Copywriter or content writer – which one does your website project need?

Sharon Tanton

What’s the difference between copywriting and content writing? Does it matter? How do you ensure you hire the right writers for your website project?

Sharon Tanton and Sonja Jefferson

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 Jefferson and Sharon Tanton

Copy and content: two sides of the writing coin in play

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]

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24 Comments

  1. Interesting distinction. I feel like I have both inside me — I can switch from the copywriter (an ad guy who started his career actually on Madison Avenue) to the content writer (who grew up in B2B, with long form content far outweighing the pithy, punchy stuff).

    Since you both write blog posts so well — and the book is so good — I imagine you guys can switch pens at will.

    I have met copywriters who struggle with long form, roll-up-your-sleeves stuff and I’ve met content geeks who can’t spin a great headline, tagline or poster line. But for me, it’s way more fun to be able to attempt both.

    Reply
    • …is the correct (and most welcome) answer Doug. As a former journo with half a mind in the creative zone and half in the factual, B2B, nitty gritty I find I can turn my hand to both (so I’m glad you said that). Are these two roles merging?

      Reply
      • Sharon Tanton

        Being able to do both is a real advantage, as is the ability to know which skill to turn the heat up on when. I love the fact that quite a few of the comments mention what’s most fun to do. That’s important too. As Doug also says, the best content is created when people are enjoying themselves. I don’t think us writers like being pigeon-holed.

        Reply
    • I agree with Doug, and feel much the same way. I’m a writer. That means I can do long, I can do short, hell I can even do medium. Although hopefully rarely average.

      However, I don’t believe anyone can do all of it (both..?) brilliantly; we all have our strong suits and bête noires. For example, there are people out there who can do the short and snappy much better than me. But I’m confident in my ability to make 1,500 words a joy to read.

      (90 words, 10 minutes, six edits, still not completely happy, realise I’m obsessing, hits ‘submit comment’)

      Reply
  2. Sharon Tanton

    Thanks Doug. Like you, we can do both, and work on most copy together (one starts, the other finishes.) But I think there is a difference and this kind of explains it: I reckon if there was a choice between writing exactly 50 great words to fit on a home page panel, and writing a good long form post I’d choose the 50 words and Sonja would go for the longer one.

    Reply
  3. VC

    Cheers Doug. You have a perfect balance there.

    Interesting comment from Chris Butler of Newfangled fame over on LinkedIn. He adds in a useful distinction from the book publishing world:

    “The way I see it, one is broader than the other. Similarly, the same distinction applies, but perhaps more tightly, to copyediting vs. editing. In that context, an editor is more of an idea-shaper, and works with an author to help translate an idea for the benefit of an audience. A copyeditor, on the other hand, is more about evaluating specific language choices, and offers suggestions on anything from spelling to syntax.

    So, with that in mind, a copywriter, at least in my mind, plays a role of similar scope to a copyeditor. The ideas are already worked through, but the execution is not. Content writers, on the other hand, often have a larger, more strategically-oriented job.

    That’s why I tend to prefer the term Content Strategist, because it includes two aspects of the job often given to this person: the identification of audience, the assessment of which content types best suit the message and the audience, the organization of existing content and future content production, the evaluation of new content for alignment with marketing initiatives, and last — but not least — sometimes the actual writing of that content. When that writing is done, per Sonja and Sharon’s point in the article, it tends to be on the longer side.”

    A pretty accurate description of my role on a project. I think being able to write as a content strategist is important. It means you can demonstrate what’s possible for the client’s content as well as helping to frame the ideas. I’ve noticed an interesting interplay between content (strategy) and copy (writing). Ideas and words can come from both sides to feed into a great solution. It really does help to have close collaboration between both parties, and no battling egos. Have you found this too?

    I welcome other opinions.

    Sonja

    See: https://www.linkedin.com/nhome/updates?activity=6181462107570139138&goback=&trk=hb_ntf_COMMENTED_ON_UPDATE_YOU_CREATED.

    Reply
  4. Such a great question, and one I’ve thought about a lot.

    I agree there are no hard-and-fast definitions for “copywriter” and “content writer”, especially not in the UK. In the US, there seems to be a stronger sense of the difference: a copywriter is someone who writes short, persuasive, sales-oriented copy, while a content writer is more akin to a journalist, and probably even has a professional background in journalism.

    I’ve had a theory for a while that there are actually seven distinct types of copywriter, and it matters a lot which type you choose for which project. Writers like Doug who can switch between modes at will are extremely rare. (I wish there were lots and lots of writers with Doug’s level of versatility, but there are not!)

    Much as you describe in your post, when we get a website project, I will think very carefully about which of our writers to assign which bits to. Ideally, it’s a creative copywriter for the main pages, to establish the tone and carry it through; a persuasion copywriter for the landing pages, to drive people to download stuff; a journalist-type copywriter for the blogs (I usually see this as a separate project from the website, tbh); and an explainer copywriter for the white papers/ebooks, etc.
    Unless they’re very versatile, playing any of these types outside of their main area of expertise usually results in less-good copy, which means more editing, and/or more rounds of amends from the client, and/or copy that under-delivers on its potential.

