Copywriter, content writer. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to? Not necessarily. So what makes them different? It’s all about the intent.
A professional copywriter basically pitches your brand to a target audience. They promote or sell a product or an idea directly through some type of creative campaign. These could be ads on the subway, social media or in a magazine, a commercial for TV, a direct marketing email and so on.
A content writer, on the other hand, creates copy (mostly for the web) that provides deeper context for what your brand does. The goal is to generate top-of-funnel interest and establish a sense of authority that will lead prospects deeper into the buyer journey.
Copywriting conveys an impression, whereas content writing tends to be more in-depth and explanatory. This Chewy banner ad is copywriting:
This online guide to brewing beer is content writing:
One might say that copywriting is “sexier” but perhaps a bit superficial compared to content marketing.
This isn’t to rag on copywriting for being “shallow,” or conversely, to say that content writing can’t be downright compelling. We’ve all seen enough commercials and read our share of listicle content to know that’s just not true.
Not to mention, they play for the same team: your business. Content marketers and copywriters frequently collaborate, and as the lines between the physical and digital become increasingly blurred, so do the lines between their work.
But first, a quick note about copyright law
Skip ahead if you already understand the difference between “copywrite” and “copyright.”
And if you don’t, rest assured, you’re not the first to make this mistake. They are homophones, after all.
When content is copyrighted (as opposed to copywritten), it is protected as an author’s original expression, meaning it cannot be reproduced, published or sold without permission. More simply, copyright law is how content creators protect ownership of the things they make. This includes written copy and even emails that have been sent, but also visual and audio content.
Once a copyright expires (70 years after the death of the author), the content enters the public domain, meaning no one has exclusive property rights.
And, for the sake of complete clarity, copyediting refers to the practice of editing written copy to improve readability, style consistency and overall content quality.
With that out of the way, we can move on.
Where copywriters belong on a content marketing team
Let’s begin by listing off the typical content marketing team dynamic (click here for the long version):
- Strategy: Define content marketing’s role in your bigger business objective (domain of marketing directors and content strategists).
- Ideation and execution: Translate those objectives into a creative vision and roadmap for execution (creative directors, project managers, content writers, managing editors).
- Production: Create and revise the actual content (content writers, copy editors, designers, project managers).
- Promotion: Share your content via email campaigns and social posts (social media strategists, content writers).
Finally, this process circles back around to the strategists, who perform analysis to determine how that content is performing.
What does a copywriter do?
Having defined the various inner workings of a creative team, it’s easier to get a better answer for the question “What does a copywriter do?”, which is a bit like asking the classic woodchuck tongue-twister: How much copy could a copywriter write if a copywriter could write copy?
In short, professional copywriters focus on the written word. They regularly produce various marketing collateral to be used in your campaigns. Some common assets that a copywriter might assist on include:
- Website copy: Nobody wants to read a product or service landing page that’s 1,000 words or more. And if you have such wordy pages, online users will likely be quick to bounce. Tight, concise copy can drive your site metrics while also resonating with your target audience. Oftentimes, website copy projects require the touch of a copywriter who can pack a punch into a couple of short sentences. You need to be engaging and informative with web copy and landing pages — while also being as brief as possible. This is the type of delicate balance that professional copywriters are depended on to strike.
- Advertising copy: There’s still room for advertising in the modern marketing mix. And the space and character restrictions that come with writing advertising copy usually makes it the perfect job for a creative copywriter. Content writers may have trouble trying to fit messaging into a tagline — but a copywriter ought to have little difficulty.
- Social media posts: Condensed copy is important to effective social media marketing. Just as you want to avoid overt wordiness with web copy, your brand will want short nuggets of copy to post on social media. Your audience on social will have an even shorter attention span than a website visitor, so the talents of a professional copywriter are highly valuable when it comes to social posting.
- Email copy: Email may be the forgotten channel, but it’s far from a feeble one. Email is the once and future king of the marketing mix, and copywriters can effectively ply their trade within the confines of the inbox.
Writing copy is the primary job of the copywriter, but it’s not the only duty. While job responsibilities vary — as they do with freelance copywriters vs. in-house professionals — copywriters are increasingly expected to pitch in on various marketing tasks.
For example, a copywriter who works for an agency may need to attend weekly strategy sessions for a particular client, or otherwise collaborate with various account stakeholders.
Where copywriting and content writing converge
Historically, copywriters didn’t necessarily have a role in the above dynamic. But that’s drastically changed over the past few years as the content marketing agency model has matured.
In the old days, content marketing was treated like “the poor man’s copywriting” or pigeonholed into the realm of B2B marketing. It was entirely removed from copywriting. Organizations paid huge premiums to advertising agencies for access to a junior or senior copywriter – or they would commission freelance copywriters for a pretty penny.
But if they wanted web content marketing, they had a number of cost-effective options:
- Create content in house.
