The secret to mind-blowing copywriting? A detailed copywriting brief.

Most of my copywriting projects are done remotely. I don’t meet my clients or have the luxury of time to hang out and get to know the soul of their business. But that’s exactly what I need to do to create mind-blowing copywriting for their website, blog or brochure.

So how do I dig deep to produce the copywriting gold? A detailed copywriting brief.

Is the copywriting brief really that important?

I know what you’re thinking: A short copywriting brief is better because it means you can get straight into the copywriting, right? WRONG.

I know from experience that a quick copywriting brief is light on details and heavy on generalities. The result is bland copywriting and an intensive revision process.

The copywriting brief will set the course of the project.

It gives me everything I need to create exceptional copywriting. Or not.

The more gaps there are, the more often I have to follow up with endless questions. That’s time consuming (and annoying) for my client and me. The other option is to take a guess, which is a sure-fire way to need a complete rewrite after the first version.

A detailed copywriting brief takes more time but it’s worth it.

More than just time, a detailed creative brief takes more thought and sometimes I have to tease the answers out. That’s where my marketing background can come in handy. Quite often I’m asking questions my clients haven’t really thought about in detail and they get to use their new revelations across the rest of their marketing.

So I thought I would share my copywriting brief with you. These are questions I ask and the reasons I ask them. Trust me. You’ll thank me when you see your copy.

My Copywriting Brief

  • Name of the company and any nicknames it has [internally and externally].
  • Your company tagline or motto.
  • A contact person for the project.

Project-Specific Information

  • Project description: What is it we’re doing here?
  • Scope and inclusions: To make sure I don’t miss anything out.
  • Objectives: What is it you need this piece to achieve?
  • Target audience: Who exactly are you appealing to?
  • Call to action: What do you want your audience to do as a result?
  • Tone and style: What kind of vibe do you want this piece to have?
  • Deadlines: When do you need the final draft done by?
  • Constraints: Are there any constraints such as word count or design?
  • Keywords: Do you know your keywords?

General Business Information

  • Company background & values: How did you get started? What is your company philosophy?
  • Customer pain points: What are the audience trying to escape? But also what annoys them along the way?
  • Barriers to purchase: What influences their decision to buy? What might make them say no?
  • Value proposition: What do you do to solve those frustrations? What’s the real value you offer?
  • Competitors and industry bodies: Give me a feel for the market/industry you work in.
  • Alternatives: What are the alternatives to your product or service?
  • Your USP or POD: Why do customers choose you? What makes you so special?
  • Testimonials: Do you have any quotes or testimonials from clients?
  • Brand personality: Describe the personality of your business in five words or fewer.
  • Existing marketing material: I can ensure your new copy complements your current marketing.
  • Clubs, industry memberships & awards: How can you validate your expertise?

Project-Specific Information

For each page or business service, detail:

  • Objectives [if they differ from the project objectives].
  • The Features.
  • The Benefits each feature actually provides.
  • Why someone would choose this over another product or service.
  • Call to action [if it differs from the project call to action].

Must Haves: Is there anything you specifically want on the page?

Must Not Haves: Is there anything you really don’t want to be mentioned?

Time? Yes. Effort? Yes. Great Results? Every time.

So that’s my copywriting brief.

Yes, it’s very detailed. I spend at least an hour talking through the information to tease out more detail and nudge clients towards important marketing realisations. The best part is that I usually find some copywriting gold in my client’s own words.

That’s what a great copywriter does – tease out the gold.

So next time you’re getting a grilling from your copywriter, remember that the detail will set a strong path that leads to mind-blowing copywriting.

If you are a copywriter reading this, how does your brief compare? Can you see any gaps? Or maybe you’ve picked up some great questions to add to your own brief? Let me know.

Belinda

77 Responses

  1. Once again you’re bang-on Belinda. A comprehensive brief not only allows you to produce an excellent end result, but it also helps when putting a more accurate quote together. Which brings me to a question I noticed you didn’t include – what is the budget for the project?

    Obviously some people may feel uncomfortable or out of their depth with such a question, but it’s one I ask so I know whether what they have to spend is in line with the results they want. If not, I can offer suggestions on how this might be achievable.

    I also like to know how their customers find them. This can also reveal a lot about who their audience is.

    But that said, you’ve also got a couple of great questions I’m happy to steal and add to my own brief ;D (Brand personality – I have a similar question, but the way you’ve worded it is brilliant!)

    Thanks again for sharing this one 🙂

    1. Thanks Anna! It’s a brief that has evolved over many, many client projects and discussions with other copywriters. I’m happy to admit that it’s an ongoing process.

      In response to your question, I don’t actually start the creative brief until the project has been accepted and a deposit paid. If I see that the project scope has changed since my initial proposal, I make sure I discuss the changes and update the proposal accordingly.

