At parties, my friends often herd me into conversations with other writer-types. Oh, you know what, Sarah over there just got hired as a copy editor – I’ll introduce you! But the subtext is usually: You know who else is awkward at parties? My friend Sarah who owns a collection of vintage encyclopedias.
Then, I am inevitably introduced as Alex the Copywriter, even though my LinkedIn profile clearly states that I am Alex the Content Writer.
I have long since stopped correcting this error, because sometimes I do actually write copy – and a first impression probably isn’t the right time to display my persnickety side.
Fortunately, this blog is the perfect platform for me to be fastidious about the distinction between content and copy.
Let’s start with a concise definition of each term for the TL;DR crowd, and then we’ll expand each concept to better understand the roles they play in modern marketing:
- Copy is written communication used to persuade an audience to take an action or to raise their awareness of a brand.
- Examples: Ads, email marketing, landing pages, brochures.
- Content is information communicated to an audience through media.
- Examples: Copy, videos, infographics, podcasts, blogs, articles.
In other words, all copy is content, but not all content is copy. Simple, right? Not always. Because web content can take written form and still not be considered copy, it’s easy to get confused. Just keep this old adage in mind: content tells, copy sells.
A landing page about product features? That’s copy. A white paper about industry trends? That’s content. But before we get ahead of ourselves with examples, let’s get some more context.
A brief history of copywriting and content writing
Starting from humble beginnings in the early 1900s, modern copywriting grew into a global phenomenon in post-war America. Many of the brands you know and trust today took shape during the 1950s and 1960s. These were the Mad Men days when copywriters pitched big campaigns and swilled even bigger martinis. And while that second point may be up for debate in regard to all copywriters hailing from that era, their creativity was certainly distinct from the advertisers of previous generations.
In a short span of time, ad copy evolved from hackneyed and prescriptive blocks of text to bold and psychologically aware consumer appeals. Just look at these two ads, which were published roughly 20 years apart:
The Pontiac ad from the 1940s features long-form copy that expounds upon all of the great features of the car, and there’s a heavy-handed visual reference to the car’s affordability and value. In the Kellogg’s ad from the 1960s, the visual story takes precedence over the tagline and brand name. It’s got that Norman Rockwell vibe that reminds you of wholesome, all-American family values. It doesn’t tell the reader much, but the emotions it evokes are clearly intended to make a sale.
Both types of copy still exist on the web today, and you’ve probably encountered them frequently. You can draw a direct parallel between the Pontiac ad and web copy found on a modern landing page, and you could draw another between the Kellogg’s ad and a social media display ad.
Modern content marketing also has roots in the early 1900s. According to the Content Marketing Institute, brands like Johnson & Johnson and Michelin began publishing how-to guides around the turn of the 20th century. Today, brands publish the same type of content through blogs, apps, eBooks and infographics.
Content marketing has also evolved quite a bit over the years, and web content in particular has had a tumultuous existence. In the wild-west days of the first Google searches, keyword stuffing could shoot pages to the top of results. Gradually, visual content become more important and search intent became the name of the game. Analytics then opened a whole new level of sophistication. Modern content marketing strategies leverage multiple types of media, audience remarketing platforms, automation technology and an array of SEO tools.
The twin evolutions of content and copy have been the source of some confusion among marketers, clients and hiring managers. Earlier, I said that copy referred strictly to written content – but wouldn’t that include video scripts and prepared speeches? While I could get bogged down in semantics – as I often do at parties – let’s focus on intent as we explore the examples below.
Content tells, copy sells.
Examples of content
Generally, blog posts attract users to websites by leveraging organic search. Organic, in this case, means that the blog publisher isn’t paying for clicks. Users search for information and click on the links that are most likely to satisfy their needs.
In fact, this very article is a prime example of informational content! Perhaps you wanted to better understand the definitions of content and copy, or you wanted to settle a debate with that co-worker who thinks he knows everything. If I’ve done my job correctly, this post will answer all of your burning questions.
Informed prospects make better leads. When sales representatives speak with potential customers, they’ll have less difficulty closing the deal if they don’t have to spend precious time explaining their business and establishing credibility.
White papers serve to educate and inform prospects before they interact with the sales department. Utilizing high-quality research, interesting visuals and clear takeaways, white papers establish brand authority without attempting to sell anything to the reader.
Though eBooks serve a similar purpose to white papers – they build thought leadership and engage a targeted audience – they often try to teach the reader something new. That’s why you’ll often find how-to guides in eBook format.
This type of content is very appealing to visual learners because eBooks tend to feature rich imagery, bulleted lists and short paragraphs. Plus, they’re easy to share, which makes them an ideal tool for B2B marketers who need to reach multiple decision-makers.
Examples of copy
When brands want to make a good first impression, there are few better ways to do so than with a landing page. Copy is essential to a good landing page; it generates leads by describing product or service features, and establishes credibility through customer testimonials and similar appeals.
Landing page copy works alongside video content, forms, calls to action and company logos to guide the reader further down the sales funnel. It certainly informs the reader, but its main intention is to sell.
Site banner ads
Banner ads don’t have a lot of room for text, so the copy they employ needs to be concise and targeted at a specific audience. They most often contain a keyword and a call-to-action, though they may also use videos and animation to attract readers.
Social media ads
I like to think of social media ads as the logical evolution of newspaper ads. The main focus of a social ad is usually a graphic or video, which is supported by a few lines of copy. The ability to include links, hashtags and comments makes them better at encouraging engagement than their predecessors.
Social ads need to work their magic before users scroll away, so the copy they use needs to be punchy and straight to the point.
Copy, content and SEO
Content marketers employ effective copywriting and other types of content to improve conversion rates, build audiences and spread brand awareness. No matter what type of content is being produced, it needs to be optimized for search engines. Without SEO, all of that great content will go unnoticed in the dusty depths of the internet.
Copy and other forms of content can serve outbound and inbound marketing strategies by making connections with potential customers and strengthening that relationship.
As a content creator, having clear definitions of content and copy makes it easier to produce valuable work. When you understand the intention of your written, visual and audio communications, you’ll find more opportunities to connect with customers in meaningful ways.
If you want to discuss the nuances between content and copy further, drop a comment below, or look for me at a party – I’ll be the one eating all the artichoke dip and having a debate about grammar.