What is Copywriting?

Copywriting is text that advertises a product, service or brand. The word is easier to understand if you first understand what “copy” is. In the newspaper business, “copy” is the words that journalists write. Don’t ask me why it’s called copy. I don’t know. But in the newspaper business, reporters write copy, and copy editors edit copy.

In the advertising business, the words used to promote a product, service or brand are also called copy. When you pick up a magazine and start reading one of the advertisements, you are reading advertising copy. When you leaf through a product brochure, you are reading brochure copy. When you read a product page on an e-commerce website, you are reading copy.

What is copywriting? Copywriting is simply the act of writing copy. Copywriting is the act of creating the text that used to advertise or market a product, a service or a brand.

How copywriting is different from other types of writing

The one thing that makes copywriting different from other writing is its intent. Copywriting aims to sell something. That something might be a car (a product). It might be a restaurant (a service). Or it might be a brand (Nike). Regardless, if copywriting is involved, that copywriting is designed to sell something.

Typically, copywriting asks the reader to do something, such as buy a product, visit a website, or call a toll-free number to place an order. If a piece of text does not ask the reader to do anything, it is probably not copywriting. Creative writing entertains, technical writing explains, news writing informs, but copywriting asks readers to do something.

Copywriting also differs from other kinds of writing in its tone. Marketing copy tends to be informal rather than formal. It takes liberties with grammar. One. Word. Sentences. For. Example.

Copywriting also has a sense of urgency about it. The sense you get in reading effective marketing copy is that you face a challenge or a problem, that there are consequences you want to avoid, and that the advertiser has a solution for you. Copywriting tends to end with an imperative. Call now! Buy today!

As for style, copywriting tends to feature simple words, short sentences, short paragraphs.

Copywriting is “words that sell,” in any medium

To define copywriting as “text that advertises a product, service or brand” is not to limit that text to advertisements only. Copywriting is any text in any medium that is designed to sell something. Radio commercials, for example, involve copywriting. A copywriter writes the words that the announcer reads out loud over the air. Same goes for television commercials. Radio and television commercials are written by copywriters.

Any message designed to sell something or market something features copywriting. These messages include:

  • newspaper and magazine advertisements
  • brochures
  • factsheets
  • flyers
  • catalogs
  • online banner ads
  • online text ads
  • sales letters
  • promotional postcards
  • television commercials
  • radio commercials
  • billboard advertisements
  • bus shelter advertisements
  • product packaging
  • point-of-purchase displays
  • mobile advertisements
  • Facebook and Twitter advertisements
  • YouTube commercials
  • promotional messages on the sides of commercial vehicles
  • slogans
  • product names
  • company names
  • radio and television jingles

Copywriting sells brands, not just products and services

What is copywriting? Copywriting is text that sells or promote brands. Apple, for example, makes a product called the iPad. They offer a service called iTunes. But the Apple name is the brand. The company is the brand. Someone sat down one day and created that brand name. It might have been Steve Jobs. It might have been Steve Wozniak. Or it might have been a copywriter. Copywriters create brand names as part of their copywriting duties.

Slogans are also copywriting. Apple, for example, once used the slogan, “Think Different.” That slogan was likely created by a copywriter. Good slogans feature good copywriting. They capture the essence of a brand or a customer problem or a unique product benefit in a few words.

Copywriting includes the written word and the spoken word

What is copywriting? Someone once defined copywriting as “salesmanship in print.” There are two things wrong with this definition of copywriting, of course. Sales people aren’t just men. Women also sell. And copywriting is no longer limited to print. Copywriting is seen offline and online. But the essence of this definition is correct: Copywriting is selling with words. A copywriter is a sales person behind a keyboard.

Copywriting can feature the written word and the spoken word. Promotional messages in a newspaper ad or an online ad are there to be read. Promotional messages in a radio commercial or television commercial are there to be heard. But those promotional messages, whether read or heard, are copywriting in action.

