Responsibility is a heavy responsibility

Jul 26, 2022

I’ve heard from so many copywriters about their struggles with “Imposter Syndrome”… the feeling that others (their clients) will figure out that they’re some kind of fraud.

It shocks me how I hear this from successful copywriters even at the highest levels… heck, I’ve dealt with it myself.

But “Imposter Syndrome” takes many forms. It can lead to a kind of unhealthy codependent state where a copywriter “owns” too much responsibility for how their copy or promo performs.

This can lead to a range of negative and even abusive scenarios, where emotions like guilt kick in and suddenly you’re rewriting entire promos or funnel copy at no additional charge.

Now, there are some cases where that’s appropriate… and I’ll get into that in a moment. But there are many cases where it’s not. Sometimes you have to realize (as so many weight loss promos like to say, even if it clearly is), it’s not your fault.

Here’s a response from my recent survey where one of your fellow Copy Insiders shares how they’ve been struggling with this issue…

“Hey Kim, my #1 struggle right now is guilt, worry, and frustration over conversions. I am not confident in my ability to produce them. I’m sure there’s some over-responsibility involved. And part of it is that I take a long-term approach with email copy, and build the relationship, vs. just use pure direct response.

But I truly don’t believe those two factors are all of it. I’m not sure I’ve got the right hooks and perspectives, even for clients I’ve been writing for for years. Those times when I am confident, results often don’t live up to expectations (mine or the client’s). Could be we have high expectations that are too high – I don’t know.

Part of me wants to blame the times we’re in (which have changed certain things), but at the same time, I want to take responsibility for my part, without taking OVER-responsibility for my part. My question is: How does one find that balance between responsibility and OVER-responsibility?”

Reminds me of that long-ago Cheech and Chong quote: “Responsibility is a heavy responsibility, man”…

First off, when it comes to relationship-building copy, this copywriter is half-right and half-wrong. If you’re emailing to customers–people you already have a relationship with–then you want to focus more on building the relationship. This is true, in many cases, even with people who are on your list but have never bought from you. You want to cement and strengthen that relationship to build trust.

However, when your emails are going to cold names–people who are prospects and have no prior relationship with you–you need to use more of the pure direct response approach. You could try testing different copy approaches, of course… but in the majority of cases, the “pure” direct response copy will win with a cold prospect.

So if this is a hill you’re trying to die on with your client, you might want to give up the fight.

Now to the second part of this copywriter’s question, dealing with “over responsibility”. You have to remember that copy is responsible for less than 20% of an ad’s or promo’s success. That’s based on the time-proven “40/40/20” rule that’s been around since the early days of direct mail, and still holds true today.

In general, your product or offer is responsible for 40% of the success (or failure) of a promo… and the list it’s going to (email list, social media audience, direct mail list, etc.) is responsible for another 40%. That leaves just 20% for “creative”, which includes not just copy but the design and format.

So if your client is launching a brand new product… going to a type of media or list they’ve never promoted to… or otherwise using untested, unproven offers and lists… that’s the most likely reason why a promo succeeds or fails. Chances are good it’s NOT the copy, or the fault of the copywriter.

However, when you’re writing for similar products that have been proven successful in proven markets and sales channels, then assuming all is consistent (i.e., the price points are similar), then copy can truly be that huge needle-mover that makes the difference between success and failure–or that “in-between” area.

Let’s talk about that “in-between” area. It’s where reality meets unrealistic expectations… in a world where things may be known to a point, but plenty of unknowns abound. And often it’s where a copywriter beats themself up the most.

One of the phenomenons they’re dealing with is the fact that clients often talk with other marketers and business owners… or see posts or hear within various groups about people who are “killing it” with their offers and promos. There’s a lot of grandstanding and showing off, to the point that unrealistic expectations become the “norm”.

Several years ago I had a client who was new to the supplement biz and had these kinds of unrealistic expectations. I wrote a direct mail promo that performed nearly 50% better in terms of ROI than controls I had written for other, bigger clients and that they routinely mailed as profitable controls.

Yet he had heard about someone getting a 60% boost, so he wasn’t happy with the results… even though other, more experienced supplement clients would have been jumping up in the air with excitement.

But there are cases, and it seems to happen more these days due to more saturated markets, where copy works “good enough” but it’s not a huge winner.

These are the cases where it makes sense to work with your client to optimize your promos and get them to perform better. Does that mean you work for “free”?

That depends. If it’s your first time working with a client, or it’s a good repeat client, then I’d suggest focusing on the biggest potential needle-movers and testing those: like a new angle in the headline and lead (and email or ad driving traffic to it), for example.

Do NOT do a complete rewrite for free. That deserves another project fee, albeit reduced by up to 50% since you’ve already done the research.

That’s true even if you are getting royalties for the promo. Tests and tweaking are all part of the package to get the promo working better and stronger (and keeping it that way once the royalties are rolling in… hence the “win/win” of these deals for client and copywriter).

But if a whole new rewrite or promo is needed, it’s time to pony up. Same if you’re not getting royalties and were paid a flat fee. It’s a smart move to offer to do a test headline/lead as I just mentioned (or test a different offer/price) to try to make your “ho-hum” promo a big winner.

It not only can get you future projects with the client, it can give you a nice successful control for your portfolio to attract more, higher-quality clients with.

But don’t let these desires allow you to get exploited or taken advantage of due to guilt, desperation, or feeling “overly responsible”. Know what’s reasonable and what you’re actually responsible for, and then set that boundary as needed.

Hope that helps you find that perfect balance… and leads to bigger winners for you and your clients!

Yours for smarter marketing,


P.S. If you’re dealing with something similar, reply back and let me know! I think understanding this issue and how to deal with it is a crucial part of client management… and for building a successful track record that lets you go places.

And I’ve decided it’s never too late to fill out my “#1 problem you’re struggling with” survey, especially since I’ve got a lot of new Copy Insiders on board (welcome!) You can do so here.

P.P.S. If you want the lowdown on some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about attracting good clients, negotiating higher fees, and minimizing costly and painful client hassles, you’ll want to get my Client Badassery Secrets e-book. You can get it here at half-price savings, but only for a few days.