If you've ever surfed the web looking for freelance or in-house writing jobs, you've probably seen the words "copywriting" and "content writing." You might already have experience with one or the other. But how difficult is it to do both, or to switch between the two?
Don't worry — even experienced writers struggle to understand copywriting vs. content writing. This article will guide you through the differences and explain the skills you need to succeed in each discipline, whether or not you're a professional writer.
What Makes Copywriting and Content Writing Different?
You wouldn't ask a podiatrist to perform brain surgery instead of a surgeon, even though both doctors understand the human body. Your tax attorney won't settle custody agreements like a divorce attorney can, although they both went to law school.
The copywriting vs. content writing distinction is similar. Both require the ability to write clearly and concisely for diverse audiences. Both are elements of marketing, but they serve very different purposes under that umbrella. Take a look at these four key distinctions.
1. Goals and Purposes
Copywriting is persuasive writing. A copywriter's goal is to convince the reader to take a particular action.
Often, that action is to buy a product or service. Sometimes, it's to get the reader to sign up for a free sample, join an email list, or download an e-book. Regardless, the ultimate goal is always customer conversion.
Content writing is informative. Like copywriting, it may have a call to action — an invitation for the reader to take the next step. If you've ever seen "learn more" or "call us today" at the end of a blog post, that's a content piece's call to action.
But unlike copywriting, the bulk of a content writing piece focuses on educating or entertaining the reader. It's a relationship builder — the print version of the small talk you make before asking a friend to do you a favor.
2. Sales Funnel Stages
The " sales funnel" is a marketing term describing the customers' journey from exposure to purchase. When customers are at the top of the funnel, they're just learning about the company as a possible solution to their problems. They may start to get interested, but they need a little push.
Their interest deepens as they move toward the middle of the funnel. By the time they reach the bottom, they're ready to purchase.
Copywriters usually work at the bottom of the funnel. Their goal is to be the tipping point that inspires the customer to click "buy now" or give the salesperson their bank information.
Content writers are responsible for getting the customer to that point. They write blog posts, articles, case studies, and white papers that help a reader connect to the company and want to know more.
3. Project Types
If you're not sure whether someone is a content writer or a copywriter, ask them what kind of projects they've been writing. A copywriter will tell you about sales projects, such as:
- Email campaigns
- Website landing pages
- Sales letters
- Radio or TV ads
- Pay-per-click (PPC) ads
Most copywriting projects are advertising in some form. Content writing tends to be more long-form and in-depth. It explores a topic in detail instead of going right for the sale. Examples include:
- Blog posts
- Magazine articles (print or digital)
- How-to guides
- Web pages
Content writing projects tend to be longer and more detailed than copywriting projects are. Copywriters may write longer emails or sales pages, but even then, concision is the goal. Copy needs to be succinct and snappy to engage a reader — even if it means breaking grammar rules.
4. Tone and Style
Look at copywriting vs. article writing side-by-side and you'll immediately see a difference. Copy tends to be much more informal and conversational, as though the writer is talking to a close friend. You'll see lots of short sentences and even sentence fragments. Consumer-directed content in particular tends to be informal.
Copywriters also use lots of urgency and scarcity words, like:
- Ends tonight
- Before it's too late
- This week only
- Act now
- Don't miss out
Urgency and scarcity are proven to drive action, so copywriters use them liberally.
Content writers tend to use a more journalistic style. They still write for the web, which means short paragraphs and accessible language with relevant keywords sprinkled in. This is what marketing professionals call " SEO writing" — writing to appeal to everyday readers and search engine algorithms.
A content writer's style is usually gentler than a copywriter's. They focus on offering information rather than driving immediate action. They're playing the long game, while copywriters run for the end zone.
Copywriting vs. Content Writing Examples
Copywriting and content writing aren't always easy to distinguish. Some projects blur the lines between the two, causing both types of professionals to claim them as their own.
Take white papers, for example. These high-paying specialized projects are deep dives into a company's area of expertise. They offer unique insights and thought leadership to earn the trust of potential clients. They educate and convert. Some copywriters offer white paper writing services. So do many content writers.
It's easy to see why. Take " Networking and Your Competitive Edge," a cybersecurity whitepaper from Cisco. If you turn to the end, you'll find a well-written argument for using Cisco's services:
The temptation to sit on the fence and wait until you are ready will seem an attractive option for some companies. Others who look to cut corners, and budgets, will be forced to play expensive catch up in the next few years when their ailing systems need upgrading. Those who understand the value of their network to their business success will act now to move to a digital network. Act now and be ahead of your competition. Drive digital transformation in your organisation.
