Difference Between Copy and Content: Promotional Prose [Ad Captandum]

Difference Between Copy and Content: Promotional Prose [Ad Captandum]

It’s time to dispel some myths and misconceptions from the wonderful world of worded marketing.

I’m sure you’ve heard the terms ‘content writing’ and ‘copywriting’. Who hasn’t, right? Yet most people, if you really put them on the spot, couldn’t explain the difference.

This should set the record straight…

There’s a difference! [ad oculos]

The notion of ‘carefully crafted prose’ is, of course, nothing new to the marketing industry. Since the first days of printed packaging and wall-painted murals, ad execs and brand managers have aspired to find ‘the right words for the job’; that resounding statement that plays on pre-conceptions and emotional drivers to engage the target audience while hinting at all the added-value ideals a brand-owner would want represented.

” Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad. “
- Howard Gossage

But there are two distinct ‘jobs’ to be done by marketers: One is growing, cornering or disrupting a market by inspiring thought, whereas the other is inspiring direct action either through empathetic attraction, emotional engagement or the subtle augmentation of the product to create sub-conscious links with lifestyle or career aspirations.

Each ‘job’ requires a different approach, a different tone-of-voice, even a different lexicon and grammatical style. In other words, one requires ‘content’ while the other requires ‘copy’.

Copywriting: Ad Copy [ad valorem]

Copywriting is traditionally an advertising term. In its truest form, copy is a name given to any promotional prose constructed with the intention of inspiring direct action. This can mean selling an idea, a brand, a product or a service, or it can just mean getting people through a given step in the ‘Sales & Marketing’ process i.e. opening an email, clicking a link or downloading a voucher. In other words, copy expounds on the value attainable through a proposed action in order to make that action more attractive.

Copy is not just an ‘online thing’. Rather, copy is used in all marketing media from brochures, pamphlets and catalogues to straplines and radio/TV ads. Generally speaking, copy in the online world is used on ‘Contact Us’ pages, ‘Product’ or ‘Service’ pages and in call-to-actions around the web site: Basically anywhere action is required to move prospects closer to the point of sale or enquiry.

Inspiring Action

There are many ways copy can influence the reader. Metaphors, similes, idioms and hidden meanings are often used to imply different values or dualities within the brand. Think of all the catchiest straplines you can remember – chances are they were constructed with at least 2 layers of meaning (if not more).

The O2 strapline “We’re Better, Connected” for example has 2 meanings. One hints at the brand having ‘better’ connections (presumably when compared to their competitors) while the other infers that the consumer would be ‘better off’ when using O2 (and the use of the pronoun ‘we’ implies membership to a beneficial group; evoking herd mentality).

In fact, ‘richness of meaning’ in copy can be even more subtle than that. For example, here at Attain Design, we try to avoid saying that clients ‘get’ benefits from our work: Instead they ‘attain’ those benefits. The latter says, ‘hey, you can reach out and take these benefits if you would like them; and take satisfaction in knowing you took those actions’ rather than the latter which says ‘if you pay money then we’ll give you something and that’s what you get’. It’s a subtle difference, but the resultant mind-sets that those two words evoke are profoundly different. And as the guardians of our own brand we want to make sure we give off the right impression!

It’s not all smoke and mirrors – The copywriter must also be direct. For example, the ‘call-to-action’ is the domain of the copywriter. Phrases like “buy now”, “get in touch”, “click here”, “call us”, “speak to us”, “add to basket”, even “buy one get one free” etc. are all direct requests for direct action. Just knowing which call-to-action is most likely to inspire the desired response is, in itself, a rare and enviable skill.

“ Get in touch to find out more! ”
- Attain Design

Themes and Approaches

Thematically, copywriters tend to steer toward emotional subjects. Nike’s copywriters don’t focus on trainers or jackets; they talk about healthiness, the lifestyle benefits of exercise, the beautiful feeling when achieving goals, winning and beating the competition… indeed anything that would stimulate a desire or need to be more ‘sporty’ (followed by the assumption that Nikes products would help satisfy or achieve those things). Once the reader is in that mind-set, a strong call-to-action should easily sell specific products; products that satisfy the need created by the copy.

As a matter of fact, ‘Just Do It’ (Nike’s famous strapline) actually combines the two steps… making reference to the competitive and self-motivational nature of sportiness (no doubt stimulating recognisable feelings in sports-minded individuals) while making a very direct call-to-action!

Similarly, Slumberland don’t sell mattresses; they manufacture mattresses but they sell a good night’s sleep. In their own words, they offer “All the comfort you deserve”.

While this can be misconstrued as pushy or even perfunctory, a good copywriter will know and understand the psychology of their target market well enough to not cross boundaries. A good copywriter will also know exactly how much convincing is needed within their given market in order to inspire different actions, considering each call-to-action itself has a different level of persuasive power.

Content: Food for Thought [ad rem]

Whereas copy adds value to a product, service or brand, content offers value in and of itself. This value can come from any of three sources: awareness, amusement or accessibility. Any article that teaches the reader about a topic, shows them something new, keeps them amused or distracted, or offers a route to some other form of value is therefore considered good ‘content’.

Moreover, content does not demand any precise action. Although content may sometimes refer to specific products, usually these references are merely examples given to illustrate a wider point.

Good content should make the reader think about a topic. The reader’s opinions, desires and preconceptions should be strengthened or challenged, whichever is more appropriate to the marketing objective. Good content writers know how to adjust their tone-of-voice, diction and general writing style in order to engage different audiences. They also know how to construct convincing arguments and know how to put those arguments forward in both more and less subtle ways.

Conclusions [ad pond om]

This article is content… I don’t want to sell you anything in particular; I just want you to think about how well your copy/content is working. Hell, I just like making people think about marketing in general (it makes me feel like less of a geek if others do too). If you are thinking about it, my work here is done. If this were copy on the other hand, I couldn’t tell you and still expect it to work. So that is at least one big difference.

Another difference - a rather ironic one actually - is that copy often leverages emotions in order to sell products, whereas content is often product-lead in order to inspire emotions related to a wider market.

Copy & Content – Products & Emotions

Long story short, you need both copy and content. Without copy, content is pointless: You’re just priming your market to be sold to by your competitors. Without content, copy is pointless: You’re trying to exploit an emotion hinged on an idea that has not yet been nurtured, crystallised or matured.

One thing is for sure… Neither copywriting nor content writing should be taken lightly. In ever more competitive markets you can’t afford to take chances with your written communications.

The wrong tone-of-voice can seem rude. A slight disparity between theme and brand ideals can seem insincere. Too pushy or not pushy enough certainly won’t ever get results. So, there must be balance and brand alignment throughout all communications if you want to succeed.

Oh… and remember that poor grammar makes prospects [sic].


Get in Touch if you would like your content & copy appraised or to attain a better understanding of the concepts discussed here.