Copywriting is also a profession

Writers who write promotional messages are called copywriters. The profession they are in is called copywriting. One writer may say, “I want to get into technical writing.” Another might say, “I want to get into script writing.” And another might say, “I want to get into copywriting.” Some colleges offer courses in copywriting, and some colleges include a class on copywriting as part of a diploma program in marketing. Most copywriters learn the craft on the job, either as freelance copywriters, or working as copywriters at advertising agencies.

Types of copywriting

There are five main types of copywriting: print, outdoor, online, broadcast, branding.

1. Print: Print copywriting, as the name implies, is copywriting that appears on printed sheets of paper. Print copywriting includes:

  • newspapers
  • magazines, both consumer and trade
  • brochures, factsheets, specification sheets and other sales collateral
  • point-of-purchase displays
  • promotional messages in theater programs
  • promotional messages in retail flyers
  • direct mail
  • case studies
  • catalogs
  • telephone directories (such as the Yellow Pages)

2. Outdoor: Outdoor copywriting is promotional messages that appear in public spaces. Outdoor includes:

  • billboards
  • bus shelter ads
  • ads on the sides of buses
  • subway ads
  • portable sign ads (the type placed on the side of the road in front of a business)
  • elevator ads
  • signage
  • vehicle signage
  • telephone booth ads

3. Online: Online copywriting is promotional messages that appear on, or are sent through, the Internet. Internet copywriting includes:

  • banner ads on websites and social media platforms (such as Facebook)
  • online text ads (such as Google AdWords ads)
  • online display ads
  • promotional messages sent by email
  • mobile ads (that appear on smartphones)
  • text ads (that appear in texting apps on smartphones)
  • e-commerce product pages

4. Broadcast: Broadcast copywriting is promotional writing that is broadcast to an audience using electronic means. It includes:

  • radio ads
  • television ads
  • television infomercials
  • cable television ads

5. Branding: Branding copywriting is promotional writing that promotes an organization or an event, as opposed to a product or a service. Brand copywriting includes:

  • company naming
  • product naming
  • service naming
  • slogans
  • taglines
  • themes for conferences, conventions and other meetings

Two main audiences for copywriting

Advertisers aim their promotional messages at one of two audiences: consumers or businesses. These two types of copywriting are usually referred to as:

  • Business to Consumer, or B2C
  • Business to Business, or B2B

Business to consumer copywriting is copywriting that is written by a business and directed at a consumer. That consumer is generally an individual. John Deere, for example, manufactures a line of riding lawn mowers that the company markets directly to homeowners. In consumer magazines, John Deere places advertisements that are written for individuals who are in their target market of individuals who might want to buy a riding lawn mower. These ads are business to consumer ads, and stress the benefits that individuals enjoy by buying a John Deere riding lawn mower (comfortable seating, easy operation, good fuel economy, and so on).

John Deere also markets this same line of riding lawn mowers to John Deere dealers and retailers. John Deere promotes its line of mowers using business to business promotional messages, such as product announcements, sales letters and promotional announcements. These messages are business to business messages, and stress the benefits to the dealer or retailer of selling the John Deere line of products (such as generous wholesale pricing, easy financing, simple return policy, reasonable payment terms and warranty).

Specialized copywriting

Some promotional messages are easier to write than others. A simple point-of-purchase display, for example, is easier to write than a 12-page product brochure. But there are also a few types of copywriting that require their own level of expertise.

SEO copywriting: SEO copywriting involves writing for the internet in such a way that the copy stands the best chance of being ranked well in search engine results. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO copywriting is the act of writing copy that is optimized for search engines. This is a special skill. SEO copywriters must write their headlines, subheads, body copy and links using the keywords that consumers enter into search engines, yet without using tactics that the search engines penalize (keyword stuffing, for example).

