Editor’s note: Updated June 2019.
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 basically pitches your brand to a target audience. They promote or sell a product or an idea directly through some type of creative campaign. These could be ads on the subway, social media or in a magazine, a commercial for TV, 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 and establish a sense of authority 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.
But first, a quick note about copyright law
Skip ahead if you already understand the difference between “copywrite” and “copyright.”
And if you don’t, rest assured, you’re not the first to make this mistake. They are homophones, after all.
When content is copyrighted (as opposed to copywritten), it is protected as an author’s original expression, meaning it cannot be reproduced, published or sold without permission. More simply, copyright law is how content creators protect ownership of the things they make. This includes written copy and even emails that have been sent, but also visual and audio content.
Once a copyright expires (70 years after the death of the author), the content enters the public domain, meaning no one has exclusive property rights.
And, for the sake of complete clarity, copyediting refers to the practice of editing written copy to improve readability, style consistency and overall content quality.
With that out of the way, we can move on.
Where copywriters belong on a content marketing team
Let’s begin by listing 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.
- Outsource content creation to a third-party agency writer.
And yes, these same options are still available. However, the expectations for the end product have dramatically evolved.
Why? Because SEO.
Search engines are getting 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” or “A comprehensive to-do list for the first-time homebuyer”), 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.
More simply, promotional copy is a type of content that plays a specific role in a content marketing strategy.
Let’s look at an example
A white paper about how cloud-based CRM saves money calls for the content marketing mindset. It will be long, informative, useful and will rely on 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 more per month than your new cloud-based CRM” campaign. Each ad can depict a monthly cost estimate of an activity for comparison such as refilling your gas tank, doggy daycare, grocery shopping, etc. This is copywriting 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 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 and white papers (71 percent).
Numbers one and three err on the side of copywriting, whereas two and four very clearly qualify as content writing. Again, 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. You may even hear of advertisers tasked with “SEO copywriting.”
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. More specifically, look for writers who have hands-on experience, and who can demonstrate an ability to adopt, or even patent, client voice.
And, sure, you’ll certainly still find old-school ad agencies that do TV commercials, YouTube ads and billboards for big-name brands. This is the domain of the advertising copywriter. They might be freelance or in-house, but more often will work for an agency. Either way, the most competitive candidates for this role typically have 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 gold doubloons on a video series produced by the most elite advertisers in the country.
Agency vs. in-house vs. freelancing: Is one option best?
You may be able to find freelance copywriters who charge much less than an established agency writer working at a reputable firm. However, this is a classic case of “you get what you pay for” – especially considering many freelance content writers will call themselves copywriters because they believe the title sounds more distinguished.
Remember, copywriting is a particular type of content writing, and not all freelancers will necessarily make that distinction. If you do go with a freelancer, just make sure you very clearly outline the types of projects they’ll work on and that you adequately review their portfolio and qualifications.
Hiring in-house may make sense in some contexts, but agencies and freelancers will usually be the more cost-effective option. The average national base pay for a copywriter is more than $62,000. This doesn’t include the cost of benefits (health, 401K, vacation) or the fact that the volume of work may vary quarter to quarter.
Content writing used to be significantly cheaper than copywriting. It was easier to game Google in the early days of the web. Stuffing rehashed news articles with keywords was the go-to SEO strategy for many brands circa 2008.
And unlike copywritten ads that were meant to be more heavily promoted through paid channels (magazines, YouTube ads, commercials on TV or streaming services, etc.), organic web content could be posted and promoted cheaply. Up until the early 2010s, content writers really just needed Microsoft Word and a search engine to do their jobs.
Today, you can still find freelance content writers with low rates (a penny per word, in some cases). But the web is saturated with marketing content. Creating content that will rank organically on search engines and build trust among the right people requires perfect synchronization between strategists and creatives, which is hard to achieve with a cobbled-together team of freelancers.
Hiring in-house is also an option, but the average content writer’s salary has exceeded $47,000. An agency will likely charge more than freelancers, but typically much less than it would cost to create an in-house content marketing team from scratch. It would also focus on results-driven content creation as opposed to content for the sake of content.
Just as importantly, content marketing agencies have already begun offering copywriting services.
Because 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 get a lot more bang for your buck working with an agency with staff writers who understand that.