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What’s the Difference Between Copywriting and Content Writing?

by | Jan 29, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

As a freelancer, I get lots of emails inquiring about my services. Some of these inquiries cite a need for copywriting. Others are requests for content writing. In my conversations with these prospective clients, however, I often find they’re seeking the very same services.

So, are there differences between copywriting and content writing? If so, what are those differences?

A marketing manager looking to hire a freelance writer may feel the distinction is important. Uncertainty in the definitions of the terms, however, could cause confusion between the marketer and the writer, or unduly restrict the marketer’s choices and the writer’s opportunities.

That’s why I wanted to examine those questions and put in my two cents worth. I’ll start looking at the origin of the two terms and then compare how they are used in practice.

What is copywriting?

The term copywriting is more than a century old. It comes from the world of advertising and direct marketing. Its first known use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is from 1923. The word copywriter is slightly older (1911).

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a copywriter as “a writer of advertising or publicity copy.” Merriam-Webster defines copy as “text, especially of an advertisement” (noun, def. 4.c). Therefore, copywriting (not defined by Merriam-Webster) is the writing of text for advertising or publicity.

What is content writing?

The term content writing seems to be much more recent. It came into common usage with the rapid rise of content marketing in the early 2010s—just after Google changed its algorithm to discourage keyword stuffing on websites.

The definition of content writing is not so clear. Since it’s a two-word term, you’re not likely to find it defined explicitly in a dictionary. Existing definitions vary widely depending on the marketing expert who wrote them.

Some of those definitions are narrow. In general, content writing refers to writing informational or editorial pages on websites, such as blog posts, article pages, or product pages.

Other definitions are quite broad. According to Caroline Forsey of HubSpot, “Content writing is the process of writing, editing, and publishing content in a digital format to engage your target audience. That content can include blog posts, video or podcast scripts, ebooks or whitepapers, press releases, product category descriptions, landing page or social media copy … and more.” 1

But is there really a difference?

On the surface, it might seem there’s a clear line of demarcation between the two: copywriting is the writing of sales copy for advertisements, while content writing is the writing of informational content aimed at a specific target audience. The latter provides prospects with information and answers questions they might have.

Digging deeper, however, we find the line of demarcation is blurred.

In general marketing and especially in direct marketing (DM), the type of persuasive copy used in advertisements is used in many other forms as well. Copywriters draw from the same toolbox to write short-form promotions like email blasts and landing pages, and in long-form copy for advertorials, magalogs, bookalogs, and other DM pieces—pieces some might view as “content” if they were in digital format.

In B2B marketing, advertising copy generally follows a problem/solution format. Often—especially if the offering is complex—that copy includes plenty of facts and possibly some customer testimonials, proof that the claims being made about the product or service are true. Among the objectives of that copy are providing the target audience with information and answering any questions or objections they are likely to have—the same objectives one has in content writing.

Meanwhile, a top-level description of content writing may suggest it is purely informational, that it has no element of persuasion and is therefore distinctly different from copywriting. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Content marketing depends on persuasive writing

In content marketing, content projects are not purely informational. They’re also designed to be persuasive and, therefore, promotional. Some are overtly promotional. Others are more subtle.

Many white papers, for example, use a problem/solution format and are designed to persuade the target audience that the vendor’s product is the best possible solution to a given problem. They end with at least one call to action, often two. Those calls to action typically prompt readers to visit a page where they can learn more, or encourage them to contact the vendor to discuss specific needs.

Other white papers are designed to nurture leads by providing additional arguments and information to consider. Still, others help prospects make a buying decision by providing detailed information to help them in their final evaluations. While informational, both types are still meant to be persuasive.

Case studies also follow the problem/solution format used in B2B advertisements. They show prospects very specifically how they can benefit from your offering. They provide proof that your product has done for others what you say it can. In the end, while they don’t normally include a call for action, one is often implied (contact the vendor to find out how they can help you, too).

Finally, website content often concludes with a call to action (Download the 30-day trial version. Contact us to schedule a demonstration. Call us for more information. Buy now!). That’s not to mention more subtle forms of persuasion that are often embedded within the web content itself, including links to additional information that might help answer a reader’s questions.

All marketing content benefits from the principles of good copywriting

The truth is, while the terms “copywriting” and “content writing” may be used to describe the development of different types of marketing projects, both draw from the same set of principles and best practices.

One way to answer the question “What’s the difference between copywriting and content writing?” is this: Since Merriam-Webster and their competitors define “copy” as text used especially (but not exclusively) in advertisements, then copywriting is simply the writing of text for marketing materials and content writing is a specific type of copywriting used in content marketing projects.

In practice, most B2B copywriters write not just advertising, but also content projects like white papers, case studies, web content, blog posts, and other social media content. Some copywriters, like me, specialize in content projects but also write “advertising” copy to promote that content in landing pages, email blasts, PPC ads, and social media posts.

My opinion is that the best marketing content writers are copywriters, whether they call themselves that or not. I say that because if your content doesn’t include elements of persuasion, it’s not marketing content. If your content is purely informational, you’ve probably crossed into another genre like tech writing or scientific writing. The former is used in product documentation like user manuals. The latter is used by engineers and scientists in their papers for scientific, industrial, and academic publications and conferences. Conference papers, by the way, don’t normally make good marketing content.

Key takeaways

What should a marketing manager or a freelance writer take from this discussion?

If you’re a marketer who needs to hire a writer for a B2B content project, don’t limit your search to “content writers.” Most freelance B2B copywriters are familiar with a variety of content projects. How familiar a specific freelancer is with a specific type of project will depend on his or her client base, experience, and circumstances. To find that out, all you have to do is ask.

If you’re a writer who specializes in content or certain types of content projects, don’t hesitate to call yourself a copywriter and promote yourself as such. If a prospective client asks, “Are you a copywriter or a content writer?” just say, “Both.” That’s what I do.

Next steps

Need help with a content (or copywriting) project? Contact CopyEngineer at info@copyengineer.com.

References

1 Foskey, C., What Is Content Writing? Plus 12 Tips to Take Your Content to the Next Level, HubSpot, January 2024.

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