Direct response copywriting: An industrialist once remarked, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.” Direct response marketing aims to solve this challenge by using only those tactics that can be tested and measured. Direct response copywriting is writing designed to solicit an immediate action from the prospective consumer, an action that can be tracked. Direct response copywriting includes direct mail and direct response television.

By using coded response mechanisms (such as reply coupons in direct mail packages and designated toll-free phone numbers in direct response television commercials), direct response advertisers track the response they get from each promotional message in each channel (print, mail, email, online, for example). Direct response copywriters must understand the types of appeals and types of offers that appeal to their target audience. They must understand how to test messages, formats, offers, and so on. And they must know how to interpret results (response rates, open rates, cost of acquisition, and so on).

Radio and television copywriting: Selling products and services through radio and television commercials requires a set of skills unique to these mediums. Radio, for example, relies entirely on the spoken word, music and sound effects to communicate with potential buyers. Radio is also a format that limits promotional messages to 15-second and 30-second spots. Copywriters who specialize in writing radio commercials must develop expertise in writing for the ear, and writing to the clock.

Television has the same time constraints as radio (commercials are typically 15 seconds and 30 seconds long), but has the added challenge of motion. Print ads are stationary. Television commercials move. Television copywriters write messages that are accompanied by moving visuals. Like radio, television commercials have a start, a middle and an end. Writing effective television commercials (commercials that generate sales, that is) is a rare skill.

Business to business copywriting: Selling to a businesses requires a different skill set than selling to consumers. For one thing, you invariably have more than one audience. Software firms that sell design software to Fortune 500 firms, for example, must make a business case for their product that all stakeholders buy into. The designers have to want the software. The folks in IT have to be able to install and update the software. Management has to calculate the return on investment. The folks in finance have to approve the purchase. Each of these audiences has a different need from the same software product, one that effective B2B copy will address.

Sales cycles for business purchases tend to be longer than sales cycles for consumer products. A consumer looking for a new laptop will research online, compare features between brands and models, compare prices, and then make a purchase. Total time: one week.

A business with 10,000 employees scattered across North America, on the other hand, will not buy 10,000 new laptops in a week. They will spend time researching manufacturers, preparing a request for proposals, reviewing proposals, interviewing select vendors, negotiating with their chosen vendor, thinking about their decision, and then placing a purchase order. Total time: months (years in the case of some purchases, such as aircraft and municipal construction contracts). Copywriters who specialize in business to business copywriting understand these challenges and develop skills that met the unique needs of business buyers.

What copywriting is not

Content marketing writing is not copywriting. Writing a blog post is not copywriting. Writing an article is not copywriting. Writing that is designed simply to inform or to educate (as most content marketing writing is designed to do) is not copywriting. Copywriting always sells something.

Technical writing is not copywriting. Technical writing is designed to explain how something works. Some copywriting promotes products and services that are technical (software, for example), but that is is not technical writing. That is technical copywriting.

Public relations writing is not copywriting. Someone writing a new release is not writing copy. Someone who writes speeches, position papers, media briefs and news releases for a living is not a copywriter. They are not involved with copywriting. That’s because the goal of public relations writing is to inform, to persuade or to change perceptions. But the goal of copywriting is to sell something. The end result of copywriting is that someone buys something.

The easiest way to understand the difference between copywriting, content marketing, technical writing and public relations writing is to see them in action. Let’s say that Netflix offers a new service that costs $91 a month and requires a router (piece of hardware) that you attach to your TV.

  1. A copywriter writes a promotional message that advertises the service and asks people to start their paid subscription. The goal of the copy is sales. That’s copywriting.
  2. A content writer crafts a blog post about how this service compares with competing services. The goal of the writing is education. That’s content writing.
  3. A technical writer writes a guide that explains how to connect and set up the router. The goal of the copy is understanding. That’s technical writing.
  4. A public relations writer writes a new release that invites the media to the launch event. The goal of the copy is publicity. That’s public relations writing.