      It’s sometimes a tricky balance but I personally prefer to rework the quote rather than spend 2-3 hours on a creative brief that doesn’t get a green light.

      Do you take your brief pre-proposal?

      1. It’s always interesting to find out how other copywriters manage their projects. 

        After the initial query, I send my brief and conditions of contract for the prospective client to read and complete. If I’m booked up for a couple of weeks in advance, I’ll let them know my anticipated availability and how long the project is likely to take subject to further information from the brief.

        If timing or budget is likely to be an issue, most will let me know before they complete the brief (saving us both time) or if their budget is tight I can take that into account before I draft the proposal.

        By this stage, there’s usually been enough time and effort invested for the quote to be accepted. 

        But, like you, I’m also always looking at ways to improve my systems, so it’s great to be able to have this sort of conversation 🙂

        1. Hi Belinda and Anna

          Thought I might add my 2c here…

          I too use a 2-step brief.

          First I use a “quote worksheet” to get just enough info to create a sane quote.

          Once I have the client’s deposit, then I do a detailed brief.

          Do you guys get your clients to write out their answers to your questions?

          I prefer to interview them on the phone. That way I can probe beyond the hype and fluff.

          I usually record the interview and then get it transcribed to use as the raw material for their copy.

          It’s a bit more expensive, but I find I get better answers, quicker, and I stay in the driver’s seat.

          1. Hi Charles and thanks for commenting. My process is quite similar but I tend to that first questionnaire over the phone. I try and understand everything I can about how the copywriting will be used and how it fits in with the larger marketing strategy.

            I like to chat about this (rather than leave it to my client to tell me) because I have been asked for an “article” only to find out that it was actually a sales landing page, which is a completely different focus for the copywriting.

            I have just started getting my clients to fill out the full brief but I am considering going back to doing it as a phone interview. As you pointed out, there can be a lot of hype and fluff and if I’m spending an hour talking it through to get more meat, then I may as well not waste my client’s time getting them to fill it out.

            You’ve got to try different processes through don’t you!

            If I can delve into the technical details a bit more, what do you use to record your phone call?

            Thanks again for leaving your process. I think you’ve actually helped me bed mine down a little more!

          2. Hi Belinda

            Happy Australia Day!

            I use an Olympus digital recorder to record my interviews – in-person and via telephone.

            I plug in a simple phone mic which sticks to the phone handset with a suction cup (from Dick Smith) to record phone interiews.

            My transcriber also suggested I could do the interview on speakerphone and just put the recorder on my desk near the phone. But I haven’t tried that yet.

            I agree you’ve always gotta be testing ways to improve your copywriting system.

            I’ve tried doing my briefs both ways, but I believe doing an interview gives a better result for me and my clients.

            There’s a good discussion on Men With Pens on this topic:
            http://menwithpens.ca/client-questionnaire/

  2. Thank you so much for this Belinda!! I am a designer who is starting to do a bit more copywriting for clients (do I sound like the actor who is about to release an album?!) so this is going to help me immeasurably! Thanks to Anna for the share as well – impeccable timing!

  3. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon
    your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your
    blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed

  4. Hi Belinda this is a really cool post and I’ve enjoyed reading your ideas, thoughts and everyone’s comments. Thought I’d share my process. To understand or help to understand three things from the clients perspective I focus on – 1) identifying the real actual objective, 2) being clear about who is the real target audience/customer and 3) in one or maybe two words what the real positioning criteria is. I find if I can nail these three elements then there is a good chance of writing something the client will truly be able to benefit from. It’s not easy but it’s sometimes really worth the effort to help people gain a new perspective with their business objectives through the magic of clean clear wonderful words.

  5. Hi Belinda,

    I currently a student in design with majors in advertising and graphic design, so this has been quite helpful! I’m finding it hard after recieving a brief for an assessment to really understand how to write out my creative strategy & conceptual piece.

  6. Hi Belinda, just watched your video and came by to have a look, great stuff! I’m curious about whether this process works for larger projects where you have to write a lot of copy. I’ve been working on 30-40 page websites and I haven’t found a way around in-person meetings/workshops to get enough direction and content. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for stopping in Cathy!

      When you’re writing big websites, the process does become more complicated. A workshop is probably the best way to talk it through. To help speed that up (and this is also important if you’re not local to your client) you can put more onus on the client to provide more information in that first copywriting brief.

      Clarifying and filling in small gaps takes a lot less time than starting from a blank brief!

