If I were to compile a list of people with whom I’d like to have a baby, Ben Locker’s name would not be near the top.
For starters, he’s a Tory, so we’d probably end up raising some monstrous neither-fish-nor-flesh political hybrid, like Nick Clegg with gills. I wouldn’t ask any child to sit through our discussions of whether to put on Shostakovich or The Smiths. And once our offspring got onto solids, the steak-versus-soya-mince discussion would probably spell the end of our strange (but very literate) family.
Yet, for the first few days of the Professional Copywriters’ Network going live, it really did feel like we were caring for a newborn. Plenty of people cooed over it, which was nice – but boy, was it demanding. Barely an hour passed without us having to stick it on the mat and change its smelly code. As with a real baby, the demands it made were never quite the ones we expected – which was both the fun and the frustration.
Me and Ben first conceived the idea of the PCN over two years ago. It began in the aftermath of the Copify launch, which gave rise to some fairly sharp debate over the financial, commercial and aesthetic value ascribed to copywriting in today’s marketplace.
Back then, both Ben and myself did what all red-blooded males do when faced with a threat: we wrote snarky blog posts about it. But while self-righteous whingeing never fails to satisfy, we wanted to do more. We wanted to help give copywriting the credit it’s due.
And so the embryo of an idea took shape: a community website dedicated to commercial writers, giving them the chance to network, share knowledge and just hang out, while also developing the profile of copywriting as a profession.
What colour for the nursery?
In the early days, we were like all first-time parents, splurging madly on luxurious accessories like a logo and a web design in our anxiety to give our offspring the best possible home. But then the reality started to sink in: babies are hard work.
Turns out the gestation period for a website is far longer than that for a human – particularly if you’re trying to fit it in around real work, family and the tiresome obligation for sleep. Weeks, then months, went by when nothing really happened. Then we’d have a sudden, frenetic burst of activity – followed, frustratingly, by another enforced furlough.
I hesitate to characterise Ben as the mother in our arrangement, but I feel I have little choice. Since his PHP skills are way awesomer than mine, it fell to him to do the heavy lifting: converting the web design into a WordPress theme, developing the membership functionality and integrating with PayPal to handle subscriptions. He gave our baby life.
Meanwhile, I was poncing around ‘developing content’ and handling company admin and accounts – the equivalent of being sent to the 24-hour garage for a tin of peaches, or tagging along for the ultrasound scan.
Free and easy
Attentive readers will be wondering why we needed PayPal when the site is free to join. Well, for a long time it wasn’t going to be. We eventually decided to go down that road because (a) it took the pressure off us in terms of service expectation and (b) we wanted to build the largest community we could.
With 140 members on board by the end of our first week – and, more to the point, the site actually online and functioning – that decision felt vindicated. As I write, with nearly 350 copywriters signed up, we’re absolutely delighted with the level of support.
No doubt, it would have been nice to recoup some of our investment right away by ‘monetising the user base’, as they say. But if we ran PCN purely as a business, I’m sure we’d be receiving far fewer appreciative messages of support – not least because we’d have far fewer members. Over the long term, a more popular free-to-join site will probably bring more benefit to PCN members, and to us as founders too.
Almost immediately, debates spontaneously sprang up on the forum over pricing and other key issues. That was immensely gratifying. As other members have noted, the way copywriters are coming together feels quite powerful – in a good way.
In a way, that’s surprising – in functional terms, the forum doesn’t really offer anything you can’t find at LinkedIn, or even Twitter. But because there ain’t nobody here but us chickens, the atmosphere seems completely different. The facility to restrict some threads to members (i.e. non-members can’t even view) creates even greater intimacy. The result is that all sorts of writers are prepared to open up and share – even on that most sensitive of subjects, pricing.
Because me and Ben are quite similar in professional terms, I was worried we’d create a network in our own image. And so it’s proved, at least to some extent. Right now, I feel that that the PCN is dominated by freelance writers. That’s partly the result of mine and Ben’s respective Twitter networks, which inevitably reflect our interests.
In future, I hope PCN becomes the broadest possible church. I’d like to see more conceptual copywriters from big agencies there, and specialised and technical writers too.
In just a few weeks, I’ve seen how different writers can be in terms of experience, approach and temperament. But I’ve also seen how much common ground there is between writers – all kinds of writers. On that ground, I hope we can build a strong, supportive community that helps us all to write well and prosper.