• Brian Fleming

What, exactly, is copywriting?


"So, what exactly is copywriting anyway?"


I get asked all the time by people outside of the advertising and marketing industry, “So, what exactly is copywriting?”


Twenty, thirty years ago, the answer to that question would’ve been simple. “I come up with TV commercials and the ads you see in magazines,” I would say, and they’d reply, “Wow, cool! Wish that was my job.”


But these days it’s a little different. Okay, a lot different. Yes, there are still copywriters who come up with TV commercials and magazine ads, and that’s still where all the supposed glamor is, though the amounts of both types of advertising, along with all the nice cushy perks that come along with the job, are declining as marketing has expanded and taken on ever more diverse dimensions.


So, to understand what copywriting is, let’s do a run-down of everything that these days falls under the advertising, marketing and sales umbrella and what role copywriting and copywriters play.


Traditional advertising


This one you’re probably very familiar with. TV commercials, magazine ads, billboards, radio ads. To create these ads, agencies traditionally have a copywriter and an art director working together as a team. Together they’ll brainstorm and work through ideas until something clicks. If they’re idea gets approved, they’ll then write the script and create the storyboard, in the case of TV, or write the headline and body copy and create a mock-up, in the case of a print ad. When these are approved, they’ll together be responsible for producing the final ad.


This includes: selecting the director or photographer, casting the actors or models, selecting the location, etc. They’ll be on the shoot and will have final approval of what the director or photographer is shooting. Afterwards, they’ll work with an editor, post-production specialists, composers, etc. to create the final ad. As you can see, at this point, there isn’t a lot of writing involved for the copywriter. Instead, the copywriter and art director are more

like creators.


Online advertising


Scroll through Facebook and see those ads in the right-hand column that every ignores? A copywriter wrote those. Scroll through your newsfeed and look for the posts that seem to relate to something you may be interested in but didn’t come from anyone you know? Look closely for the “Sponsored Content” tag that tells you this is an ad. Yup, a copywriter was behind that.


Go to your favorite websites and see the banner ads? Again, a copywriter. Same with Google ads. These types of ads don’t require a lot of words, but the words they rely on matter a great deal and the success of individual words can be tested and optimized in real time. It’s not glamorous work and falls at the opposite end of the spectrum as traditional advertising, but someone’s gotta do it. And doing it well brings in customers.


Marketing


Oh boy, this is a big one. Huge, in fact. Marketing covers a wide range of activities and materials and includes everything from promotional material (brochures, posters and fliers) to websites, blogs, newsletters and social media to videos and even events. The list goes on. If there’s a way to connect a brand or product to its target audience, then that’s marketing, and copywriting plays an integral role. Let’s look at each of these individually.


Promotional material


You’re interested in buying a new car. At the show room you pick up a brochure about the car filled with dynamic pictures that show the car at its best and headlines that make you feel what it’s like to own and drive this car. That right there is the work of an art director and a copywriter, though in this case it’s likely that they’re working separately rather than as a team.


If the brochure is part of a larger advertising campaign, the art director will have photos available from the print campaign to use in the brochure, along with the concept of the campaign. He or she will design the brochure and create space for text according to his or her visual concept.


At the same time, the copywriter will take all the information he or she has about the product and will then structure and organize that information in a way that readers will easily be able to follow.


At this stage, the copywriter is like a guide, taking the reader by the hand through the benefits and features of the product. At the same time, however, the copywriter needs to influence the reader’s emotions and create an image for the reader to live in. The copywriter does this with headlines, sub-headlines, body copy, image captions, call-outs, quotations, etc. And again, if the brochure is part of a larger advertising campaign, the copywriter also needs to align the writing, particularly the headlines, to the campaign’s concept.


As a final step, the copywriter and art director work together to make the text fit with the design.


Now, what if the promotional material isn’t part of a larger campaign? In this case, it’s up to the copywriter and the art director to create the concept that will drive the material. See, a good marketing copywriter does more than just execute someone’s else’s ideas, but instead comes up with the ideas him or herself, just as an advertising copywriter does. A good marketing copywriter is able to think visually as well as textually and understands how to structure visual as well as written information for greatest impact.


Websites


A lot of what’s true for a brochure holds true for websites as well, the difference here being the greater scope for creativity. In the case of a website, a copywriter will often have a lot of information to parse and condense, with condense being the operative word. Because when it comes to websites, less is usually more – except when writing blogs (see below), in which case more is more these days.


The work flow can go one of two ways when it comes to websites. In the first, the UX designer creates wireframes in much the same way the art director creates a layout for a brochure and the copywriter fills in the areas for headlines, sub-headlines and text. This is best for landing pages or sites that follow a particular sales conversion funnel.


The other route involves the copywriter structuring and organizing the information and the UX designer creating the wireframes around the copywriter’s structure. This is usually the best approach for sites heavy on information or that require a lot of explaining, though again, a good copywriter will think both visually and textually. And in the ideal scenario, the copywriter, either alone or together with an art director, also creates the concept that drives the website.


Blogs


Thirty years ago, there were no such thing as blogs. There were articles. And the writers of articles were called… well, er… writers. Today, we have bloggers. And when the blog is written for a brand, then you can be sure it’s a copywriter who’s writing it, even if it has some C-level’s name on it.


Blogs are most effective when they’re published regularly, follow a scheduled plan of topics and are written in the brand’s voice. The copywriter probably won’t be involved with the scheduling, but is definitely integral to coming up with topics to blog about, as well as creating the brand voice and guidelines. As for writing the actual post, the copywriter will usually be responsible for researching the topic, though sometimes may be given relevant links to draw from and write about, and of course for writing knowledgeably and authoritatively about it (gone are the days when Google rewarded 300-word blog posts; now it’s all about long-form content and in-depth coverage).