- Pay freelancers ad hoc to fill content needs.
- Outsource content creation to a third-party agency writer.
And yes, these same options are still available. However, the expectations for the end product have dramatically evolved.
Why? Because SEO.
Search engines are getting smarter by the day so they can populate SERPs with web content that aptly corresponds to what they think the user is searching for. This means content has to be good. Really good.
More than that, though, it means content has to be exceptionally well-promoted on the web and through digital channels (e.g. email) that have traditionally been considered the domain of the content writer.
So we ask again: What does a copywriter do for content marketing?
A writer who’s wearing his or her content marketing hat will attempt to create something that is informative and has direct utility to the reader. That’s why you’ll see a lot of how-to blog posts, listicles (“10 ways the cloud saves your business money” or “A comprehensive to-do list for the first-time homebuyer”), etc. The SEO element is always top of mind here, too, so there’s keyword research to consider: What terms map to the subject matter you’re trying to become an authority on? Who’s getting the most backlinks on their website, and why?
With content writing, you also want to be mindful of the types of questions the audience is asking. Don’t be afraid to create long-form content that hits all the major points of a given topic.
When that writer puts on his or her copywriting hat, on the other hand, he or she thinks more promotional. The aim shifts to creating a message that is concise, powerful and, in a sense, irrefutable. A successful copywriter creates pithy one-liners and laconic imagery that convey brand identity and values; not 1,000-word blog posts that position a brand as a thought leader on a particular subject.
Content writing lures interest. Copywriting commands action. You need to do both in a modern content marketing campaign.
In this sense, copywriting and content marketing are more like skills than roles. An effective content writer knows when to think like a copywriter, and vice versa. Both need to understand brand identity as they write in order to create a tone of voice that will convey brand values and resonate with the target audience.
More simply, promotional copy is a type of content that plays a specific role in a content marketing strategy.
Let’s look at an example
A white paper about how cloud-based CRM saves money calls for the content marketing mindset. It will be long, informative, useful and will rely on trusted sources and well-developed arguments to make the point.
But say you want to do a paid ad campaign on Facebook to promote that white paper. Maybe you orchestrate a “Things that cost more per month than your new cloud-based CRM” campaign. Each ad can depict a monthly cost estimate of an activity for comparison such as refilling your gas tank, doggy daycare, grocery shopping, etc. This is copywriting used in content marketing.
Another example is email marketing, which has the highest ROI of any content marketing channel. You’re soliciting a direct action on the part of the recipient. Traditionally, this was the role of the “direct marketing copywriter.” It still requires direct marketing copy, and for that matter, direct response marketing (following up to emails with other content to pull a lead deeper into the funnel).
The only difference is that these conversations are often deeply integrated into a larger web content marketing campaign that is spearheaded by an in-house content marketing team or a third-party content marketing agency.
In other words, content marketing has adopted copywriting into its processes.
Case in point, the Content Marketing Institute identified these as the top-four most commonly leveraged types of B2B content:
- Social media posts (94 percent).
- Case studies (73 percent).
- Pre-produced videos (72 percent).
- eBooks and white papers (71 percent).
Numbers one and three err on the side of copywriting, whereas two and four very clearly qualify as content writing. Again, all of them have a place in a content marketing strategy.
Do you need a copywriter who can write content, or vice versa?
The job functions of “content writer” and “copywriter” are now often used interchangeably. You may have even come across the job title “digital copywriter” or “SEO copywriter” which, upon closer inspection, basically describe a content writer who maybe has some copywriting responsibilities.
Conversely, a “content writer” posting might request experience writing email copy, Twitter copy, and quite possibly even sales copy. You may even hear of advertisers tasked with “SEO copywriting.”
My point? A career in content writing will invariably lead to copywriting experience, and vice versa. Because content writers need copywriters, and copywriters need content writers. The trick is finding someone who can do both. A good copywriter or content writer will typically have a bachelor’s degree in English, literature, journalism or creative writing, but they don’t necessarily have to. A strong writer’s portfolio speaks for itself. More specifically, look for writers who have hands-on experience, and who can demonstrate an ability to adopt, or even patent, client voice.
And, sure, you’ll certainly still find old-school ad agencies that do TV commercials, YouTube ads and billboards for big-name brands. This is the domain of the advertising or agency copywriter. They might be freelance or in-house, but more often will work for an agency. Either way, the most competitive candidates for this role typically have a master’s degree in business or communication. But again, paper isn’t a substitute for experience or for talent. Not to mention, your business might not be in a place where it needs to spend several million gold doubloons on a video series produced by the most elite advertisers in the country.
Agency vs. in-house vs. freelancing: Is one option best?