  7. Absolute gold, as always, Belinda. It’s so helpful to review what others are doing. I also use a written brief for website design and targeted online advertising clients, but am eager to compare my list of questions with yours. In particular I found the information on coming at the same questions from a different angle very helpful. So many businesses just haven’t drilled down to a detailed description of their ideal client, which would make all inbound marketing activity so much more effective. I have so great ideas to test out now to refine my process. Thank you for the inspiration!

  8. Hi Belinda,

    Just saw this awesome post on the importance of the copywriting brief. Guess the trick is not to make it too brief :). Thanks for all the useful information! I think sometimes a lack of structure in the answers from clients can give the copywriter important focus points too.

  9. Hi Belinda 🙂
    i’m a student and we have this Sales and Promotion subject and it’s my first time to encounter the word “copy brief”. I need your help to start up with my copy brief about a restaurant? can u help me with it please? thank you so much.

    1. Hi Sheeralyn,
      If you answer the questions in this post then you’ll have your copywriting brief done! These are the questions I ask clients about their business and the copywriting project.

      Belinda

  10. I don’t know much about copywriting, so this was a great help. Who knows, I could end up having a position like this. It makes sense that the more detail and time spent would be better. Quality is better than quantity, in my opinion.

  11. Belinda!
    Thanks so much for publishing this article – still going strong and working for your 4 years later!

    I really love the questions you ask – they seem a little more heart lead than all the other blogs I’ve read in this field. And as treasure seekers in our clients caves, starting with the heart has never lead me astray. Cheers, Kylie

    1. A good brief is timeless Kylie! Although I do review it every now and then to make sure I’m asking questions that I need the answers to in a way that clients can actually answer. There are some big questions in there!

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  12. Hi Belinda,

    I, too, was pleased to see this article has such longevity. I’m considering trying my hand at copywriting and your post gave me much more confidence in that endeavor.

    I currently work in staffing and found your copy brief is shockingly familiar to my personal questionnaire for new clients. My job posts describe the company history, accomplishments, benefits, non-traditional benefits, and potential career arc before going into the job description itself. This helps me to sell the company, create more buy-in from potential candidates, and develop a better-quality candidate pool overall. It seems a very similar approach to your own. 🙂

    Appreciate your sharing. Have a wonderful day!

    Regards,

    Dan Guerra

  13. Belinda, these are golden. Thank you immensely for sharing your expertise.
    I have also added in to my brief; “if your brand were a person, how would they be in the world; how would they spend their days.”
    And “How do you want your clients to feel when interacting with you and your brand.”

    Thanks again, your advice is invaluable 🙂

    1. My pleasure Jess.

      I did ask the – if your brand was a person question – for a little while but I found it esoteric for many clients. I did sometimes ask them to think of their brand/business as a person and consider how they wanted customers to describe it after the first meeting. Exactly like your question about they wanted customers to feel… I got a lot more success from that line of questioning.

      It’s definitely a question that requires a bit of coaching through the though process! But it’s worth it.

      Thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts!

  14. This is a great collection of copywriting questions.
    Let’s look at this: Suppose a company has had a negative testimonial about their product or service. How should it be included in the copy?
    After all, I always find many positive testimonials on websites. I hardly find any negative comment from customers apart from social media pages or other pages outside the product owner’s domain.

    1. Interesting question… I wouldn’t include it in the copy. There is no need to introduce a negative element unless you can turn it into a totally incredibly selling point. Like, the company sent me the item I bought too fast!

      Testimonials, case studies and reviews are all about showing off positive experiences.

      Hopefully, there aren’t too many negative reviews to deal with!

  15. Thanks Belinda.

    How about the USP? The Positioning Statement?

    Mission Statement if there is one, although the relevant material is probably already covered in Brand Identity.

    Ideal Customer Profile, Customer Avatar, Customer Persona.

    1. You’re welcome.

      I ask about the USP when I’m asking the General Business question (you should see it there between Alternatives and Testimonials).
      The customer content (profile, avatar, person) is usually covered when I ask about their target audience.

      I don’t usually as about a mission statement as many businesses don’t have one. If they do, it’s LAME. I’ve found the questions about their values much more interesting and valuable for the copywriting.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  16. Hi Belinda.

    Bit late to the party but thanks for the process tips.

    I just wondered – once you’ve carried out the phone interview or in-person session with the client – do you replay the answers to them? Either by just sending the completed ‘questionnaire’ for their approval, or by creating your own interpretation of the copywriting brief based on their answers?

    1. All latecomers are welcome!

      I do. I do. I prefer to go through the brief over the phone as it’s too distracting the meeting in person. I’m making sure I look like I’m listening, that I’m making the right “uh huh… yes” noises, that my hair hasn’t gone astray and that my shirt is still buttoned up (awfully embarrassing story there). I mentally curse the background noise and wonder if I’m going to be able to read my left-handed scrawl afterwards. I usually can’t. All that, and I’m usually not anywhere near my client.

