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Copywriting vs content writing

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.

people reading in bed

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.

The end goal may be the same: to make a sale. But in content marketing, it’s a soft sell, not a hard sell.

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.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. Bob Bly on January 27, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    You say copywriting is easy and content marketing difficult. I believe it is the exact opposite. Copywriting requires knowledge of sales formulas and persuasion techniques that are not intuitive and most writers do not know. On the other hand, service journalism is simple and easy. And although you are the exception, most copywriters make money that content writers can only dream of.

  2. J.M. Lacey on January 27, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Very clear and insightful, Gordon. I’ve seen various definitions of “Content Marketing,” all of which make the phrase seem as though it’s a shiny new concept. But you pointed out that it’s as simple as telling an engaging story, sharing information in a creative way. Content Marketing is more about earning trust rather than directly selling a product or service. It takes longer to build an audience this way, but it’s an audience that will become loyal customers and stick with the business for the long haul. Thanks for the post!

  3. Jeff on January 27, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I find that difficulty in deciding where the free line is, is a challenge. How much do you give away to establish trust before collecting money for services or information. When reading other writers’ material I get pissed off when I read a whole article and do not get anything I can put to use. Still I may not be the best judge because I’m a marketer. Then there is the call to action at the end of a white paper that has to be handled carefully. If you have not established trust by the end of a white paper, the “read more” link is not going to do much good.

  4. Steve Slaunwhite on January 27, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    I don’t draw a line between copywriting and content writing. Each project has its unique format and function.

    A white paper, for example, is like a persuasive business case with several functions: lead generation, thought-leadership, etc.

    An email series is like a gently-building pitch to get prospects to take some action: sign up, register, buy, etc.

    Each project is unique, and you bring whatever is in your toolbox (sales copywriting, content writing, journalism, topic expertise) to the task.

    So we writers shouldn’t worry about whether or not we’re copywriters or content writers. Instead, our focus should be on making whatever project we write work great for the client. At the end of the day, clients don’t care if what we’ve written is copy or content. They just want an effective marketing piece that’s going to get the job done.

  5. Vinish Garg (@vingar) on January 27, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    Copywriting is a subset of content marketing as a discipline. Copywriters are more involved with writing-specific tasks which includes knowing the audience, crafting the message for voice and tone, planning CTA, and actual writing.

    Content marketing on the other hand is much more than this. CM is about aligning all content-specific efforts, processes, and activities towards the business goals. CM involves doing research not only for website/product copy, but what all content types may work towards the organization goals, which includes planning webinars, events, sponsorship opportunities and partnerships, drip campaigns, social media engagement, AMA, and everything. Two, CM is involved with metrics, to setup measurable goals for content effectiveness, to monitor and then to strategise the content marketing strategy. I am not sure copywriters are skilled in all these activities.

    So, copywriting and content marketing are essentially, very different from each other, as a role and as a discipline.

    • Bob Bly on January 28, 2016 at 7:32 am

      Our goals as copywriters are simpler and much more measurable: we generate either a lead or a sale. Cannot get more accountable than that. And anyone who buys into the above analysis obviously is unaware of the many persuasion methods and formulas used in direct response copy. Much harder to write a video sales letter (VS) that generates direct sales of an exercise product than it is to write an article about exercise. Why do you think copywriters get 5-10K for one VSL while there are people on elance and fiverr advertising that they will write an article for $25?And before you ask, I write content as well as copy, from articles and white papers to full length hardcover books used in content marketing.

      • Vinish Garg (@vingar) on January 28, 2016 at 9:47 pm

        You are right that copywriters can measure the effectiveness of their work, but they are generally measuring the effectiveness *only of their their work which is copy/content*.

        A content marketer is skilled to measure the effectiveness of all content published by an organization (and for an organization, such as community content or social engagements). So, the role is much broader.

        Two, copywriters can plan the content types they need to communicate for specific purpose (lead, thought leadership, CTA). Content marketers can plan the whole content marketing strategy for what all content types an organization needs to plan, product, publish, distribute, engage/chase, and measure. So again, the role of CM is bigger than the copywriters.

        • Bob Bly on January 29, 2016 at 7:34 am

          Sounds like double-speak to me, putting a lot of window dressing on a relatively simple task: writing articles. Tell you what. I have a client that sells dietary supplements. I’ll write e-mails and a landing page. You write only content. We’ll see who sells more. Deep down I believe content-only writers have an inferiority complex because (a) copywriters know and can do things they can’t and (b) we make as a rule much more money. Some top content writers, like Gordon, are the exception. But selling is a lot harder than telling.

          • Vinish Garg (@vingar) on January 29, 2016 at 9:32 pm

            “You write only content…” This is the catch and is hence debatable. If a copywriter can:
            – Work with content strategists to plan how content is repurposed for different devices, for a personalized content experience such as for user’s location, language, and preferences
            – Plan inbound and outbound strategy for what content types are required, for example a customer service portal for inbound and an intranet for outbound calling
            – Plan what all channels an organization should use to communicate, whether social (which one and why), mobile first or desktop first, multichannel or omnichannel
            – Strategy for Drip campaigns, including measuring and effectiveness, working on segmented lists
            – Plan surveys and polls for audiences (beta users, support feedback, upcoming webinars…)
            – Keep a track of brand positioning

            Then, he/she is doing something similar that a content marketer should do.

          • Bob Bly on January 29, 2016 at 10:55 pm

            Vinish, you overcomplicate things. As a direct response copywriter, I sell. That’s it. All the rest of the items in your list are mostly gibberish, jargon, or window dressing. The copywriter’s job is to make the sale.

  6. Gordon Graham on January 28, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Thanks for your comments, everyone! I’m afraid my bias as an ex-journalist is showing. Certainly, copywriting takes skill and experience and when it pulls in orders, it’s extremely valuable.

    I believe Bob Bly and Steve Slaunwhite are among a handful of writers who can create both effective copy and great content.

    As for clients who hire writers, if they’ve never thought like a magazine publisher, content marketing is a huge challenge. They may botch it up by publishing sales copy or such “thin soup” (articles they buy for $25) that they don’t engage anyone. That’s where a well-informed writer can help them.

    And I like Steve’s comments… it’s true, some of my clients ask me to write “copy” and some ask for “content.” if it doesn’t matter to them, it doesn’t much matter to me.

  7. Bob Bly on June 19, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Say you are writing to market a health book. If you have a bullet in your text that says, “Eating apples reduces your risk of cancer,” that is content: You are giving the reader the information. If you write “Delicious fruit sold at your local supermarket can reduce your risk of cancer–see page 74,” that is copy, designed to arouse curiosity and get the reader to order the book so he can find out what the fruit is. Content tells, copy sells.

  8. […] is where I hear split opinions. In Gordon Graham’s article “Copywriting vs content writing,” he states that only a few greats like Bob Bly and Steve […]

  9. team koderey on February 15, 2020 at 5:25 am

    Hey there, Greetings from this side. Being a content writer and freelancer myself, I really enjoyed reading this guide. You explained everything really well. The way you explained everything is remarkable. Keep the good work up 🙂

  10. Freedom ERP on June 22, 2021 at 5:36 am

    Had a confusion between these two terms and now got clarified. Thanks for the good explanation. Nice blog!

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