Writing, copywriting and content writing: is there a difference?

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If we meet someone who speaks well we tend to form a positive opinion of them: we equate articulation with intelligence. It is pretty similar to how we react to likeable ads – subconsciously we transfer this affinity to the brand. Similarly, we admire those who write well. As David Ogilvy said, ‘People who think well, write well’.

When it comes to good writing, what gets our attention and keeps us engrossed could be anything from a well-crafted email (or the memo back in the days), a headline or article in a newspaper, an op-ed, or a book. We all have our favourite ‘un-putdownable’ book or a memorable piece of writing.

But can ‘good writers’ automatically become good advertising copywriters? No. The reason is simple. Copywriting calls for persuasive writing skills with a business purpose and follow several guidelines and ‘limitations’. Such writing has to be on brand (i.e. define and reflect the tone of voice of a brand), anchored on key selling points which will meet the communication objective – either of creating brand awareness, affinity, changing mindset or behaviour. Moreover, unlike book writing, the writer is not writing to merely express oneself or share a world view. There are boring bits like research about the brand or cause, studying competition, understanding the business objective, having the pulse of the consumer behaviour, needs, trends & aspirations, a basic understanding of how marketing works and such like. Moreover, a copywriter needs to play to the strengths of each medium and know what works where. A copywriter has to have the flair for presenting a persuasive argument – be it in print, radio, TV, billboard, website, tweet or an Instagram post.

Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

Bill Bernbach

Such persuasion can be achieved through many ways: charming the reader or viewer using humour, shocking them (if the brief demands it) into noticing you and more.

After all, Howard Gossage got it right in the 1950s:

People don’t read ads. They read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.

Howard Gossage

So a copywriter has to present an argument or proposition in an interesting, compelling manner, anchored in a creative idea, in order to meet a business objective. Some of these objectives may bear fruit in the short term and some in the long run. An effective campaign may help increase sales quickly or change behaviour or perception over a long period of time. Such creative ideas may not even require any copywriting at times.

So how is content writing different?

According to Content Marketing Institute, ‘Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action’. What has come to be known as content marketing was practiced decades ago by brands. As I have said before, lot of the new advertising is old advertising at heart. In 1895, John Deere – a manufacturer of agricultural machinery published a magazine called The Furrow, which shared articles and tips on agriculture. In the early 1900s, the tyre brand Michelin created guides for motorists in Europe. The intent was to encourage travel by road thereby putting the tyres through wear & tear. The guide provided information on hotels and restaurants on the highways thus becoming a useful reference material. Similarly brands such as Nestle and Jell-O have offered recipe books to consumers as part of their advertising investments.

In the B2B segment, such content creation and distribution – aimed at giving information for free, is common. Hubspot is a great example of such. These activities bear fruit over a long period of time. The premise is that such content adds to the ‘voice of authority’ or ‘utility value’ image and creates an edge for the brand – when the need for their product or service arises. More importantly it must be found to be of value by the intended target audience. When such value-adding content is created consistently and brought to the attention of potential buyers the brand endears itself to them over time, creating a powerful edge over competition.

Content marketing is also common in B2C. E-commerce, personal finance and travel brands create content in the form of blogs, newsletters and videos giving tips, how-to guides and more. Many of them may not directly have a sale as call-to-action.

In my view while good writing which suits the context and business need is a prerequisite for both copywriting (in the traditional advertising sense) and content marketing, the former calls for a special talent: the one which can come up with a creative idea. A good example of this, outside of traditional print advertising is the campaign by KFC in UK when they could not use their famous slogan ‘finger lickin’ good’ – as it was considered inappropriate in the context of hygiene and general mindset of apprehension during the pandemic. So the creative team requested users to suggest appropriate temporary tag lines. In a hilarious twist, other brand chimed in and offered their tag lines.

In content marketing, which typically includes writing for blogs, articles, newsletters, white papers, ebooks or video the need for a ‘creative leap’ is less. The emphasis is more on clarity, keeping the reader engaged and being of some value.

Of late, given the rise of digital product consumption I have noticed skilful writing coming into play in UX writing. Several businesses are app-based and the interaction with the app through mobile notifications, content on the app itself and other touch points (such as app update copy) are opportunities to create affinity for the brand. A good example of it is the brand personality and tone of voice built by Carrot Fit – a weight tracker app, in 2015. The app donned a snarky, ‘tough talking’ avatar and was reflected in the app walk through and in-app copy – the will threaten, inspire, ridicule or bribe you into taking action.

The app update copy (called release notes) or push notifications can also seen as an opportunities to weave a story or convey a brand personality.

So while there are similarities to the talent required for both copywriting and content writing, each discipline calls for specialist skills and mindsets. In both cases it is never about style over substance. ‘Interrogate the product until it confesses’ is a mantra followed by traditional copywriters – suggesting that the creative idea and the expression have to be rooted in the product. A content writer on the other hand has to research the topic and convey information or POV which is of value to the potential audience. As Copyblogger said, ‘Content without copywriting is a waste of good content. Copywriting without content is a waste of good copy’.

Do share your views.

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