    I do like the distinction “copy sells, content tells” – that’s really nice and I will nick it forthwith! But I think that in our marketing world, the content has to sell too, just in a more subtle and helpful way. Maybe it sells an idea rather than an product, for example.

    Thanks for this post, I will be really happy if it spurs a few more people to think about choosing the right kind of writer for each format. They’ll definitely see better results if they do.

    Reply
  5. Sharon Tanton

    Thanks Fiona, that’s a really thoughtful answer. And you’re right, in our marketing world, all content is selling in some way. I’m interested to know if your writers define themselves as creative copywriter, persuasion copywriter etc before they come to you, or if you uncover their skills on the job? I think it would help both writers and clients if we defined the jobs words have to do more clearly!

    Reply
  6. Hi Sharon, good question – most of the existing writing team here had no previous background in commercial copywriting, so we uncovered their skills on the job (and that process is actually what led me to my seven-types-of-copywriter theory). But now we’re recruiting with the seven types in mind, to ensure we’re hiring a good range of different copywriting skills.

    In reality, the distinctions aren’t *quite* as tight as I make out, and there are other things to consider as well – e.g. which writer knows the most about a particular subject area, or which writer will be most enthusiastic about the job. Aside from skill, enthusiasm for the project is a very big factor influencing the quality of the resulting copy – but that’s a whole different blog post!

    Reply
    • Sonja Jefferson

      Fiona – that’s such a sensible approach to help you place and recruit your writers. This is a fascinating debate and thank you so much for taking part in it. Our industry is maturing and we’re seeing an increasing need for great content skills to help the business world. Here in Bristol in the wider creative agency field there’s a shortage of new talent coming into the industry. We will face (are facing?) this in content land too. If we can define the skills needed to do a great job more clearly perhaps we can find a way to attract and train more good people to join our industry. I’ll drop you an email. Wondering if we can continue this debate with a panel discussion for Bristol Content Group?

      Reply
  7. Great article and interesting question. The quality of the responses attests to that. I’m certainly with you on the origins of the terms. Ad world meets marketing content universe and yes the distinction of ‘copy sells and content tells’ is a neat summation.

    When building the content team at the Octopus Group (a former life) there was a great balance to be had in having the long form and short form skills. It also depended on the subject material and client attitude. Trying to create punchy, relevant content with clients that technical, conservative and risk averse can be really tough for a writer. So often you’d create something that is sharp, readable and interesting and the client would then butcher it by insisting on filling it with ‘product blurb’.

    I always felt we missed the ‘ad style’ punch in what we did and some writers miss the covert ‘CTA’ or ongoing content journey that the piece of content is part of. So I’m with Doug on this one and that you ideally need to be able to do both (it’s more fun) and the skill often missed by content writers is the ability to think beyond the single piece and to consider the campaign as a whole.

    Reply
  8. Sharon Tanton

    Thanks Steevan, I’m with you on the heart sinking moment of writing sharp creative copy for a client only to have it completely submerged under product blurb or sales spin….. Love your last point “the skill often missed by content writers is the ability to think beyond the single piece and to consider the campaign as a whole.” And indeed the business as a whole. Whatever you’re writing – a call to action or a white paper – you need the bigger picture in mind.

    Reply
  9. Sounds great Sonja re. Bristol Content Group – I’ll look forward to your email. I have to say, the fact that the industry is thinking in this kind of depth about copywriting skills is a huge step forward from 10-odd years ago, when no one seemed to give much thought to copywriters at all! Just goes to show how important well-written, valuable content has become.

    Reply
  10. Well, since you ask… *removes gloves* …

    I discern the busy chatter of mediaeval clerics arguing about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin.

    As I write this I am sitting waiting for a client in a global business. Were I to ask them this question, I am sure their answer would be, “I don’t know and I don’t care”.

    It shows a lack of awareness of what copywriting is and has always been to suggest that it is sizzle while “content writing” is steak. Has nobody here ever heard of direct marketing?

    Given the soft metrics applied to much content marketing, one could, uncharitably, suggest that people who prefer writing content are those unable or unwilling to sell.

    Incidentally, for writers interested in the best-paid gigs, forget content. The closer you are to the p&l, the more your clients will be willing to pay you.

    The use of information as a sales tool is nothing new. US fmcg companies were giving away recipe books in the 1930s.

    In short, copywriting is an enduring technical selling skill that has been around for centuries; content writing is a faddy name for a very small subset of the jobs any skilled writer can perform.

    Reply
  11. I am both copywriter and content writer. I think it’s worth splitting them even though a copywriter would do both because it helps people understand. I see it like this:

    My copywriting job is for emails, admin-type pages and anywhere that people just want to get a transactional value. When shit needs to get done and delight is secondary. I’d group ads with this because it’s short, quick stuff.

