Alison Campbell is the founder and director of Stillwater Publishing, a creator of written content for B2B technology companies. Below Campbell tells us how the breadth of her career has impacted Stillwater, and why – in this technology-driven age – it takes more than well-written copy to make a good copywriter.
You’ve been an editor, journalist, broadcaster and a production assistant. You’ve also worked in marketing and PR and you’re the founder/director of Stillwater Publishing. Do you feel that the breadth and depth of your experiences has an impact on how Stillwater Publishing is run?
Breadth of experience is important. I know how newspapers work; I understand what editors need; I have knowledge of the broadcast industry; and I have first-hand experience of the daily pressures in-house PR people and those who work in consultancies face. Depth of experience is also crucial. If you focus on something long enough you become a ‘specialist’. I deliberately pursued a broad experience of media, marketing and PR but then I decided to specialise in the written word. I wanted to master written content creation, initially through journalism because it’s such a solid discipline and teaches you how to write. Copywriting educates you about the commercial aspects of writing. The two together make me a stronger writer overall.
My breadth of experience has given me good foundations (and lots of entertaining stories to tell at dinner parties) but my depth of expertise is with the written word.
Ever since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with writing and everything else I’ve done (career-wise) has been connected with that whilst allowing me to hone my craft. Sometimes I’ve veered off course a little (like taking on a sandwich round after having been made redundant) but I’ve always come back to it and I’m now doing what I always wanted to. The fact that I love what I do bodes well for clients.
Why did you decide to start up your own company?
I’m extremely independent, driven and self-sufficient. I always have been and it suited me to run my own business. We’re all different and I have friends who cannot bear to be out of the corporate environment but for me, I’ve never worried about financial security (not that I’m rich, I just don’t worry about it) or operating in isolation. I thrive on having to push that bit extra to keep it all together. I set up my own business initially because I had to (redundancy), but I fully intended for it to be a temporary measure. I just kept taking on more clients and more projects and before I knew it several years had passed.
I specialise in the technology sector (something else I did deliberately) and I’ve carved a niche for myself. I’ve earned the label of ‘specialist’.
Your background spans both marketing and PR. As a copywriter, do you feel that it helps to have a background in both of these fields?
Absolutely, PR is very strategic, fact-based. Marketing is strategic too, but as a writer you can be more creative, use decorative words and persuasive language. As a copywriter, unless you want to specialise in either marketing or PR, it’s good to have a background in both so that you understand the different styles of writing required and the aims and objectives of a campaign. PR is more about information, marketing is more about promotion, although there is a crossover and that’s where a hands-on experience of each is useful.
The rules are changing though as a result of the new media era (internet and social media). Anyone who hasn’t already done so should read The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott. It clearly explains the differences between the traditional, one-way, broadcast type of marketing communication and the new, web-based, interactive and personal ethos of information, education and choice. The book is definitely a ‘must read’ for anyone in the industry.
Who are Stillwater’s primary clients?
My primary clients are B2B technology companies, although I’ve worked for organisations outside of technology, such as video production and construction. My first real experience of IT was in 1989. I went to work in-house as the PR for a software company and I soon realised that technology was going to change the world, particularly the workplace as PCs began to takeover the desktop. I just knew that if I stuck with it and absorbed as much as I could, I would be able to carve a career that would span decades. Most of my friends were moving into fashion and lifestyle PR but I stuck with IT. It was hard, like learning another language, having to decipher this very technical lingo and what it actually meant in laymen’s terms and then translating it back into very technical language for a technical readership. But it paid off in the end (most things do if you give them long enough).
Stillwater does different types of copywriting – from articles and magazines to SEO and website copywriting. Regardless of the field/outlet, what are the skills needed to be a successful copywriter?
Copywriting doesn’t cut it anymore, which is why I call what I do written content creation because these days content is king: YouTube videos, moving graphics, gaming, ebooks – it’s all about content and I happen to specialise in written content.
Of course, copywriters and written content creators need to be excellent writers, have a sound grasp of correct English and different writing styles. An understanding of PR and marketing is also essential, but more so these days writers need to understand technology, particularly search algorithms and how they work, so that they can create copy that is optimised for search engines and that also appeals to readers. There’s no point in having well-written, engaging copy that cannot be found. There are over 300 million websites currently being searched for by 2 billion internet users everyday. If you want your content to be found, it had better be optimised.
A great book on SEO is: Search Engine Optimization – an hour a day by Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin. It is easy to read, makes sense of the whole thing and has a complementary website yourseoplan.com that keeps everything up to date. There are loads of useful style guides out there too that writers should familiarise themselves with. The Guardian newspaper has one (as do most of the broadsheets), which you can access online (a simple Google search for ‘Writer’s style guides’ will bring up a load).
More than anything, as a writer these days, you have to be open to learning all the time. You may have been writing for years, developed and polished your craft. You may be the best writer in the world but if you remain closed to how technology is influencing the evolution of your craft, your customer base will shrink over time and you’ll find yourself at the bottom of an even steeper learning curve.