      So the phone/skype audio is better as I can madly type while we talk. I can capture the exact phrasing the client uses and that’s often GOLD.

      Once the chat is done, I clean up the document and send it back to them for approval. This ensures that what I think I hear them say is what they meant to say. Often seeing it in black and white can change things a little.

      They make any changes they want, approve the brief and we’re away!

  17. Hi, am new in copywriting and I was searching how to make portfolios and I was directed here from the other page.
    I have a question, is it a must that I have a website to put my portfolios or portfolios are to be sent to clients?
    Thanks for the great content.

    1. Well hello John! Having a portfolio on your website will help to build trust with potential clients as it demonstrates that you’ve helped other clients meet their copywriting challenges. So, I would recommend you publish a portfolio as soon as you can (and remember that you can make up samples if you don’t have real projects to publish).

      This might help >> https://copywritematters.com/empty-copywriting-portfolio/

      Another plus of having a portfolio on your website is that you can point clients to it, saving you some effort!

  18. Thanks so much for the info on your copywriting brief. Really new to it all and appreciate any great info I find. Thanks!

  19. Still useful in 2019. Thanks, Belinda. Also, the Hot Copy podcast (with Kate) rocks. Just one question? do you still create your brief after the project has been accepted? In your earlier comment in 2012, you did. Thanks.

    1. Hey Nancy, I definitely create my brief after the project has been accepted. In the chats leading up to this, I get enough information about the project in order to quote accurately but I don’t invest time in a detailed brief until the client has approved the proposal and paid the commencement invoice (deposit).

      Thanks for reading – and for listening to the pod!

      1. Hey Belinda!
        Have you ever had it happen that you quoted but then realized that the client needed something else/more than what you initially thought after you’d done the brief?

        I currently have a similar process to yours:
        short intake form on the website/email/discovery call > quick project overview + quote > detailed brief.

        Thanks!

        1. I have! It’s the reason I added an extra step into my process (And T&Cs) that says I’ll confirm the quote after the brief. It rarely changes but that clause means that if scope is added or changed during the brief, it’s not an awkward conversation.

  20. It’s awesome that you want to share those tips with us. I assume lot of us that commented on this post are just starting to search for different ways of blog promotion and this sounds promising. This is definitely the article that I will try to follow when I comment on others blogs. Cheers

  21. That’s exactly what I do, actually read the blog and appreciate what I find in valuable. But it seems people with comments like “Great post”, “Thanks for sharing” have a better approval rate 🙁

  22. We all tend to focus on catchy headlines and gripping titles. That split-second interest grabber is important. Copyblogger’s great posts on headlines thankfully tell you exactly how to craft your words to create snappy headlines.

  23. Hello Belinda!
    I am just starting out in the world of copywriting, and I am try so hard not to get overwhelmed. You brief just taught me my first clear lesson in the school of copywriting. I look forward to learning more from you.
    To think that this was written over seven years ago! Wow!

  24. Hello Belinda,

    I am just starting out in copywriting and would like to create some samples to build my portfolio. In the fake copywriting brief, would you suggest I just make up information about the company I choose?

    1. Absolutely. You can look to companies around you for inspiration… even modelling your sample business on them and making up a new name. That option is probably a lot easier than a completely fictitious business as it’s the details in the brief that make the copy easier to write!

  25. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge Belinda. I am a *very* fledgeling copywriter and have been loving your podcasts with Kate Toon.
    I look forward to joining your course when its available next year!

  26. Hi Belinda,

    Emerging writer here just making my way through your blog. Very helpful! Question for you and others who conduct phone interviews:

    Do you send the brief over prior to the phone conversation so that the client can prepare their answers?

    Thanks!

    1. I do Kara! I get most of the good stuff when we talk it through – as many clients are way better at explaining their awesomeness over the phone – but I like to give them some advance warning on the questions I ask. As there are some pretty heavy hitting questions!

  27. I know you wrote the brief outline right back in 2012 and it’s still very relevant. I’m, not a copywriter, but have a background in marketing and comms and can add a couple of extras I’ve included in briefs (to flesh thinking out).

    Client to provide a phrase:
    What do you want your customers the “think”?
    What do you want your customers to “feel”?
    What do you want your customers to “do”?

    What is the aha?
    What is the uh-oh? (this is probably a phrase that describes any barriers)

    I hope this is helpful.

  28. This is the most helpful blog for copywriting Ive found hands down. I have been absolutely lost trying to decide where to start on my portfolio, and this just made things a hell of a lot easier. Thank you.

  29. I’m currently studying copywriting as a future career and while researching, I came across your site. Thank you, Belinda, and all those who commented!!! I have learned some good things by reading through the articles and comments.

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