    My content writing job is blogs, guides, our advice area and even speeches. Anything that takes a bit of story and essay writing. I’d go so far as to whisper the word *journalism* here. I’d walk away pretty quickly, though.

    Both have lots of craft and psychological rules but in very different ways.

    Both are also lovely but I’m glad my job title isn’t Content Writer anymore because it was a LIE.

    Reply
    • Sharon Tanton

      Nicely put. I can tell you’re a writer! Not much love for the term ‘content writer,’ is there? Time for something new?

      Reply
  12. Wow…great commentary. The one thing I can add to this conversation is this – in the US, “content writer” is never, ever used. I’ve seen in-house journalist, content creation specialist, or just plain old writer.

    I prefer writer…”I need a writer with XYZ experience”

    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Sonja Jefferson

      Thanks a lot Joe. Great to have you as part of the discussion.

      That’s an interesting view from the US. Maybe plain old ‘business writer’ is the easiest option!

      I think we have a job to do as an industry to help clients get clarity on the experience they need to ask for from the writers they hire, so they deliver what’s needed for their specific projects. This post was motivated by the frustration we heard from leaders in a large, blue chip client. They do care about this!

      In many of the digital/creative sectors here in the UK we’re suffering from a skills shortage right now (See: http://www.bristolmedia.co.uk/news/3518/support-a-crowdfunding-campaign-and-launch-a-creative-career). Is that the same in the US? This is an amazing opportunity for writers. If we can get clearer on the variety of roles needed we can encourage and train new people to join our industry. Whether we talk about copy or content – there are some fascinating careers in our field.

      Reply
  13. Andy Maslen, you’ve hit the nail on the head (or should that be the pin?). The image I had in my mind was navel gazing, with content being the fluff. Sorry, that’s too unkind as some content is valuable, subtle, effective (about 5%, 10%, 20% of it? Someone must have the data on this…and we need to know). Whatever, but clients don’t give a toss, so it’s probably not worth spending too much time on debating.

    As Sharon points out, different web pages perform different tasks and the trick is to write something that does that particular job on that specific page. That’s about it and you can call it what you like.

    As a grumpy old git maybe I should style myself a discontent writer?

    Reply
    • Sharon Tanton

      Thanks for commenting Jim. We’ve really kicked the hornet’s nest with this one!

      The reason we wrote the blog was two contacts told us they were having difficulties finding the right writers for their website projects, and they wondered if they were looking for the right thing.

      So I do think that clients care; they might not care about the name, but they do want to find good ‘web savvy writers with a sound understanding of content strategy who understand the different functions that words need to perform on different areas of the website, and who can write those bits in a way that keeps the reader happy.’ (And that’s not a catchy title, in fact it might be worse than ‘content writer!’)

      There are different specialist roles at play in digital marketing projects, and we were opening the debate to try and make things clear for clients so they can hire the right skills.

      Reply
    • Sharon Tanton

      Cheers Ian. We’re listening now!

      Reply
  14. “Content tells, copy sells.”

    This also resonates with me.

    In my contacts with freelancers (mainly US-based), I find that most of them promote themselves as freelance bloggers, content strategists or copywriters. Freelance bloggers tend to write blog posts (duh!), but sometimes also white papers and ebooks, so it’s mainly educational content. When they get more involved in planning the content, they tend to market themselves as content strategists. Most copywriters would focus on writing copy to sell–emails, landing pages, and any other web copy. Some might also do offline material, and a few of them still write blog posts or ebooks, but they tend to do that less (as copywriting projects tend to get paid better).

    My two writing courses are set up the same – either you learn how to create blog posts to educate and and inspire readers (what you call “content”) or you learn how to write emails and web copy (the copywriting course).

    As you also point out, long landing pages are a bit of a grey area as they are focused on selling, but also need to do a fair bit of education.

    In my view, measuring results of content is equally important as measuring the results of copy. With copy, it’s usually relatively easy–you can measure it in sales. With content, email subscribers are a good way to measure, but in the early stages this can be tricky as it takes time before content starts performing, so sometimes people use “dummy” measures like traffic, social shares, or even “how much good stuff have we published?” As long as we realize these measures don’t give a real indication of success and need to be replace overtime, then I don’t see that as a problem.

    I personally like writing both content and copy 🙂

    Reply
    • Sharon Tanton

      Thanks for commenting Henneke. Really like your point about measuring the effectiveness of whatever words you’re writing, and the different ways of doing it. You’re right, with sales copy it’s easier to tell if you’ve hit the mark – did the reader do what I wanted them to do straight away? With educational or helpful content, it can be more of a slow burn – did this connect with the reader so they’ll like, trust and remember me when the time is right to buy?

      I can tell you like writing both – I like the variety too.

      Reply

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