Where to Find Spec Challenges and What to Do Before You Write One

By Elizabeth Blessing | June 12, 2017

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Build Your Copywriting Business with Spec Challenges

Weiss Research spec challenge winners Elizabeth Blessing, Biran Ochsner, and Chris Allsop.

Elizabeth Blessing with fellow Weiss Research spec challenge winners, Brian Ochsner and Chris Allsop.

In the first article in this series, I explained what a spec challenge is, why top-paying clients use them to find new copywriting talent, and why you should consider them as a part of your strategy to land new clients.

Here, I’ll tell you where you can find spec challenge opportunities. I’ll also reveal the four crucial things you need to do before writing a single word of copy. Master these four things and you’ll increase the odds of making it to the top of your client’s “must-hire” list.

First, let’s talk about where you can find challenge opportunities:

  • AWAI’s $10K Challenge:Each year, AWAI awards at least one member a $10,000 contract as part of their copy challenge. And there’s no need to attend a copywriting event to get in on this spec challenge. This opportunity is open to all AWAI members.

    Can winning AWAI’s $10K Challenge really skyrocket your copywriting career? Go here to read comments from these past $10K winners (all of whom have gone on to become top-earning copywriters): Joshua Boswell, Krista Jones, Mindy McHorse, Steve Coombes, Roy Furr, Guillermo Rubio, Pam Foster, Julie Hassett, and Jon Stoltzfus.

  • AWAI Writing Programs: Ongoing spec challenges are included with some programs. I won my first challenge (and landed my first direct response client) after submitting copy to a challenge included with the Secrets of Writing for the Health Market program. If you’re a Circle of Success member, you’ll also find several open challenges on your member page.
  • From clients looking to hire:Quite a few of the jobs I’ve applied for via the Direct Response Jobs Board will ask for a customized writing sample. While clients may not call it a spec challenge, in essence that’s exactly what it is.

    The sample request is usually short (a few pages) and might be in the form of an email, headline/lead, or content article. If the client likes your copy, you’ll advance to the next step in their job interview process.

TIP: Some copywriters have expressed concern to me that a prospective client might take their writing sample and use it without hiring them or paying for their work. One way to protect yourself is to do some research on the client before writing a spec challenge.

For example, if you’re using online job boards to find clients, make sure both the job board and the potential client have a good reputation. Search for reviews to see what others are saying. Chances are, if other writers have had poor experiences with a client or job board, you’ll read about it online. Consider it a red flag if a client refuses to list their company name. Never submit your work to an anonymous client or one that feels a bit sketchy to you.

  • From your current clients:Last year I wrote an online sales promotion for a financial newsletter publisher. At the time, one of the editors was in a bind and asked if I could quickly write a couple editorial articles for their website. This project was not part of my original contract, and there would be no extra pay involved. It was simply a request for extra work based on good will.

    I jumped at the chance. My copywriter “spidey sense” told me there was more to this project than met the eye. I went out of my way to write the best articles I could, despite the fact I had never written financial editorial copy before.

    This strategy paid off big time. My editor was testing me to see if I’d be a good fit for ongoing work in their editorial department. He liked what I wrote and offered me a retainer agreement, which I happily accepted. To date, I’ve earned over $50,000 writing editorial articles for this company … all because I wrote a few “freebie” test articles first.

    So my suggestion is to use spec writing as a way to extend your relationship with your current clients. For example, perhaps a client initially hired you to write a few insert ads. You’d like them to hire you for a bigger project — say a 10-part email auto-responder series — but they seem hesitant. Why not offer to write the first one or two emails for free, no strings attached? If the client likes what you wrote, they agree to hire and pay you to write the entire series. The point is, once you’ve landed a good client, you can use free sample copy to ramp up to even bigger projects.

OK, we’ve discussed where to go to find spec challenges. Now let’s address the three things you need to do before writing your copy …

  1. Narrow your focus:If you go to an event where there are dozens of challenges available (such as AWAI Bootcamp), you might end up feeling like a kid in a candy store. You might be tempted to tackle a bunch of them.

