’s absolutely essential if you’re going to survive.

It’s my final piece of advice to my online marketing boot camp students, and one of the few things that can sustain you over the course of a long career.

There are few certainties in copywriting, though we can make pretty safe assumptions about two of them.

First, you will deal with rejection. Perhaps a lot of it. New clients won’t like your pitch. Existing customers won’t like your first draft (or your second). Your mother will urge you to find a real job.

Get used to it.

Don’t take it personally. And recognize that hiding in a totally safe, rejection-free world is akin to living in a padded room because it’s safer.

It might be safe, but you’ll eventually go mental.

And – oh yes – you should regularly marvel at the idea that somebody pays you to write for a living.

Second, we can safely assume the copywriting universe is going to change.

A lot.

You either lead the change, ride along with it, or get run over.

If you see emerging technologies as interesting, wondrous things (maintaining the kind of skepticism it takes to survive in a hype-driven field), then you’ll last a whole lot longer than if you embraced a dark, sinister worldview.

I started the Copywriter Underground simply to see if blogging really was an effective lead-generation strategy – something I’d have to know if I was going to recommend it to my clients.

Four years later, my business has morphed to the point this blog has become a pointless artifact.

The time I invest here largely reflects that. Yet this is where it truly gets interesting.

I could look at the Underground and suggest it’s been a colossal waste of time. Or marvel that I could reach so many people just by typing a few ideas into a text editor every now and then.

How could anyone not have a sense of wonder about that?

Keep writing (and adapting), Tom Chandler