Content Marketing vs. Copywriting: What Are the Major Differences?
“Aren’t writers just writers?”
The question came from a strategy colleague when I was helping a brand staff its new content studio. We had just presented a list of different types of writers the company needed to hire, including copywriters, bloggers, editors, and social media creators. My colleague wasn’t convinced.
She’s not the only person who’s raised this question. I’ve heard variations of it from marketers, freelancers, journalists, and students looking to start their careers. Sure, writing is at the core of multiple marketing jobs, but there are key distinctions. Copywriting and content marketing call for different skills and success metrics.
There’s more than philosophy at stake. If you’re hiring a writer, you want to get the right person for the job. You may get an engaging ad draft that reads like a haiku or a blog post that takes time to digest. Whether you’re looking to make the right hire or switch careers, it’s helpful to know what you need to thrive in each specialty.
Consider the buyer’s journey. In its simplest view, a copywriter tries to pique interest immediately, with a heavy emphasis on brand awareness. The content marketer, meanwhile, focuses more on educating the customer and building trust, playing a bigger long-term role in the consideration and evaluation stages.
“When I’m writing ad copy, I become the product,” said Maureen Tsuchida, a freelance copywriter and social media consultant. “I can become warm and cozy like a hot cup of Campbell’s soup on a frosty day, blow through dusty dirt roads in an open-top Jeep Wrangler, or shift into transforming work processes using an AI platform to identify risks and eliminate obstacles so your projects deliver on time. See? I’m meticulously choosing words to paint a picture and bring the product to life.”
When it comes to content marketing, Tsuchida stresses that she’s not directly selling the product. For that kind of work, she focuses more on challenges and solutions in the product category. “I’m still selling, but it’s not an ad.”
“Sponsored content is a gift to the reader,” said Ron Bel Bruno, a content marketing writer and strategist who was a longtime editor for Ziff Davis and Time Inc. “The best blogs, podcasts, or videos must employ the same skills a magazine or newspaper writer and editor uses. Your narrative needs to be fair, objective, and engaging, and leave the reader with some lasting value that will inform their future buying decisions.”
Just about all companies are looking for marketers who excel at writing and storytelling. But if you take a look at job descriptions, you’ll get a specific sense of how the roles diverge.
On the content side, job posts typically mention SEO knowledge and specific channel savvy (e.g., web, email, blog, video). The copywriter’s role description tends to be more about concepts, innovation, and brand communications. Both jobs involve putting words together well, but the essential skill sets required for a display ad campaign versus an e-book series are very different.
For ads, I want creativity. For content, I crave authority.
As a current marketing director and previous creative director, I’ve come up with a hiring shorthand that guides my decisions: For ads, I want creativity. For content, I crave authority. That means I tend to hire copywriters with diverse industry experience who can cross-pollinate ideas. For content marketing positions, I want writers with deeper vertical expertise who know what they’re talking about.
According to Bel Bruno, “You need journalistic skills, tempered with the ability to work facts into a template based on messaging pillars and marketing directives.”
Most hiring managers want to see several examples of spec or in-market work, but what does successful work look like?
“I define success, be it in content or advertising, the same way,” said David McMillan, an experienced creative director and copywriter at top agencies. “Did it hold the reader and teach them something? Did the reader and I part ways with a transfer of information? Awards are validation for the insecure. A connection is the metric of success that tends to break the rules a lot with copywriting,”
There are, however, a few ways to differentiate that connection. In digital advertising, clients quantify effectiveness by impressions and clicks delivered through paid media. Across the aisle, content marketers track top-funnel metrics like unique visitors and time spent.
When it comes to ROI, there are a few similarities worth calling out. Depending on the project, copywriters and content marketers may both care about leads captured and (in some cases) revenue, if their email banners or referral links influence a purchasing decision.
On the awards front, there are a myriad of shows for copywriters, including Cannes Lions, Caples, Effies, and The One Show. For content marketing, which hasn’t been around as long, there are showcases like the Shorty Awards, Content Marketing Institute’s Awards, and The Finnys.
4. Career Trajectory
I started as an ad copywriter, dabbled in public relations, grew into a head of creative at several ad agencies before shifting to being a practice lead at a management consulting firm. While I still love creating ads, the deeper I got into digital marketing, the more I learned to love and excel at content marketing. Now I’m a strategist who advises on both.
However, as content marketing continues to become more established, it seems like people are specializing more in their respective fields.
Copywriters typically become creative directors at agencies or in-house departments. McMillan has worked at various global agencies as well as in-house at NBC News as creative director. Tsuchida has been a writer and associate creative director for the biggest direct and digital marketing agencies before consulting on her own.
Content marketing writers can rise up to become content strategists, content directors, or chief content officers. Content marketers may come from—or go to—fields like journalism, as Bel Bruno did.
As I told my colleague, good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean these skills are interchangeable. A great ad and a great blog post use different muscles, and hopefully this helps you recognize when you need to flex them.
Mat Zucker is a writer, marketing consultant, and author of Bronze Seeks Silver: Lessons from a Creative Career in Marketing.Image by Ceneri