Copywriter, content writer. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to? Not necessarily. So what makes them different? It’s all about the intent.
A professional copywriter’s goal is to pitch your brand to a target audience. They’re selling a product or an idea directly through some type of creative campaign. These could be ads on the subway, social media ads, a commercial for TV, ad space in a magazine, a direct marketing email, and so on.
A content writer, on the other hand, creates copy (mostly for the web) that provides deeper context for what your brand does. The goal is to generate top-of-funnel interest that will lead prospects deeper into the buyer journey.
Copywriting conveys an impression, whereas content writing tends to be more in-depth and explanatory. This Snickers commercial is copywriting:
This online guide to brewing beer is content writing:
One might say that copywriting is “sexier” but perhaps a bit superficial compared to content marketing.
This isn’t to rag on copywriting for being “shallow,” or conversely, to say that content writing can’t be downright compelling. We’ve all seen enough commercials and read our share of listicle content to know that’s just not true.
Not to mention, they play for the same team: your business. Content marketers and copywriters frequently collaborate, and as the lines between the physical and digital become increasingly blurred, so do the lines between their work.
Where copywriters belong on a content marketing team
First, let’s briefly list off the typical content marketing team dynamic (click here for the long version):
- Strategy: Define content marketing’s role in your bigger business objective (domain of marketing directors and content strategists).
- Ideation and execution: Translate those objectives into a creative vision and roadmap for execution (creative directors, project managers, content writers, managing editors).
- Production: Create and revise the actual content (content writers, copy editors, designers, project managers).
- Promotion: Share your content via email campaigns and social posts (social media strategists, content writers).
Finally, this process circles back around to the strategists, who perform analysis to determine how that content is performing.
Where copywriting and content writing converge
Historically, copywriters didn’t necessarily have a role in the above dynamic. But that’s drastically changed over the past few years as the content marketing agency model has matured.
In the old days, content marketing was treated like “the poor man’s copywriting” or pigeonholed into the realm of B2B marketing. It was entirely removed from copywriting. Organizations paid huge premiums to advertising agencies for access to a junior or senior copywriter – or they would commission freelance copywriters for a pretty penny.
But if they wanted web content marketing, they had a number of cost-effective options:
- Create content in house.
- Pay freelancers ad hoc to fill content needs.
- Farm content creation to a third party.
And yes, these same options are still available. However, the expectations for the end product have dramatically evolved.
Why? Because SEO.
Google’s algorithms get smarter by the day so they can populate SERPs with web content that aptly corresponds to what they think the user is searching for. This means content has to be good. Really good.
More than that, though, it means content has to be exceptionally well-promoted on the web and through digital channels (e.g. email) that have traditionally been considered the domain of the content writer.
So we ask again: What does a copywriter do for content marketing?
A writer who’s wearing his or her content marketing hat will attempt to create something that is informative and has direct utility to the reader. That’s why you’ll see a lot of how-to blog posts, listicles (10 ways the cloud saves your business money), etc. The SEO element is always top of mind here, too, so there’s keyword research to consider: What terms map to the subject matter you’re trying to become an authority on? Who’s getting the most backlinks on their website, and why?
With content writing, you also want to be mindful of the types of questions the audience is asking. Don’t be afraid to create long-form content that hits all the major points of a given topic.
When that writer puts on his or her copywriting hat, on the other hand, he or she thinks more promotionally.The aim shifts to creating a message that is concise, powerful and, in a sense, irrefutable. The copywriter creates pithy one-liners and laconic imagery that convey brand identity and values; not 1,000-word blog posts that position a brand as a thought leader on a particular subject.
Content writing lures interest. Copywriting commands action. You need to do both in a modern content marketing campaign.
In this sense, copywriting and content marketing are more like skills than roles. An effective content writer knows when to think like a copywriter, and vice versa. Both need to understand brand identity as they write in order to create a tone of voice that will convey brand values and resonate with the target audience.
Let’s look at an example
A white paper about how cloud-based CRM saves calls for the content marketing mindset. It will be long, informative, useful, and will use trusted sources and well-developed arguments to make the point.
But say you want to do a paid ad campaign on Facebook to promote that white paper. Maybe you orchestrate a “Things that cost less per month than your new cloud-based CRM,” campaign. Each ad can ask that question at the top, and give human interest-type answer at the bottom with a monthly estimate (e.g., refilling your gas tank, doggy daycare, groceries, etc.) along with a photo of that action. This is copywriting being used in content marketing.
Another example is email marketing, which has the highest ROI of any content marketing channel. You’re soliciting a direct action on the part of the recipient. Traditionally, this was the role of the “direct marketing copywriter.” It still requires direct marketing copy, and for that matter, direct response marketing (following up to emails with other content to pull a lead deeper into the funnel).
The only difference is that these conversations are often deeply integrated into a larger web content marketing campaign that is being spearheaded by an in-house content marketing team or a third-party content marketing agency.
In other words, content marketing has adopted copywriting into its processes.
Case in point, the Content Marketing Institute identified these as the top-four most commonly leveraged types of B2B content:
- Social media posts (94 percent).
- Case studies (73 percent).
- Pre-produced videos (72 percent).
- eBooks/ white papers (71 percent).
Numbers one and three err on the side of copywriting, whereas two and four very clearly qualify as content writing. All of them have a place in a content marketing strategy.
Do you need a copywriter who can write content, or vice versa?
The job functions of “content writer” and “copywriter” are now often used interchangeably. You may have even come across the job title “digital copywriter” or “SEO copywriter” which, upon closer inspection, basically describe a content writer who maybe has some copywriting responsibilities.
Conversely, a “content writer” posting might request experience writing email copy, Twitter copy, and quite possibly even sales copy.
My point? A career in content writing will invariably lead to copywriting experience, and vice versa. Because content writers need copywriters, and copywriters need content writers. The trick is finding someone who can do both. A professional copywriter or content writer will typically have a bachelor’s degree in English, literature, journalism or creative writing, but they don’t necessarily have to. A strong writer’s portfolio speaks for itself.
And sure, you’ll certainly still find old-school ad agencies that only do TV commercials for big-name brands. In these cases, the most competitive candidates will be those with a master’s degree in business or communication. But again, paper isn’t a substitute for experience or for talent. Not to mention, your business might not be in a place where it needs to spend several million golden doubloons on a video series produced by the most elite advertisers in the country.
At the end of the day, the evolution of the digital world is clearly leading to a dynamic where content writing and copywriting both have their place in the grander universe that is the internet.
You can a lot more bang for your buck working with writers who understand that.