In all honesty, I was surprised to hear that one of my favourite quotes in recent times came from a man who I probably might not have imagined as someone who held a deep understanding of content. Clearly, I was wrong.
In an essay published in January of 1995, Bill Gates declared, “content is king”. Could the tech innovator, business magnate, and international philanthropist really have predicted the degree to which content would reign over the internet more than two decades ago? While he could, and he did, content still remains largely misunderstood by many people. Let’s take a closer look at content writing, how it differs from copywriting, and what it can do for you.
From Bill Gates to Don Draper
People in the industry struggle to understand the difference between copywriting and content writing. I can recall more than a few instances when our clients wanted to hire content writers in-house, but ended up onboarding copywriters instead. While the two roles share similarities, they each serve a unique purpose.
American Writers & Artists Institute. declares the former to be “the process of writing advertising promotional materials. Copywriters are responsible for the text on brochures, billboards, websites, emails, advertisements, catalogs, and more.”
While this definition captures the concept in its most elemental sense, it misses out on explaining what elevates ordinary copywriting from the extraordinary. For a glimpse into this separator, let’s take a minute and turn to the fictional expert himself: Don Draper.
Millions of people tune in every week to watch used car salesman turned brilliant ad man Don Draper lead Sterling Cooper to copywriting supremacy on the hit TV show, “Mad Men.” Perhaps Don’s words summed up the very best kind of copywriting, along with why he was considered the best around: “But there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”
Draper’s sentiments echo a definition from Copyblogger, which proclaims that “the art and science of direct-response copywriting involves strategically delivering words (whether written or spoken) that get people to take some form of action.”
And here lies the bottom line: a copywriter’s goal is to prompt people to take a single action — in many cases, the purchase of a product or service, but also anything from making a phone call to visiting a store. Building relationships and making connections along the way are simply the means to an end. Copywriters by nature, must put the desired action first. They must prioritise results as if their jobs depend on it. Because — let’s face it — they do.
Perhaps, copywriting guru Joanna Wiebe of Copyhackers puts it best when it comes to expecting results. She writes that not only do “persuasion and conversion go hand-in-hand”, but that “if you’re not persuading visitors — to sign up, to comment, to share, to buy — it’s going to be very hard for you to boost your conversion rate.”
In other words, copywriting is ultimately a numbers game, even if the rhetorical prose tugs on the heartstrings to get where it needs to go.
Content writing, meanwhile, approaches things from a completely different angle. Sales are not the end-game — although when well-executed it can certainly be a by-product. Rather than prompting consumers toward a finite option, content writing is really an act of cultivation intended to attract customers, educate them, enhance understanding, and ultimately, add value to their lives. Or to lift a phrase from many an inspirational poster, “It’s not about the destination, but about the journey.”
According to a research report (March, 2014) by the Content Marketing Institute, 82% of marketers cite brand awareness as one of their key content marketing goals — which of course can lead to increased sales. Other top goals of an organisation’s content marketing programme include lead generation, thought leadership, website traffic and customer retention/loyalty.
Content writing often involves going deep into someone’s expertise in a specific domain and conveying it in the form of a captivating, consumable story. Fast forward to 2015, and a talented content writer is a subject-matter expert who can swiftly invoke the skills of a nimble copywriter and a seasoned journalist into their work.
Coca-Cola on Content Marketing
Let’s go to a real-life industry leader to learn more about how content marketing works in action: Coca-Cola. This 123-year-old institution leads the pack when it comes to creating content that works. The key? Storytelling that is relevant, consistent and compelling to consumers and media alike.
In a presentation at BlogWell Bay Area, Ashley Callahan, Coke’s Manager of Digital Communications and Social Media then, shared the not-so-secret formula for the company’s content marketing success.
Before rolling out content, content marketers at Coke first ask the following seven questions:
- Does it pass the “Why Should I Care” test?
- Is it surprising?
- Does it offer universal appeal?
- Is it interesting?
- Is it something that hasn’t been seen before?
- Is it differentiable from the competitor’s content?
- Is it able to be monitored and measured in real time?
Here’s a different way of looking at it: Today’s consumers are suspicious of overt sales, but relish the opportunity to expand their knowledge and awareness. Share-worthy content writing, then, boils down to the following: what’s the story, how can it be told and will it reach the right person? Because if it doesn’t serve a purpose that not only offers a benefit but is also — like a Coke itself — worth sharing with a friend, then it’s missing the whole point.
So, Do You Need a Copywriter or Content Writer?
If you’re still on the fence about whether you need a copywriter, content writer or both, take a moment to consider your objective. Are you specifically looking for sales conversions? If so, copywriters are the consummate sales professionals. Their tactics involve putting together the right combination of compelling words within a particular context in order to inspire a specific action. They’re a great fit when you have a product or service that’s intrinsically comprehensible, unambiguous and self-explanatory to your audience.
Alternatively, content writers are not motivated primarily by sales, but instead by the overriding goal of creating long term value, from generating web traffic to building brand reputation. While effective content writing may or may not result in a sale within a specific time frame — nor is it intended to — it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and can continue to generate revenue for years to come.
Keep in mind that the "commercial value" of your product or service will likely be directly proportional to the length of your "conversion cycle". What I mean by that is, the more expensive your product, the longer it will take for you to convert your prospects. If you think that your pricing may be perceived as even a slight deterrent or that you may need more real-estate to explain your value proposition clearly, taking a more elaborate approach at targeting each stage of a prospect’s purchasing funnel is a prudent step.
The truth is that while skilled copywriting may propel sales, effective content writing leads to lifelong consumers.
More than 20 years ago, Bill Gates went on to say, “Opportunities are remarkable, and many companies are laying plans to create content for the Internet.” Two decades later, the imperative is stronger than ever before.
While copywriting was, is and will always be part of business practices, if you haven’t incorporated content marketing into your overarching strategy yet, you’re missing out on a major opportunity to grow your consumer relationships, your brand and your bottom line.