Here’s a question I got recently: Is copywriting any different from content writing?
That’s a great question.
Here’s my answer, some lively comments, and an update I posted after thinking about this some more.
I was fortunate to learn my craft while writing for traditional magazines. From 1985 to today, I’ve written close to 1,000 magazine articles, mainly about technology, for everyone from accountants to woodworkers.
One thing I learned is that a magazine’s base—its audience and advertisers—is made up of a community of people who share similar interests.
A great example: Cottage Life
One magazine I often wrote for is called Cottage Life. The main audience it attracts is anyone in Toronto with a cottage north of the city.
These people love the magazine because it connects them to their “cottager” selves, and to their most cherished family memories.
The magazine runs stories about anything to do with cottages: all the way from opening them in the spring, to closing them in the fall, to winterizing them to use year-round.
I wrote about recycling at the cottage, fighting weeds in the lake at the cottage, avoiding lightning at the cottage, and so on.
These helpful stories on how to do something are called “service journalism.”
With such an intensely loyal audience, Cottage Life has expanded with a TV channel, a trade show, and a range of products from t-shirts to onesies for babies.
It’s been an unqualified success since the day it was launched in 1988.
Companies becoming publishers
The point is that any magazine—as well as any blog, forum, Facebook page, Pinterest board, and so on—can only succeed by attracting a community of interest.
The rise of Google, and the demise of interruption marketing via mass media, means every company must now become a publisher.
And that means learning what magazine publishers have known for generations: how to attract and engage a community of interest.
In a business context, this is called content marketing.
Many B2B companies struggle with content marketing because they have no experience in attracting or serving a community.
A different type of writing
I believe traditional copywriting seeks to push a prospect’s emotional buttons to compel them to click through, convert, and buy now.
These buttons often involve what used to be called the “7 deadly sins.” These are passions like greed, sloth, lust, pride, and so on.
On the other hand, B2B content at its best provides useful, helpful, compelling, and persuasive content to draw together and serve a community of people with shared interests.
Content writing seeks to position a company as a trusted advisor, to attract prospects, and to nurture them through a complex sale.
If you’re a sales or marketing person who has never done that, it can be much harder than just selling a product. And because these two forms of communication are so different, the people who are best at selling are usually the worst at content marketing.
And I argue that the appeal is more to the intellect than to the emotions. This is why white papers require facts and logic instead of the kind of fluff and promises you can find in many brochures or sales letters.
Update: Not so black and white
On reflection, I realize nothing is as black and white as I painted it above.
There are two main forms of non-fiction writing: writing to explain, and writing to persuade.
Of course, white papers contain persuasive writing. Certainly, sales letters offer explanatory facts and the logic to tie them together.
The more accomplished the copywriter, the more they merge the two together into an effective piece.
I’ve exaggerated the differences between salesy copy and content mainly for those trying to pick one field or the other, or for anyone trying to make a transition from one to the other.
As a former journalist and technical writer, I’m far more comfortable writing to explain.
A few copywriters can handle either approach with eloquence. I admit, I can’t.
But I don’t mean to put down my colleagues who write sales copy, or the handful of those who can do both, like Bob Bly and Steve Slaunwhite.
After all, we’re all writers. And that gives us much more in common than the different ways we string together words.
How copywriters can succeed as content writers
The good news for copywriters is that content marketing is the biggest thing to hit B2B marketing since e-mail!
The sky’s the limit on what you can write and what you can earn writing B2B content like white papers.
You just have to change gears a little. Here’s a link to 4 lessons copywriters need to unlearn to do well writing white papers.
Have you made the switch from traditional copywriting to B2B content writing? What’s been your biggest challenge? Please leave your comment below.