These little self-promotional messages are notoriously difficult to get right. But they really, really matter because that email or intro paragraph is the candidate’s opportunity to sell themselves and get across why they’re right for the role, how they stand out from the crowd, and why their application deserves to be taken further.
In short, the covering message is a critical piece of content self-marketing. Like any piece of content marketing, it needs to both inform and engage.

If the applicant can’t make a good first impression of promoting themselves through their content, how will they manage to do it for a client?
So here, based on many years of CV sifting, are eight ways NOT to apply for a content role. For obvious reasons, all of these quotes are completely made up. But they each reflect an approach I or my colleagues have often seen.

For each I’ve added a few thoughts about why it doesn’t work for us, and a key takeaway or two… 

Tonal overload

Hey! So I had a great chat with one of your colleagues not so long ago (name of Joe I think? Lovely man anyhow) and he whizzed me over your way (you lucky old so-and-so). So naturally I thought, why not run Dan through a few of my creds and see if I can’t wow/threaten/blackmail him into meeting up for a quick cuppa to discuss maybe working together? So – deep breath – let’s get to it… (etc etc).

But you don’t get to it, do you? You go right round the houses, with lots of self-conscious informality and backstory that isn’t really of value to someone who probably has quite a few such emails to read. Get to the point. Respect your recipient’s time. Don’t overdo the tone.

One size fits all

Dear content director/creative director/head of copy… OR To whom it may concern…

So now we’ve gone from over-familiarity (pretending to know someone you don’t) to a hopelessly generic approach (not even bothering to find out the name of the person you’re applying to).

This sort of one-size-fits-all approach just comes over as lazy and unprofessional. Great content makes the recipient think and feel it was written for them. Personalise every job application. 

Can I borrow your career?

I’ve recently undergone a career change and, following a creativity workshop, digital looks like an interesting avenue for me. OK, so my 20 years in estate agency and HR consultancy, plus the odd spot of acting (The Bill anyone?) aren’t the natural progression, but sometimes the brightest lights hide under the most unlikely bushels…

The thing about copywriting or content strategy is that it’s a career, like acting or HR. It takes time and aptitude and experience to be any good at it.

So candidates who imply that they can just pick it up, or that this digital stuff is an easy game to play till their real work picks up, tend not to be well received.

Believe it or not, people like me aren’t just sitting around looking for a chance to train up people like that.   

If you want to change careers, you have to be prepared to do the legwork. Get some work experience, build up your contacts, study the market.

Don’t expect to get much work off people whose jobs you don’t take seriously.

The ‘creative’ approach

For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with the possibilities of verbal expression. Words are my DNA. I love to weave trails of meaning across the tapestry of infinity. And so, ever since I could, I have written – autobiographical fragments, experimental fairy tales, slasher novellas, one epic bildungsroman… and, of course, lots and lots of engaging and relevant seo content. To each task I bring the same attention to detail, the same intensity of purpose, the same creative dynamism.

Just as frustrated reporters don’t make the best sub-editors, so frustrated creative writers don’t always make the best content marketers.

There is plenty of creativity in content, of course, but it’s less about expressing your inner essence and more about being creative on behalf of your clients and working magic within constraints: coming up with interesting editorial ideas about difficult b2b subjects, say, or trying to compress a white paper’s message into a compelling tweet.

Dial down the creative writing ambitions and showcase your ability to meet a difficult brief, deal with clients, build out an editorial calendar. If that’s not your cup of tea, then maybe this is the wrong application for you? 

The impenetrable slab 

Hello, I’m a digital copywriter and content strategist with nine years’ experience working across a wide range of sectors and subject areas – including b2b, b2c, not-for-profit and Government departments. After a couple of years in online PR, where I gained my spurs as a writer of killer press releases, I joined a digital marketing start-up as their all-singing, all-dancing go-to content guru. I developed a series of workshops to support clients in developing the writing skills of their own teams, wrote everything from white papers and e-books to video scripts and e-crm campaigns, and was a frequent speaker on all things content at industry events. Five years ago, I took the plunge to go freelance and have broadened my experience base even further…

In our office, one of the worst things that you can say about a piece of copy is that it’s ‘slabby’. It’s hard to see how someone could have worked so long in digital without having come across chunking, or bullets and bold, or content formats…      

Match your message to your medium. How about ‘five reasons why you should hire me’?

Sorry seems to be the easiest word 

Hey, I don’t know if you remember me but we once met at a conference and you said to send in my CV. I realise you’re probably really busy and bombarded non-stop with CVs, and I know you have a great team in place already, but I thought I could share my details with you just on the off chance that something might come that might possibly be a good match for my skillset.

No one likes an overly pushy person, but this is your one moment to promote your wares. Copywriters use words to drive conversions. If you don’t sound confident about your skills, how do you expect anyone else to believe in you?

Think hard about the tone of your message. Worried about sounding arrogant? Go for calm and confident instead. Don’t feel confident? Use your writing skills to pretend otherwise.

Misteaks, I’ve made a few… 

I’m a freelance copyeditor and writer looking for a new roll in a content marketing agency like yours…

Not the best place to plant a howling typo. Attention to detail and quality control are crucial at this high-stakes moment.

Check your words. Run them past another pair of eyes, check out the preview. Then check again. 

Get to the back of the queue

Dear Dan, I’m a content writer with an obsession for food, travel and cinema, both doing and writing. I’d love to talk about how we might be able to match your content needs to my skills and passions.

Funnily enough, quite a few people are keen on food and films and travel, and would love to be paid to write about them.

But in content marketing, you often have to write about familiar or unsexy or technical subjects, such as van insurance or business broadband or boreholes. 

Show you’re not afraid to turn your hand to difficult subjects. No one expects you to know everything about everything – they’re looking for a journalistic aptitude to tackle the unknown, ask the right questions and learn fast.

Five tips for your covering letter

  • Keep it brief and purposeful. Pick out a few key highlights.   
  • Match your experience to the position. Show you’ve thought about the company and the role.
  • Be respectful and realistic about your recipient’s time.Make it easy for people to contact you.  
  • Focus on facts and company names rather than personal mission statements. 
  • Demonstrate your understanding of digital and content marketing best practice in what you write and how you present your words.