The term ‘copywriting’, like a lot of marketing jargon, is often carelessly thrown about and brutally misused. Most small business owners only have a vague idea of what a copywriter does – something to do with marketing … or law? Even within marketing agencies, copy and content are often mistakenly conflated.
This is the ultimate guide to copywriting, so I’m going to nail down exactly what copywriting is, as well as discussing ‘variants’ like SEO-friendly and direct response copywriting.
What Is Copywriting?
Copywriting is the act of creating words that are designed to elicit action. It’s normally used to support an organisation’s sales and marketing efforts, although it can also help do things like change social behaviours or gather votes for a political candidate.
You can find copywriting everywhere: it’s the text on websites, the writing on billboards, the junk mail in your inbox – even that slogan on the back of your neighbour’s car. If something has been written with the intention of getting readers to do something, it’s probably copywriting.
Copywriting vs. Copyright
Copywriting is very different to copyright, which is the free legal protection automatically applied to all creative works (writing, music, visual images, software, etc.) under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Copyright is a legal concept, not a marketing one – although any marketing copy you write in Australia will be protected by copyright.
Examples of Copywriting in the Wild
Obviously, the form and style used in copywriting varies greatly, and is dependent on the target audience and medium. However, there are a few common elements that you can find in most copy.
- A headline
- Body text
- A CTA (call-to-action)
Headlines are the ‘hook’ of copywriting – they get the reader’s attention and encourage them to dig into the meat of the copy. In website copy, your headlines will be designated with heading tags, and should contain target keywords. If your copy is informational (think manuals, labels, menus, et cetera), they should be concise and clear, spelling out exactly what they contain. In advertising, you should aim to create headlines that make your readers stop scrolling – they should inspire intrigue without crossing the line into clickbait.
The body text is self-explanatory. It’s the information or selling points designed to interest and engage the customer enough to get them to keep reading and reach the CTA.
The call-to-action is the copy’s strong conclusion. It’s the final blow designed to persuade the reader to actually take action (whatever that action may be). CTAs are incredibly important, and often they’ll be visually distinct – in bold, in a different colour, in a larger font or in a button. Let’s take a look at an example.
If someone has clicked on Chevron Editing, chances are they’re looking for a writing, editing or communications service. So we have a clear, unambiguous headline which directs them to more information about the website. In websites, unambiguity is good, because it makes navigation much easier for readers.
The body text then explains briefly what Chevron Editing is, and how they can help the reader. Once again, the copy is short and clear. The reason is two-fold: one, people have short attention spans, and you’ll lose readers if people are being forced to wade through hundreds of words. Two, the simpler the copy is, the more effective it is. I discussed this in more depth in an earlier article if you’d like to learn more about it.
There’s then a direct question to the reader: what can we help you with? This encourages readers to click on whatever category they feel they need assistance with. The rest of the Home page contains minimal text – there’s a selection of blog posts, an Instagram feed, and then a CTA.
The overall goal of the Home page is to get people to dig further into the website – whether it’s to read more about the services available, or head straight to the Contact page.
Types of Copywriters
Many copywriters market themselves as ‘SEO copywriters’. Are they really any different from normal, run-of-the-mill copywriters? Not really. Self-promotion as an SEO copywriter really just means that the individual in question has an understanding of how to organically integrate keywords into web copy. Given that the digital space is the primary marketing theatre for most modern businesses, I’d argue that understanding how to optimise web page copy is a requisite for copywriters, not a speciality.
Some SEO copywriters also offer keyword research services – instead of just integrating keywords, they determine which keywords that particular page targets. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this, provided the research is done properly with quality research tools (here at Chevron Editing, we use Ahrefs, but other tools, like SEMrush and Jaaxy, are also good choices).
Here’s the problem – SEO isn’t just a slap-dash addition to your marketing. It requires a lot of research, constant maintenance, and a solid overall strategy. If your ‘SEO copywriter’ is claiming that their on-page optimisation is all you need to rank, they’re not being upfront with you. Content is critical, bu backlinks and technical SEO are equally important, and on-page SEO needs to be done with your greater SEO strategy in mind.
Personally, I’d either hire a full-service marketing firm to do both copy and optimisation, or have your SEOs do the keyword research and then hand down the keywords for the copywriter to integrate. Don’t let your SEOs insert the keywords – I’ve personally been on the receiving end of having my copy mauled to unintelligibility by poorly-trained SEOs. Nothing destroys user experience like a paragraph full of artificially-implanted keywords.
