Content vs. Copy (and Why You Should Know the Difference)

Content and copy aren’t the same thing.

For years, the terms have been used interchangeably, much to the chagrin of copywriters and content marketers everywhere.

You might ask (and I wouldn’t blame you), Why does this matter?

The answer to that question is simple: It matters because one term refers to an activity that has the power to grow your business (that’s content marketing), and the other refers to an art form that pushes people towards a desired action (that’s copywriting).

If you understand the difference between the two, it can help you define your market more effectively, prioritize growth activities, hire the right people, and a whole lot more.

So let’s dive in.

The Art of Copywriting and the Audience-Building Power of Content

Back in the day, most copywriters worked at ad agencies. Many still do.

These creative types crafted ad copy to win the hearts and minds of consumers. Stars in the field like David Ogilvy and many others pioneered the art of copywriting. They built the brands we know and love today.

In those days, a copywriter might work on big spots for TV, radio, or print advertising (yeah, that was a thing). Today, they still do all of that, plus write copy for websites, landing pages, email campaigns, display, and user interfaces.

Though media has changed, ‘copy’ still refers to a category of writing that drives readers to a specific action you want them to take.

Content marketing, on the other hand, is different. Influenced significantly by the field of journalism, a content marketer’s primary goal is to educate and inform the reader, without necessarily trying to drive them to a specific outcome at that point in time.

To illustrate the differences between copy and content, here are some examples:

Let’s say you want to test messaging and audience interest with AdWords. The words you choose to build those search campaigns? That’s copy.

Now you want to build a landing page to send people to once they’ve clicked on those campaigns. The words you choose for that page drive the reader to do something, or take the next step in a journey: learn more, sign up, schedule a demo, get more information. That’s copy.

But you’re a smart marketer, so you don’t just ask for information on your landing page without providing something in return. Instead, you give them access to original research or information that helps them solve a business problem they’re facing. That’s content.

As you can see from these examples, content is subtle. It’s designed to educate, inform, and provide value, but not necessarily to urge someone to take a specific action immediately.

Another important distinction?

Content marketing helps you define your market — and grow it — just as much as it explicates the relevance of your product.

That’s because content, unlike copy, is a growth tool. Good content will keep readers coming to your blog or website, even when they don’t know they need your product (and sometimes, even after they’ve purchased it). Put simply, if your content is good, you’ll build an audience.

Now, here’s an important thing to note:

A lot of people screw up content by turning every blog post, guide, or report into a sales pitch for their product. This is tasteless, but more importantly, it doesn’t work. So don’t do it.

Instead, use content marketing to get at the why behind your product’s existence. Respect your reader. Talk about the challenges or issues facing your target audience so you can build trust and authority with them.

But above all else, use content to create a broader narrative about why people should use your product or service.

As Stewart Butterfield, founder of Slack, famously once pointed out, if you’re selling saddles, the last thing you want to talk about is the quality of the leather. Instead, you want to sell people on the endless joys of horseback riding.

And that’s how you should think of content marketing: It’s not a vehicle for a hard sell or a place to list product features or specs. It’s a mechanism for teaching people about the endless joy (or other benefit) derived from using your product or service.

Balancing the Art and Science of Growth

There’s no magic bullet for continued growth. Everything works well some of the time, but it doesn’t stay that way forever. Then you have to adjust.

That’s what makes growth both an art and a science.

That’s also why you need to bring together teams with diverse experiences in content, copy, and demand generation. Smart leaders understand the nuances between these different activities so they can pull the right levers for growth at the right time.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s publication followed by over +256,410 people.

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