Working with an agency copywriter is advantageous for a number of reasons. For one, any copywriter employed by a third-party agency likely has writing skills that can be vouched for. An established agency might also be easier to work with from an organizational standpoint, since agencies are built to perform contract work for clients. Established procedures and communication lines can be a major benefit when trying to, say, get a rush job done for a drip email campaign.
However, an agency copywriter is just one option for your needs.
You may be able to find freelance copywriters who charge much less than an established agency writer working at a reputable firm. However, this is a classic case of “you get what you pay for” – especially considering many freelance content writers will call themselves copywriters because they believe the title sounds more distinguished.
Remember, copywriting is a particular type of content writing, and not all freelancers will necessarily make that distinction. If you do go with a freelancer, just make sure you very clearly outline the types of projects they’ll work on and that you adequately review their portfolio and qualifications.
Hiring in-house may make sense in some contexts, but agencies and freelancers will usually be the more cost-effective option. The average national base pay for a copywriter is more than $62,000. This doesn’t include the cost of benefits (health, 401K, vacation) or the fact that the volume of work may vary quarter to quarter.
Yet there are hidden costs to consider that an in-house employee can help you avoid. For example, if a freelancer returns a project with subpar quality, you’re essentially out all the costs until that point and left with no usable product. Also, going back and forth with an agency copywriter can exacerbate time and labor costs, draining resources when you need a quick turnaround. An in-house writer can mitigate these costs because the writer is directly employed by and accountable to your organization.
Content writing used to be significantly cheaper than copywriting. It was easier to game Google in the early days of the web. Stuffing rehashed news articles with keywords was the go-to SEO strategy for many brands circa 2008.
And unlike copywritten ads that were meant to be more heavily promoted through paid channels (magazines, YouTube ads, commercials on TV or streaming services, etc.), organic web content could be posted and promoted cheaply. Up until the early 2010s, content writers really just needed Microsoft Word and a search engine to do their jobs.
Today, you can still find freelance content writers with low rates (a penny per word, in some cases). But the web is saturated with marketing content. Creating content that will rank organically on search engines and build trust among the right people requires perfect synchronization between strategists and creatives, which is hard to achieve with a cobbled-together team of freelancers.
Hiring in-house is also an option, but the average content writer’s salary has exceeded $47,000. An agency will likely charge more than freelancers, but typically much less than it would cost to create an in-house content marketing team from scratch. It would also focus on results-driven content creation as opposed to content for the sake of content.
Just as importantly, content marketing agencies have already begun offering copywriting services.
Because at the end of the day, the evolution of the digital world is clearly leading to a dynamic where content writing and copywriting both have their place in the grander universe that is the internet.
You can get a lot more bang for your buck working with an agency with staff writers who understand that.
How to start a copywriting career
While some of you, our dear readers, may be interested in hiring the services of a copywriter, others may be more interested in the opposite side of the coin: how to become a professional copywriter.
Have you always been drawn to the written word? Do you possess a knack for wit and brevity? Are you able to cope with the pressures of working on multiple deadlines? Then a copywriting career might be right for you.
The proliferation of content marketing means that copywriting experts are in demand among all sorts of employers, both brands and agencies. Also, freelance copywriting opportunities are in wide supply, which may attract professionals who are less about strict schedules and more about finding meaningful work.
Nobody’s copywriter career path will look exactly the same. However, there are some overarching steps to accomplish on your way to becoming successful in the copywriting industry:
- Get an education: The good thing about copywriters is that they can hail from all professional corners. Those who have a degree in marketing, press relations, creative writing, English or business have the ideal educational background. A diploma in another field isn’t a dealbreaker to some employers, however, if you can demonstrate a high level of copywriting skills.
- Get a job: Content marketing is one of the dominant strategies in B2B and B2C marketing. That means there are loads of job opportunities for those looking to forge a copywriting career, as businesses of all sizes and industries are clamoring for copywriting talent. Of course, if you’re freelancing, you’ll need to get things in gear quickly. Before you start soliciting jobs, decide on what rate you’ll charge and what type of projects you most desire. And don’t forget to market yourself on LinkedIn and other networking forums or social sites to raise awareness of your profile and skills.
- Get some experience: If you started out in an entry-level copywriting job, try to get some varied experience in the different facets of content marketing. For example, diverse projects can build different copywriting skills — as web copy requires different qualities than social media copy. Also, collaborating with account and project management can help you gain valuable insight into the dynamics of the creative team. All this experience can help you advance your career, or take it in a different direction, perhaps. If you’ve found that you enjoy long-form content writing, your existing skills and on-the-job knowledge may make you an ideal candidate.
Copywriting careers can offer meaningful work, excitement and a diverse range of duties and projects. So if that sounds like a good fit for you, consider following the above steps — but do remember that everyone takes their own unique path.
Do you have any thoughts about professional copywriters and their value to a creative team? Drop your comments below!
Editor’s note: Updated January 2021.