Websites need words, but who should write them?
When it comes to the difference between content writers and copywriters I should come clean – it’s blurry. But here’s how we see it at VC and why we think understanding the distinction is helpful. We’re throwing the question out to our friends in the digital marketing industry, and we’d love to hear your take on it too.
The term ‘copywriter’ has a long history in the advertising industry. It’s copywriters who come up with catchy advertising slogans. It was most definitely a copywriter who urged you to ‘go to work on an egg’ in the 1960s or to ‘Just Do It’ in the 1990s. Copywriters are smart and sassy, and they’ve been around for years. According to Wikipedia, John Emory Powers (1837-1919) was the world’s first full-time copywriter. He was responsible for a successful necktie campaign under the snappy “They’re not as good as they look, but they’re good enough — 25 cents” tagline in the 1870s.
Content writers haven’t been around for so long, and they don’t have an illustrious past. There are no sexy Mad Men of the content writing industry. The term ‘content writer’ has evolved from ‘content marketing,’ which makes grasping its meaning a bit tricky. Content marketing is an ill-defined phrase, so too is its offshoot, the content writer. Is ‘content’ just the digital version of ‘copy,’ so is a content writer responsible for all the words on an online page?
Yes, and no.
What words where?
Words have different jobs to do in different parts of a website. Different writing skills are needed to make these words work. You might not need a different writer to help you write the various sections, but whoever does the writing needs an understanding of the way websites work, and of the role valuable content plays in attracting the reader and keeping her happy.
A not entirely satisfactory but workable way of seeing the distinction is between long copy and short copy. Content writers are responsible for the longer hardworking sections of words, copywriters handle the short sexy stuff. Content tells, copy sells.
Here’s how we see it when it comes to a website project:
- Home page: Needs a fair sprinkling of short punchy copy. Tightly written messages that sum up what you’re about and how you help. Some old fashioned copywriting skills of making every word count are useful here.
- About us: Again, some copywriting magic to make sure you’re coming across in the way you’d like to is useful. Tone of voice is important – likeable, trustworthy, general good egg – all those things matter in an About Us section
- Services pages: Can play these pages very straight – they need to explain clearly and simply how your services help the reader. A content writer’s understanding of how the services fit with the valuable content and the rest of the navigation on the site is called for here.
- Blogs: Content writers job, working with in-house experts, although a copywriter’s final flourish to polish up titles, sub headings, opening paragraph could be helpful.
- Microcopy – calls to action etc: Copywriting skills come into play here. No room for waffle, you need a few good words that make people take action.
- Guides, papers etc: Content writers job, working with the client’s inhouse experts. Copywriter can polish if you like.
How we play at VC
Sonja and I come to writing from very different backgrounds. I have an English degree, started my career in magazine features, trained as an English teacher and and love creative writing; Sonja studied Sociology, and started out in B2B sales before becoming a consultant and writer. She’s fascinated by how the right words can help businesses thrive.
We use our different writing skills and interests to meet the digital marketing challenge:
- I’m good at short creative copy, explaining complicated things in as few words as possible, keeping it simple, finding the new angle, lateral thinking, stamping out boring phrases, defining and writing in the right tone of voice for the audience.
- Sonja’s the strategist and big ideas person, good at longer content, thought leadership pieces and understanding what words are needed where and why.
- She’s the one standing in front of a white board, waving her arms about, explaining the bigger picture to our clients and motivating the website team.
- I’m the one sitting in front of the screen, making the words sing.
We both write blogs, editing each others as we go along. We wrote our book together. And we both have a role to play in helping our clients create websites that work.
How do you hire the right writer?
So why does distinguishing between copy and content matter? And how does this help you if you’re sourcing writers for your project?
The world of digital marketing has an insatiable appetite for words – to entertain, persuade, reassure, delight, inform, help, inspire, lead, motivate, calm and everything in-between and round the edges. Words really matter.
We’ve seen clients struggling to get their web projects working because they’re employing copywriters to fill in text boxes rather than asking content writers to think strategically about the customer journey as they write the words that will appear online. And we’ve seen hundreds of examples of lack lustre home pages that are just crying out for some copywriting magic dust.
Understand what you want the words to do, and hire the right person to write them for you. Just as there are different styles of designers, there are different flavours of writers. The skills of both content writers and copywriters are needed on a website. Employ them where they fit most naturally, and get them working together, and your website words will fly.
Copy vs. content – does it matter?
What’s the difference between copywriting and content writing? (That’s not a joke. It’s a genuine question!) Is it important to make the distinction? How do you ensure you hire the right writers for your project?
We don’t have all the answers here and we’d really love your view.
[Update: We’re continuing this debate at Bristol Content Group on 1st November 2016. Tickets here]