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In just the past month, I’ve seen two different blogs tackling the topic of content writing vs. copywriting. Since I’ve been a professional writer for going on 31 years now, these blogs definitely piqued my interest. In fact, this distinction isn’t something I’d ever really thought about before.

In reading the blogs, I realized that the distinction goes deeper than it appears on the surface — and has application for marketing professionals other than just writer geeks like me.

History of the Terms

The term “copywriter” goes back a long ways. Exactly how far back, I’m not sure — but at least to the Mad Men era of the 1960s and the heyday of Madison Avenue advertising copywriters.

The term content writing or content writer, however, is relatively new. Along with myriad other terms like website, dot-com and hyperlink, it has sprung up over the past two decades with the rise of the Internet. In fact, the term content writer is usually short for “web content writer.”

In his blog Copywriting vs. Content Writing, Gordon Graham, aka That Whitepaper Guy, gives a good example that helps illustrate the difference. We’re all familiar with service journalism, which is best reflected in magazines and websites that cater to a niche audience whose members share some kind of common interest. Whether it’s woodworking, arts and crafts or collecting baseball cards, there are magazines and websites devoted to delivering valuable content that’s of interest to this audience — or more accurately, this community.

Magazines have done this since they started rolling off printing presses in the 1800s. With the Internet having become part of our everyday lives, businesses now have the opportunity to do the same thing publishers do when creating new magazines: Communicate and build relationships with niche communities by delivering content that’s of interest to them.

The better job magazines do of accomplishing this, the more subscriptions and advertising they will sell. The better job businesses do, the stronger relationships they will build with customers and prospects — and eventually, the more products and services they will sell.

Hence, the term content marketing, which is using strategic content to communicate and build relationships with niche communities that have a common interest in what a business markets and sells. So, content writing is writing material designed to do just this. Usually, this material consists of blogs, articles, whitepapers, case studies and so forth.

How Copywriting is Different

Copywriting is a little bit different. The best example of pure copywriting is still advertising, where copywriters hone unique skills in creating ads designed to get us to take a very specific action: click a link, make a phone call, visit a store, etc. The main goal of most copywriting is to sell — this is especially true of direct response copywriting, where top copywriters can earn tens of thousands of dollars for writing a single successful direct mail letter.

Content writing usually isn’t so sales-oriented, at least not directly. Unlike a copywriter who is skilled in getting people to take an action right away, a content writer’s skills lie more in crafting and telling a story or delivering valuable information in an easy-to-digest way. A good content writer will give readers just enough information to help them realize that they do need the products or services offered by the business without actually coming out saying it.

In this blog, for example, I write about things that I believe will be of interest to my niche community: those in the world of professional marketing and communications. I usually try to tell some kind of story and “give away” a few tips and pointers that might be useful.

What I never do is say “If you need a content writer for your articles, blogs or whitepapers, pick up the phone and give me a call — now!” By publishing a useful (I hope!) blog on a consistent basis, my goal is to stay top of mind so that if you ever do need a content writer, I’m the first person you’ll think of.

Unique Skill Sets Required

As I hope this illustrates, content writing and copywriting really are two different things, and they require different types of writing skills. I’ve been a content writer my entire career so I’m pretty good at it. While I’ve done some copywriting designed to generate response and make sales, it’s not my specialty so I’d probably refer you to someone else if you called and asked if I could help you with this.

On the flip side, I’ve worked with some great copywriters before who weren’t that good at content writing. When you’ve been trained to get readers to take a very specific action right away, it can be hard to shift gears into the more subtle and less salesy style and techniques required for content writing.

If you ever find yourself in need of a freelance writer, keep the differences between  content writers and copywriters in mind. Choosing the right kind of writer from the start could save you a lot of time, money and frustration.