My name's Pam, and I'm a content writer at BSTRO digital marketing agency. I weave complex thoughts into grammatically breathtaking copy (according to my Instagram bio). Writers like me can make your brand story sing. We help win over the masses to your product or service, and we entice them to keep coming back for more.
But when it's time to outsource copywriting (or content writing) to bolster your marketing strategy, you need to be clear on one thing: Should you hire a copywriter or a content writer?
Unless you're a fellow wizard with words—or you employ writers—there's a chance you don't know your copywriters from your content writers and didn't realize there's a difference. That's OK! Katie and I are BSTRO's senior writers, and we'll explain all the differences (and similarities) so you can hire the writer that's right for your project.
What does a copywriter do?
Katie: Good question! I get asked that a lot, because most of my friends have no idea what I do for a living, and I'm pretty sure my cousin thinks I'm a copyright lawyer. (I'm not.) What I am is a writer, and the words I write appear on ads, websites, product packaging, social media posts, gifs, videos, and any kind of marketing material you can think of.
I think the one key differentiator in my role, in my specific type of writing, is that I'm not dreaming up the content myself. I'm taking what I'm told (from a client or brand) and I'm presenting it in a new way—with the goal of making it concise, persuasive, informative, and interesting.
What does a content writer do?
Pam: Content writers are sometimes called Web content writers, SEO content writers, or content specialists... It's about strategic writing for content marketing. Content marketing is crucial to build awareness about and interest in your brand, and to prove its trustworthiness and value to your audience. Someone has to write that magical content—that's me.
Content writers think about the whole puzzle as well as the individual piece of copy—how the keywords need to fit, which buyer personas are being targeted, how it will be shared and translated to social, even how to make it evergreen content that stands the test of time. We do dream up original content ourselves... using a content strategy, a content calendar, and a bunch of sexy spreadsheets.
What's a copywriter's style of writing?
Katie: Writing concisely is the No. 1 goal of copywriting. I remember in middle school I watched a sitcom in which the students took a final exam in a marketing course. It was an essay test, and there was only one question: What is the key to effective communication? The main character had stayed up all night studying and was super stressed about failing. But she got an A+ in the end with this answer: "The key to communication is brevity." She got up and left the testing room while everyone was still scribbling long-winded answers.
That show was kind of terrible, in general, and I'm pretty sure it got canceled mid-season, but the message really stuck with me.
Pam: So if you had written the intro to this article, it would have been two sentences.
Katie: Yes, ordinarily, but you told me this was a content marketing article, so here I am rambling on like a lunatic.
Pam: But isn't it nice to let your words stretch out and breathe for a change?
Katie: It actually is. I've turned into a bit of a brevity tyrant. Even when I help out other people with their writing in my personal life, I'm like... cut this, cut this, cut this, no one will read this, cut this... My feedback borders on insensitive.
But in the advertising world, it is an absolute truth that people are absolutely, definitely, 100% not going to take the time to read your ad unless they want to. So you either communicate your message in less time than it takes for them to look away, or make them want to continue reading with the engaging quality of your words.
What's a content writer's style of writing?
Pam: I tend to write authoritative, strategic, meaty copy. Producing fewer than 1,000 words makes me physically uncomfortable. Creating a rich piece of content that answers every one of the visitor's questions is how you achieve your content marketing goals: They don't return to Google to repeat their search to find those missing details, so Google learns that your content is valuable and ranks it higher. And you earn trust that leads to conversions.
Plus, you know, more words means better opportunities to fit longtail keywords! I have an associate degree in journalism, so even though I'm technically an SEO content writer I'm never, ever willing to compromise copy for keywords.
What's the purpose of a copywriter's content?
Katie: I think "actionable" is the key word here. For me the setup is like this: establish an emotional connection (I know your pain), ignite desire (escape from pain is within your reach), and provide the direct action that will fulfill that desire (this is what you can do to escape said pain).
Pam: I feel pain when copy is fewer than 1,000 words. How would you suggest I escape that pain?
Katie: Oof. You've just brought up another important aspect of copywriting: putting yourself in the mindset of your audience. Fortunately, you've already explained your position well: Long-form copy allows you to answer every question your audience may have, turning it into a valuable resource for readers. Through search engine algorithms and lack of repeat searches, this inherent value translates into higher rankings for your content when other people conduct search. I'm entering Pam World. I'm seeing the thought process.
Pam: Tell me what you see in Pam World.
Katie: Your pain seems to be an anxiety that shorter content will not achieve your particular success metrics. Since that's true, your pain is valid and should not be disregarded. But, if I had to write an ad to convince you otherwise, I might say something like this:
- Headline: Writing 1,000+ words takes forever [Goal: Establish understanding of a pain point]
- Body: Get better results by slashing copy length [Goal: Offer reward and path to reward]
- CTA: Learn how [Goal: Take action]
In copywriting, every word is chosen intentionally, with a goal in mind. The example I wrote above could maybe work in a 300x250 banner ad (although it's still a little long for that) but what if it was (god forbid) a 300x50 banner ad? It would have to be something like this:
- Headline: Cut copy to get results
- Body: [Are you kidding? There's no room for body copy]
- CTA: Here's how
In different industries this approach can be more or less difficult, and tracking cookies and visuals also play an important role. But that's a start at an explanation, at least.