    But not so fast! Here’s what spec challenge winner Jackie Johnson has to say about this:

    “My biggest mistake was trying to do as many specs as possible. Result: Major Stress! I stretched myself WAY too thin and it showed in the work. My advice is choose the specs you feel most passionate about, where you have done deep research and have a terrific Big Idea. That was my approach last spec season, when one of my specs became a current control. And that has opened up exciting new opportunities … “

  1. Plan your time wisely:Read the spec instructions carefully before jumping in. Estimate the amount of time you think it will take to complete and then add some hours to that. Many challenges have strict deadlines, so be certain you can you meet the due date before starting.

    Also, consider adding a day or two to your writing schedule before you submit your copy. Set your work aside and then come back to it with a fresh perspective and well-rested brain. You’ll be surprised at the number of improvements you can make to your copy just by using this technique.

  2. Follow the client’s instructions: For many spec challenges, clients will give you very specific instructions on what they’re looking for. This might include copy length, formatting instructions, and a list of dos and don’ts. Before you write one word, familiarize yourself with these instructions and be prepared to follow them to the letter.
  1. Research, research, research:Doing research is key to writing a winning spec assignment. While the client might provide you with a good deal of research with their assignment instructions, you’ll probably need to do your own research as well.

    First off, be sure to check out the client’s website and read everything you can about the product they’re asking you to promote. Make a list of the product’s benefits.

    Write a synopsis of who you think is the target customer. What are their demographics: age, gender, income, job? Likes/dislikes? What problems would buying this product solve for them? What needs or desires would it gratify? The client might offer this information as part of their spec challenge instructions. If so, be sure to review and understand it thoroughly.

    Study the control (the client’s current successful promotion). The client will usually provide a link to this in their instructions. What do you think made this promotion so successful? What could you do to improve upon it?

    Does the client have a free e-newsletter? Subscribe to it. Read the current issue, and back issues if available. Immerse yourself in the newsletter’s tone and writing style.

    For financial publishing specs, do everything mentioned above plus read the blog written by the newsletter editor (sometimes referred to as the “guru”). Pinpoint and understand the editor’s investment strategy. For example, does he focus on dividend investing for the retired investor? Or is he an options trader who touts his ability to make quick gains from small moves in the market?

    What are the guru’s current predictions regarding the markets? Can you weave his latest findings into your headline and lead? Scan the latest financial news for a big idea everyone else is missing and consider including this in your copy.

    For health product spec challenges, make a list of the supplement’s key ingredients. Then research online for information about each ingredient. Be sure to focus on research studies published in reputable scientific journals. Be on the lookout for new studies that list an intriguing health benefit nobody else is talking about that you could build your big idea around.

    If asked to write in the voice of a specific doctor, be sure to read his or her free e-newsletter or online blog. Your spec instructions should list how to find these. Search online for testimonials for your client’s product and consider weaving one or two testimonials into your spec copy.

    Once you’ve done your research, you should have enough information and ideas to begin writing your copy. If you get stuck, keep digging and researching. Your best ideas and copy usually come from the research work you do before writing.

    Brian Ochsner is a successful direct response copywriter who launched his career in 2013 by winning a copywriting challenge for financial publisher Weiss Research. Here’s what he has to say about the importance of doing research:

    “Some of the best research I did was to extensively review past newsletter issues. That’s where the gold nuggets were — in the product itself. Research is really the overlooked key to success for a lot of copy projects. Eugene Schwartz, the author of “Breakthrough Advertising” and one of the greatest copywriters of the 20th century, said the creativity in a product is not within you, it’s within the market. And the key to getting that creativity is doing the research, making sure you understand the prospect and product very well. Before you write a word, you need to understand the conversation going on in your prospect’s head and you can only do that through research.”

Up next: Time for some fun stuff! In the next article, I’ll discuss common spec challenge types … I’ll share with you the copy from a winning spec challenge … plus I’ll give you my best tips for writing copy that just might win you a coveted assignment.

This article is part the series: Build Your Copywriting Business with Spec Challenges