The world was a very different place when I graduated college in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in Advertising. The internet was still more than a decade away from widespread usage and personal computers weren’t very common yet.
I can distinctly remember using a typewriter in college and during the first couple of years in my first job before we finally got IBM 286 PCs. These were just glorified word processors, but man they were cool if all you’d ever written on before was a typewriter!
Copywriting Dream … Derailed
My dream when I finished college was to be a copywriter at an advertising agency and work on big-time national ad campaigns. Think Don Draper and the gang on Mad Men. To get some real-world experience, I took a job as an editorial assistant at a newsletter publisher and figured I’d switch to an ad agency after a year or two.
Instead, I ended up spending 12 years at the publishing company. By then I’d pretty much forgotten about advertising since I’d gone so far down a different career path: that of a content writer.
I thought about all this while reading several articles this week about the difference between content writing and copywriting. Because if I’d ended up working for an ad agency instead of a publishing company, I would be a very different kind of writer today.
They’re Not the Same
At first glance, content writing and copywriting might seem like the same thing. But in practice, they’re very different.
In simple terms, copywriting is what ad agencies do. The goal is to get readers to take some sort of action — this is why it’s sometimes referred to as direct response copywriting. The action can be anything: call a toll-free number, reply to an email or click on a link that leads to a landing page, for example. The goal is for this action to lead to a sale.
With content writing, the goal is very different. Instead of prompting an immediate action or response, content should be written to educate, inform or entertain your readers. If you’ve heard the term “value-added” content before, this is what it means: Content that literally adds value for the reader.
An entire new industry known as content marketing has sprung up that’s devoted to just this. The idea is to build relationships with customers and prospects and position the business as an expert in the field by providing soft-sell (or no-sell) informational content that readers find valuable. This content usually takes the form of blogs, articles, whitepapers, FAQs, Q&As and the like.
Exhibit A: This Blog
The blog you’re reading right now is the purest form of content writing. I’m creating something of value (at least I hope so!) and not only publishing here on my website, but also emailing it to marketers and influencers who make decisions about hiring freelance writers.
Instead of trying to generate an immediate response, I’m trying to build relationships and position myself as a subject matter expert when it comes to content creation and writing. My hope is that if a marketer or influencer ever needs to hire a freelance writer who specializes in business and finance, he or she will remember me and reach out.
Now contrast this with copywriting. If this were the approach I was taking, I would be telling you all about my vast copywriting experience, proven results and happy clients I’ve worked with. Then I might make some kind of special offer and conclude with a strong call to action like dialing a toll-free number or clicking on a link to take advantage of it.
Content Can Sell, Too
“Now hold on just a minute, Don!” you might be thinking. “Isn’t the goal of content writing to sell something too?”
Sure it is! One of my goals in writing a blog and sending out an e-newsletter is to eventually “sell” my freelance writing services to organizations that need them. But I’m doing this in a very soft-sell way. I’ll never make a direct pitch for my services in an article or blog or toot my own horn in an effort to generate a direct response.
My friend Jacob McMillen says freelance writers he works with sometimes do just this by trying to force a product pitch into a blog post. “I’ll be reading through the post they did and there will just be this random product pitch pigeon-holed into the content,” he told me. “If left unedited, this would completely ruin the piece of content.”
Copywriting, on the other hand, needs to be super-focused, super-tight and super-intentional. “Every single word and line is important — you can’t afford to take tangents or say more than you need to say,” Jacob says. “But when writing content, you can go off in different directions and have additional information that’s just interesting if you think it enhances the value to the reader.”
Content writing is all about creating value, Jacob says. “Everything needs to be focused on delivering the value the reader was looking for when they navigated to your piece.”