At agencies there can be quite specific differences between content writing and copywriting,
and in what types of people do them. But clients are often less specific. They need things
written when they need them written. The format doesn't matter much, or who does it. They
just want it done. But this difference in viewpoints can create confusion when clients seek
talent, or must decide what to keep in house and what to outsource. So, let's clear this up.
What Copywriting Is
The name makes it sound like simple writing, but what you end up seeing is only the result.
When performed at its highest level, the copywriting process combines pattern recognition
(i.e., metaphor generation), ideation, and (usually) wordsmithing into a "1+1+1=10" creative
act where you take things as ordinary as flour, sugar, milk, and eggs (i.e., the humdrum
details of your product and intended audience) and somehow bake a delicious cake.
Top copywriters (for top clients) are magicians who conjure "1,000 songs in your pocket
out of thin air. It's an art, done in the service of commerce, towards the goal of impressing
an audience, persuading an audience, or both. It plays to the heart (at least it should) and
it is sales, all the way.
What Content Writing Is
Content writing, on the other hand, is more straightforward. There are SEO skills, marketing
savvy, audience empathy, and other talents involved, but a big chunk of it is pretty much
just writing. Specialized writing, writing for purprose, but nothing ethereal. And it's not
an art, more like craft. A process for creating not so much magic, but output with a touch
of magic. Largely to inform, less to persuade.
Granted, this last point is somewhat in dispute. Some authorities think marketing content
should only inform and never persuade. I'm more of the opinion that some of it should, and
some of it shouldn't, and you should have more
of the latter.
But even when persuading, compared to copywriting, marketing content should be less salesy.
It should be objective or at least appear objective, playing more to the head than
copywriting does, though not entirely. Because the goal of content marketing, after all, is
to create a rational argument for justifying a purchase, with just enough emotional oomph
thrown in to avoid paralysis by analysis, so prospects move down the funnel.
What Each Does
Copywriting paints a picture, through ads, social posts, product slogans, sales materials,
much of your website copy, and perhaps some short-to-medium-length content pieces with an
explicit goal of persuasion. Content writers paint houses, through blogs, whitepapers,
e-books, and perhaps case studies (i.e., anything long-form). And while the goal may or may
not include persuasion, content also stands alone as information, discourse, or narrative
(though copywriting has some overlap with the latter).
Can One Writer Do The Other?
Of course. Marketing writing is not that specialized, and copywriting and content writing
are not binary in the real world, but more like a spectrum. Copywriting can be just a few
words, and content writing a few thousand. Copywriting is more salesy, and content writing
is less salesy.
Content writers ideate, make savvy word choices, and create metaphors whenever they write
the title and choose a visual for a blog article. And some copywriters can certainly write
formats when called upon. However, few marketing writers are what I would call
"fully ambidextrous." Even in baseball, switch hitters usually aren't equally good from
both sides of the plate.
Copywriters have perfectionistic and overthinking tendencies, so they sometimes write more
slowly than what's optimal in long-form formats, and occasionally waste time trying to craft
masterpieces when competence will do, such as with your HR, CSR, or other corporate content
(which management and the legal department will just ruin later anyway).
Content writers, on the other hand, are rarely asked to slow down and think conceptually,
so unless encouraged to go deeper, any copywriting you get from them is unlikely to extend
beyond clever wording. And you might not even get that if a content writer has had their
imagination dulled by too much SEO agitprop (which encourages literal and pedantic writing).
Which Do You Need?
B2B tends to underestimate the importance of good copywriting, because B2B marketers tend to
think their wars of commerce are won through SEO (i.e., content) and the sales team, and
because they think overt appeals to the heart are unprofessional.
However, because of the former, good copywriting can be a competitive advantage, because
it'll help you stand out amid all the automatons out there. Regarding the latter, there are
many ways to appeal to the heart beyond mawkish sentimentality (a cerebral nerd like Barack
Obama wouldn't still be a lifestyle influencer after two terms as president if there weren't).
If you're a small company looking for a general-purpose marketing writer as your first
full-time writing hire, in most instances I'd recommend a copywriter over a content writer,
because that person can give you good sales materials, social media, web copy, and almost
anything else you're going to need, including the occasional blog, while also acting as an
editor for content writers.
It's also inherently easier (in most instances) to outsource content writing than copywriting,
since a solo copywriter really needs to understand both you and your customers to be effective,
while content tends to be more about your customers.
However, if your company is doing something really niche, bleeding edge, or otherwise poorly
understood, you may find content writers hard to find. In that case, you may want to hire a
full-time (or contract) content writer instead, as education may be more critical to you
making a sale than salescraft. And if you want that content writer to occasionally pinch-hit
as a copywriter, if they lack more direct or obvious experience, look for clever rhetorical
or visual metaphors in their portfolio work.
But whichever route you choose, it'll help if this solo writer has at least a tacit grasp of
SEO. If they don't, you may want to have someone else around who does.
Junior Or Senior?
Whether you need content or copy, outsourced juniors are often fine for single-format
specialization (i.e., blogs, press releases, or social posts), while in-house writing work
is rarely that specialized, so juniors tend to work better in teams, or paired with a senior
writer. But if you're looking for a solo in-house marketing writer, you're probably better
off going with a senior, as the small companies typically in this situation tend to have an
extremely busy CMO or no CMO, so your writer will need to know what to do without being told.
But if you can't find the right senior, hire a junior and outsource the supervision work. An
outsourced senior content or copywriter can often give better feedback than an in-house
marketer who's never done either job, and provide content strategy help if you need it.
Provided the outsourced senior doesn't have to do any actual writing, this might only take a
few hours out of their week, making this method more cost-efficient in many instances (even
if their rate is high) than hiring a solo senior, or expending a senior marketer's valuable
time on supervising a junior writer. And I'm amazed more businesses don't do this. I
consider it real low-hanging fruit.
Titles Are Trifles
Despite what I've just told you, don't pay too much attention to what someone chooses to call
themselves. Some folks who call themselves copywriters are really content writers who
occasionally get asked to come up with a tagline or write a social post for a blog article.
And some self-described content writers are really copywriters who've worked long enough in an
industry to become a subject matter expert. So skip the title and look at the portfolio to see
if what you need is there (assuming there's no fraud).
And if you're still unclear on whether you need a content writer or a copywriter for a certain
task, here's a quick & dirty shortcut -- copywriting is poetry, content writing is prose.