It's persuasive, but it's closer to a content CTA than a piece of copy. The white paper as a whole is primarily informative, seeking to deepen people's interest in Cisco rather than close the sale.
To see the difference, compare that with this sales letter:
Put our statements to the proof by subscribing for the next 13 weeks for just $44. This is among the shortest subscription terms we offer—and a perfect way to get acquainted with The Journal. Or you may prefer to take advantage of our better buy — one year for $149. You save over $40 off the cover price of The Journal.
This is the " Two Brothers Letter," known throughout copywriting as one of the discipline's most successful projects. When you Google "most successful sales letter," it's the topic of all five top results. Originally written in 1975, it ran until 2003 and brought in over $2 billion in sales:
Sales letters like these are the stereotypical copywriting examples. A few decades ago, these were most copywriters' bread and butter. But today, almost 20% of sales are online, and that's in retail alone. Digital copywriting has become even more common and succinct. Check out this example from a sales email by American Writers and Artists International:
It will show you exactly how to make $2,500 to $8,000 a month as a writer.
And if you decide to give it a shot, you’ll gain access to every resource you’ll need to execute that blueprint for just a dollar.
All the roadmaps… All the articles… All the how-to videos… All the training webinars…
The member forum, the job board, the tutorials, the tools…
PLUS, three more valuable resources…
- 12-Step Roadmap to Becoming a Well-Paid, Working Web Writer…
- Running Your Own E-letter: From Building Your List to Making Sales…
- The Digital Copywriter Toolkit — Templates to Write (and Price) the 12 Most In-Demand Projects!
It’s all there — everything you need to get started making money as a writer right away.
Look at that email's tone and style compared to this Compose.ly blog post excerpt:
Ready to get started? If you’re already a freelancer, ask a client if they know anyone who needs a ghostwriter. If you’re still building experience writing, contact your favorite blogger and offer to ghostwrite something for their blog. Or, if you have your sights set on book ghostwriting, consider writing an e-book and self-publish.
When you look at blog writing vs. copywriting, the difference is clear. The sales letter urges action now. The blog post offers guidance.
What's less clear for many writers is how to choose a discipline, or how to switch sides once you've built some experience.
Can a Content Writer Be a Copywriter?
Copywriting and content writing are two different skill sets. Great content writers are verbal chameleons, able to adjust their tone and voice to suit the brand and audience. They can explain the topic so it lands just right with their readers, not too simplistic or too confusingly complex.
Copywriters are salespeople. They spend hours researching the "prospect" — the potential buyer — and craft copy that speaks to their needs. They can position a product as the perfect solution and overcome objections, convincing the reader to take action.
But as different as these jobs are, many wordsmiths excel at both. Whether you want to switch disciplines or add to your skillset as a writer, here's what you need to know.
Learning the New Skill
Ever heard the old saying, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? Expanding your writing skillset is like learning to use another tool. As you get more comfortable with sales pages and Google ads, you won't have to write everything like an article — or vice versa.
Consider taking a class or enrolling in a program. There are countless free and paid programs across the Web for copywriting and content writing.
Stay humble and be willing to unlearn certain habits. When content writers learn to write copy, they usually have to practice being more direct and sales-oriented. Copywriters can become content writers, but they often have to dial back on the sales messages.
Don't feel like you have to be a perfect copywriter instantly because you're a successful content writer — or the other way around. A new skill is a new skill. You'll get better with practice.
Building Your Portfolio
Whichever way your career develops, it's important to accurately market yourself. If you almost exclusively write blog posts and articles, you're a content writer. If your portfolio is full of sales material, you're a copywriter.
Expanding your portfolio is one of the biggest challenges of switching disciplines. As every freelance writer knows, it can be tough to get clients when you don't have much experience.
Getting Started: Your First Copywriting or Content Writing Job
Start by offering your services to people you already know. If you have copywriting clients, ask them if they have content needs. If you already offer blog writing services, ask clients if they need copywriting services. Avoid doing work for free, but you can offer a reduced rate to your first clients.
You can also apply to work on platforms like Compose.ly, which places writers with appropriate assignments. The application process lets skilled writers get a foot in the door, even if they don't have much experience right away.
It's okay if it feels uncomfortable at first. You'll build confidence with every new project, and before you know it, you'll be a seasoned pro.