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Content Writer vs. Copywriter: What's the Difference?

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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?

Katie: #NoTeaNoShade

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.


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Pam Berg is content marketing specialist at BSTRO, a digital marketing and branding agency with offices in San Francisco, Vancouver, and New York. Pam is a data junkie and grammar nerd. She channels her superpowers into content marketing and digital strategy.

LinkedIn: Pam Berg

Twitter: @judgmentcat

 

Katie Rottner is senior copywriter at BSTRO, a digital marketing and branding agency with offices in San Francisco, Vancouver, and New York. Katie is a human female—also a marketing copywriter these past 11 years.

LinkedIn: Katie Rottner

Twitter: @SuperClassyPub

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  • by Paloma Galli Tue Sep 5, 2017 via mobile

    This was a great article and it came just in time. Thanks.
    Best luck in your collanotation and if you're 4 cooperation... let me know:
    Paloma.galli@agentius.us or Paloma.galli@agentius.hr

  • by Katie Martell Tue Sep 5, 2017 via web

    Great piece! Katie - I found this piece especially well said:

    "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)."

    Kudos!

  • by Chuck Kent Tue Sep 5, 2017 via web

    A helpful article for those struggling to get something written, to get some copy done and out the door. Quite functional But, even with the limited nod to a copywriter needing to emote, I think it sells that side of the marketing writer's trade rather short. Of course, it all depends on the objective a copywriter is to serve. What I would call a brand copywriter may indeed need to be concise, but that's not her No. 1 priority — it's to give voice to the brand. This is first a thinking role – strategy and concept – and secondly that of a writer (in which role brevity does equal beauty). If, however, you're strictly speaking of direct sales copy in its many forms (web copy, direct mail or that can of soup you mention), then I think you're distinctions are spot on.

  • by George Kosovic Tue Sep 5, 2017 via web

    Nice piece of work, Pam and Katie.

  • by Peter Altschuler Tue Sep 5, 2017 via web

    If any piece of content answers every question, it's useless. Different people have different expectations, interests, and concerns, and a single piece that addresses everyone's needs will lose most readers' interest.

    This is especially true in B2B where there can be more than half a dozen people involved in a purchase. The person who initiates the process has objectives that are nothing like those of the people in IT or Finance or Operations, all of whom influence the final decision.

    It's vital to focus on each person's specific interests, not expect them to hunt through a single document to find that part that's right for them. That's the backbone of any nurturing campaign -- to provide the right information to the right person at the right time.

    As for copy, if all it does is sell then, unless it's direct marketing copy, it's missing the majority of the market. Great copy isn't always brief but, long or short, it does something that all good marketers (should) strive for -- creating the desire to buy. I may not be in the market for a car or a pizza or new type of toothbrush, but effective copy can persuade me to consider one.

    Then, this being the online all-the-time digital age, if I want to learn more, I'll go to a website and look for information on, for example, the car's overall cost, the pizza's ingredients, or the toothbrush's advantages over competitive brands. At that stage, I don't care about the car's options or the speed of the pizza's delivery or the price of the toothbrush. I want specific information, and content should exist to provide that information. And only that information.

    Of course, a company must know its customers: who buys, how they buy, when they buy, and what they buy. That will determine what and how and what things are said in both advertising copy and content.

    If the decision is to provide a core dump that attempts to be all things to all people or write copy that tries to sell something to readers or viewers or listeners who don't want to buy, it's time for client management to undergo remedial training.

  • by Jen Haken Tue Sep 5, 2017 via web

    Thank you, Pam and Katie! I enjoyed reading this; it's well written and amusing. I agree with virtually everything you said, from the importance of brevity, down to the Oxford comma!

    Funny, though – I call myself a copywriter, but I also write web and social media content. Ultimately, for my clients, I need to be able to do it all. And, although I say so myself, I do believe that I do! :)

  • by Elena Noriega Tue Sep 5, 2017 via web

    Brilliant!

  • by Renae Gregoire Tue Sep 5, 2017 via web

    Great article, and love the infographic that goes with it.

    I had been thinking of writing a piece like this myself. But since yours is so well done, and an enjoyable read, I think I'll just share and link to it instead. It'll wind up over on my blog in a few days :)

    Thanks much,

    Renae Gregoire

    P.S. Since I usually handle both functions, perhaps I should call myself a content-marketing copywriter? :)

    P.P.S. Respect for the Oxford comma!

    P.P.P.S. The copywriter in me knows that people always read the P.S. :)

  • by Abhijit Tue Sep 5, 2017 via mobile

    Hi Katie and Pam,
    Liked the article .. Good job guys !!
    Cheers
    Abhijit

  • by Nayan Goyal Wed Sep 6, 2017 via mobile

    This was a really nice article. Extremely informative.

  • by Michele Engel Wed Sep 6, 2017 via web

    WOW, Pam and Katie, what a fantastic article! Your article is not only a perfect example of wonderful writing, but it brilliantly clarifies the difference between writing copy and writing content--and the similarities. And, as a writer and a former English teacher, I am eternally grateful for your affirmation of the Oxford comma.

  • by Tony Madejczyk Tue Sep 12, 2017 via web

    As a hard-core copy writer I like the way this explains why I do not want to be a content writer. No offense, but besides bots and spiders, who has time to read all that stuff? I'd rather be selling with facts and benefits and not beat a dead horse with dense paragraphs to wade through. Especially on mobile. But if content works for your business, don't let me get in the way. I've got plenty of bullet (points).

  • by Asia Mon Sep 18, 2017 via mobile

    Thank you for this article Pam and Katie! I think it offers great insight for anyone who is new to the marketing world and its methods. It seems that each kind of writing can work well for specific businesses, products, and motives. I also appreciate the wise comments for this article, thank you all for contributing to the discussion.

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