Pam: I'd click on your copy-slashing ad. Dubiously, of course.
Katie: As long as you click, Pam. As long as you click.
What's the purpose of a content writer's copy?
Pam: My copy is a slow burn. You write content knowing it's about attracting someone's attention and then taking time to build trust so that in maybe six months or a year or more they become a paying customer. It can feel a little intangible sometimes, especially in the B2B world. You don't get mad daily props around the office for bringing in leads. Someone isn't going to read one of my blogs and then buy a $15,000 website project right afterward. Although if you're reading this and want to go right ahead and do that, I'd love you for it.
Katie: I recommend that everyone do that. Right now.
Pam: I also spend a lot of time on optimization. I think about how the content will boost the overall website, which keywords we care about and where we're at in the rankings, and how to turn data into content that delivers value to prospective or returning customers. If I seem distracted, that's why. Always thinking of 10 things.
Katie: Explains a lot, actually.
What's an example of work a copywriter produces?
Katie: Words on a soup can.
What's an example of work a content writer produces?
Pam: Optimized long-form copy, usually massive articles that position a business as trusted expert. It can also be whitepapers, case studies, that kind of thing. Stuff that holds someone's hand and gently leads them to a decision. You're usually writing authoritatively on a subject that you probably know very little about, so it's often more research than writing.
How does copywriting fit into marketing strategy?
Katie: Copywriting is rarely (if ever) the only feature of an ad or piece of marketing. Even if you're talking about a "text only" advertisement, there are still brand colors, typographic treatment, and countless other cues that are supporting your copy and helping you get that emotion across. So you never walk alone as a copywriter. In marketing, visuals are the essential yang to all this copywriting ying.
How does content writing fit into marketing strategy?
Pam: As mentioned, Web content writing serves to achieve content marketing objectives. My title is actually "content marketing specialist." I'm literally creating content that should market well; it supports the content marketing strategy. You've got all the info about your target audience, you know what kind of searches they are doing, and you're writing something that specifically solves a problem you already know they have. And you're using the exact phrasing in your content that they might type into search to help them find it, find your website, and start buying into you as a trustworthy brand.
Katie: Sounds sneaky. I like it.
What's a misconception you often hear about your role?
Pam: There's still confusion about how to actually do content marketing. It's crazy, considering that you could shut your eyes and throw a rock and hit 100 articles on "top content marketing tips." (Please don't, I'm not responsible for broken screens.) But somehow there are still businesses producing content that goes for the sale right away. Ease up! It's not trying to get lucky on the first date. Content marketing is putting your entire personality aside and getting into your buyer's shoes and writing just for them. For free. For a long time.
Katie: See, a copywriter is exactly trying to get lucky on the first date. There's no time for a second date! But, as to the question... a misconception might be that we're all the same, doing the same thing. But, really, we're doing a different thing every minute. In an agency setting in particular, you have to be open to trying on new hats, every day, and putting your mindset in a new headspace, every hour. It's constant change.
What are the similarities between copywriting and content writing?
Pam: Both roles require awesome grammar. Spellcheck is not enough! Most businesses don't have a separate editor role, so you have to be able to make your copy tight and flawless.
Katie: I mean, it's writing. In both cases. So you're trying to communicate information for a preordained purpose. It's just that one of us has to cram their important message into a tiny box, whereas the other one seemingly has all the space in the world to ramble on to their heart's content.
Pam: Was that a read?
The Oxford comma—yea or nay?
Pam: If you don't use the Oxford comma, we can't be friends. I've learned to let it go for clients, if that's their styling, but it pains me. I shed a tear for each of the forgotten commas.
Katie: Yea! Yay!
How did you get into writing?
Pam: I started writing as soon as I figured out the alphabet. For real. But in journalism school I struggled with the rigidity of writing news. The inverted pyramid felt like a total insult to copy—the idea that you put your "least valuable" words at the end, and give everything away in the lead? Ugh. I was all about feature writing, where you could put a twist at the end and have a whole page in the newspaper to yourself... clearly why I ended up a content marketer and not a copywriter.
What's funny is that not so long ago I was specializing in Twitter marketing, which is 100% concise.
Katie: Writing is just a part of who I am. It's my preferred mode of communication. But I probably went into it professionally because it earned me praise, and I am a sucker for praise. That said, copywriting is a form of ghost writing, so any praise my brilliant, illuminating prose might garner goes straight to the client. Sigh.
Pam: So, Katie, if I asked you, "What's the difference between copywriting and content writing" after going on this copy adventure, what would you say?
Katie: Content writers answer questions. Copywriters sell.
Pam: That's a really good answer. People should tweet it.
Katie: Wait, I thought of another one: Content writers strategize. Copywriters emote.
Pam: That's... less good. On that note, I think our work here is done!
Katie: This still feels way too long to me.
Pam: This is some beautiful, meaty content writing we've done. I'm proud of us.