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Content Marketing vs. Copywriting: What's the Difference & What Skills Do You Need?

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I am not a fashionable man. My tastes include late-sixties muscle cars. Jimi Hendrix. Steak and chips. Bespoke suits. Snakeskin boots. White burgundy. Black and white films. Face-to-face selling. Direct mail. Advertising.

In the minds of some of my copywriting colleagues, this means I am a dinosaur. Out of touch with what marketing is really all about. Which, apparently, is influencer marketing. Social engagement. And, of course, our dear old friend, content marketing.

Now, I’m part of a living, breathing conundrum here. Why? Because I am writing these opinions down in an article. Not a sales letter. Not a blast email. Not a long-form web page. A piece of content, in other words, commissioned by my publisher, the excellent Kogan Page. But I’m going to cheat, as you will see at the end of the piece.

Some of the skills you need to write a piece of content are the same as those you need to write a piece of copy.

The table stakes skills, for example, like having a flawless and total command of the English language. (Sad to say, this is where a great many so-called “content writers” fall down, apparently content to churn out garbage that even monkeys clacking away on typewriters would spurn as unpublishable.)

Then there’s the ability to research a subject that one assumes one’s readers will find interesting. And, having assembled a bunch of facts, arrange them in a way that leads the reader through a narrative structure that makes sense.

But this is truly lowballing. It’s rather like saying a student in a bedsit with a two-ring electric hob and a three-Michelin-starred chef need the same skills e.g. not burning food.

Why? Because only copywriters are seeking to modify the reader’s behaviour. And that, performed remotely, using nothing but words, is hard. No, it isn’t hard. It’s bloody hard.

It’s why you can get a 700-word blog post for £50, but you have to pay £3,000 for a 700-word sales letter.

In a lunchtime conversation with my unofficial mentor and fellow Kogan Page author, Drayton Bird, I asked him what he thought about content marketing. He said that content marketing was like a dog without a tail. I think he meant there was no action at the end.

And it’s here that content marketing veers sharply away from copywriting. Get to the end of most blog posts, infographics, articles and videos and there’s either no call-to-action at all or a very flabby one.

Get to the end of a piece of copy and there’s a call-to-action that instructs the reader to act. Usually, though not always, to buy something.

This, more than anything else, constitutes the prime skill needed by copywriters, that content writers don’t need. The ability to sell.

Selling using the written word is copywriting. That means identifying the reader’s needs. Their motivations. Their hopes, fears and dreams.

It means tackling their objections without raising any unnecessarily.

It means providing examples of how their lives will be improved when they buy. Of providing social proof, authority and reasons to believe. Of establishing empathy, rapport and confidence.

It is no coincidence that the highest-paid copywriters in the world today (and indeed always) have been former salespeople or people who have honed their skills in direct response copywriting, which is the tip of the spear.

Nor is it a coincidence that the lowest-paid writers are those engaged in spewing out “content” for a few pennies a word.

So, if you want to make a decent living as a commercial writer, focus on copywriting. And master the psychological techniques that will propel you into the upper reaches of the profession.

My new book, Persuasive Copywriting, will help you get there faster, with less pain, and more fun along the way. Buy it now, here.