As you can imagine, just as there are countless different areas of industry to blog about, there are specialist copywriters who can write knowledgeably about those areas. But here I have to make a very important point: a good copywriter can pretty much write about any topic, though highly specialized areas such as financial writing or medical writing do take longer to master.


Newsletters


Newsletters are an integral part of content marketing campaigns. They’re the reward a site visitor gets for submitting their email address and in the process turning themselves into a future sales lead. And in order for a newsletter to truly be a reward, it better bring the recipient something he or she is genuinely interested in. Cue the music and enter the copywriter.


A newsletter can take many forms. These determine the skills the copywriter needs to bring to the table. If a newsletter offers product sales, the copywriter needs to be able to write product copy (see below) along with catchy headlines that make readers think “Hmmm… I might like that.” He or she will also need to create the theme for that particular newsletter along with a headline to suit the theme.


On the other hand, if a newsletter offers tips and other info, the copywriter needs to make these jump out of the page so reader take interest and don’t just trash the newsletter. Or a newsletter may promote the latest articles or videos on an engagement platform. Whatever type of newsletter it is, though, being able to craft great headlines is a key to keep people from clicking unsubscribe.


Social media


Ahh, social media – many of us may hate it, but we sure do use it. Which is why it works. So, what does a copywriter get up to here?


Well, first off, anyone working for or on behalf of a brand who is responsible for social media posts (whether Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter) probably isn’t actually called a copywriter, but instead something like Social Media Specialist. But part of their job description definitely involves the same areas of copywriting we’ve already talked about. That is, selecting the topic of a social media post, selecting the image or video to fit it and writing something nifty about it.


This type of copywriting, however, comes with an extra dimension other types copywriting don’t have to deal with: real-time comments and responses. The social media copywriter needs to be proverbially quick on his or her feet – or, rather, finger tips – to respond quickly and with the right tone that, as always, conveys the brand’s voice. Having a sharp wit is definitely a benefit here.


Videos


Videos can serve any number of marketing purposes. They can entertain, inform, educate, provoke – you name it. And here is where the copywriter really more of an idea generator. This is another term that didn’t exist thirty years ago. Generating ideas for ads was part of what a copywriter did, along with everything else described above under Advertising. These days, a copywriter who is also an idea generator may never write a single word, since the ideas for videos he or she comes up with may not involve a script.


On the other hand, there are plenty of brand videos that require not just ideas, but scripts and voice overs and written text. Whether it’s tutorials, animation, long-form ads, documentaries, or anything else, the copywriter comes up with an idea for a film and then writes what needs to be written. He or she may also take part in the production, though the fast-paced, low-budget nature in which most of these films are produced usually means the copywriter is left behind at the office while the film crew gallivants off to exotic locations.


Events


“Events, you say. What does copywriting have to do with events?”


Well, it depends on the event, to be honest. There are plenty of event types that a copywriter has no business being involved in. But then there are the creative events and experiential events. In these cases, just like with viral videos, the copywriter serves as an idea generator.


For example, the copywriter might come up with an idea to place a video display in the Zurich train station with a live feed to a Swiss mountain man in lederhosen sitting on a sunny mountain meadow giving away free train tickets to his village as a way to boost tourism. The bonus here is the video made of people’s reactions, which is then dropped on YouTube and spread via Facebook. And boom, there’s your campaign. And the copywriter didn’t write a single word. Which is why many copywriters these days distinguish themselves as idea generators, silly as that term sounds.


Sales


Sales copywriting can roughly be divided into the two very different areas of product copy and sales letters. The one thing these two areas have in common though, from a copywriting perspective, is that they’re entirely about execution and don’t rely on concepts or idea generation. In fact, what they rely on is the ability to convert.


Product copy


Product copy is what you find on retail websites, Amazon sales pages and print catalogues. It usually has several parts: a) a headline; b) description of the products features and benefits either in paragraph form or as bullet points; and c) a short description of the product and its uses.


Writing each of these parts requires a different skill set. A headline needs to grab your attention and possibly contain keywords. The benefits need to match the features and be relevant and concise. The product description needs to convey how the buyer will feel when using the product and in what situations the buyer can use it. But in all three parts, the most important aspect is brevity. Taking all the information about a product and boiling it down to just a couple of words or sentences is a highly developed skill and one where the copywriter actually spends more time taking words out than putting them in.


Sales copy


If you’ve spent any time online at all, you’ve come across sales copy. Sales copy comes in the form on infinite scroll websites that regale you with tales of the amazing life you’ll have – and that thousands of others just like you have – if you buy a certain product or service. Then there are those emails that do the same, peppered with call-to-action buttons, testimonials, before-and-after stories and so on. In the old days, they took the form of actual letters and they were – and still are – super successful at converting.


Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all sales copy is selling you on something you can’t benefit from. Just because a high-ticket product or service uses sales copy to sell itself doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. It’s just that you may need some extra convincing to shell out money at a particular price point, not matter how beneficial the product or service may be.


As such, writing sales copy is a particular skill that’s not so different from making a convincing sales presentation. It relies on charm and persuasion as it takes the reader on a journey (the sales funnel) with opportunities along the way to buy the product right now! Done well, good sales copy could sell ice to an Eskimo, which is why you so often see it deployed for products and services that are less than advertised.

Now you know what copywriting is


There are a lot more niches where copywriting plays an essential part (for example, headline writing and tagline creation) than I can cover here, but this should give you a good overview of what copywriting involves, what a copywriter does and what benefits good copywriting can offer your brand. From creative concepts and memorable ads to well-structured websites and engaging blogs to sales copy that converts – quality copywriting is an essential ingredient to any advertising, marketing or sales effort.

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