I’ve seen a number of professionals refer to themselves as UX copywriters, which is intriguing, because, in my mind, anyway, all copy should be written with the user experience in mind. If you’re not writing with the goal of getting your readers to take action, you’re not writing copy at all.
There’s an interesting, well-written article by Mark Scarparolo of Equilibrium, a Perth-based design company, which breaks down the difference:
Conventional copywriters create experiences that are designed to make users think and act, using their words as their tools, with the ability to pivot from foppish flights of fancy to direct, hard-sell tactics where necessary.
But where conventional copywriters tell stories to reach their goal, UX copywriters cut out the fat to make it as easy as possible for their audience to understand what action they need to perform, and why. Their tools are direction and engagement.
I disagree. I think copywriting has always been about getting audiences to take action, and that creatively-told stories have (and still are) one way to do it. But good copywriters write for the audience. That’s our skill. That’s why we get paid what we do. We don’t just slap some fancy words together – we get inside our readers’ heads and find the best way to get them to take the action we want. For web, that frequently means writing the pared-down, fat-free copy that Mark’s article talks about. Is this revolutionary? Is it something good copywriters aren’t already doing? No. I think the idea of a ‘UX Copywriter’ is just a nice way to differentiate yourself from all the other copywriters out there – there’s really no functional difference.
Direct Response Copywriters
If you’re going to be prescriptive with terminology, then start with the divide between direct response and branding copy. Look at it like this: direct response copywriting has a clear CTA – Click Here, Buy This, Call Now. It’s also measurable – you can track how many people hit that button or dial that number. Branding is more subliminal- awareness over sales. I think Scott Martin’s definition neatly summarises it:
In the direct response world, we produce advertising with one goal: persuade someone to take a specific action that leads to a sale. Direct response advertising is measurable. It’s accountable.
Direct response copywriting definitely requires a more refined skill-set, partially because you’re asking for a conscious action over a subconscious recollection. You’re also going to be held responsible if the copy doesn’t produce good results, which can be daunting. Web copy utilises direct response skills, to a point, but clicking a link is infinitely easier than filling out a form or dialling a number. In my experience, there’s two ways to get results with direct response:
- Test and optimise accordingly.
- Make your action as easy to accomplish as possible (think less form fields, a click-to-call number or a nice, big button)
‘Content strategist’ isn’t just a fancy way of saying ‘I write blogs’. It’s a fairly senior role within the marketing hierarchy, mostly because it moves away from the technical (tactical) aspects of marketing and embraces the managerial (strategic) aspects. I like this definition from Julia McCoy and Ashley W.:
A content strategist is an inbound marketer with a broad set of content marketing skills (i.e. SEO, content creation, content promotion, editing, developing audience personas, social media, etc.) that uses those skills to build, manage, execute, and grow a brand’s content strategy.
This role is generally embraced by middle management, often under a different title. A content strategist will have worked up from a specialist role (say, copywriting, content writing or social media management), and now oversees the strategic direction of content, rather than day-to-day generation. I’d (cautiously) compare it to the role of an editor at a media group.
What Makes Good Copy?
- The copywriter has a perfect grasp of the English language. It’s not enough to be ‘okay’ or ‘good’. Copywriters need to be excellent. They need to know exactly what words to utilise, and how to compose powerful, effective, action-driving sentences.
- It represents the brand. Copywriting (even direct response copywriting) and branding certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. The best copywriting utilises a solid brand voice and integrates brand values and perhaps even slogans or taglines into the body or CTA. Read my article about creating a proper brand voice here.
- It’s engaging. Boring copy equals no action taken. If your readers aren’t interested, they won’t probably make it to the CTA, let alone actually taking the desired action.
- It’s not ‘salesy’. If you’re slinging around buzz-words, sales-talk and marketing clichés, your copy will be ineffective at best. At worst, you’ll cause readers to mistrust your company. Copy should be clean, direct and authentic, and readers should understand exactly what you’re talking about.
- The benefits to the customer are clear. Remember, copy isn’t about you and your business. The hard truth is that casual readers don’t care about that. They care about themselves – how are you going to help them? Make sure the copy is customer-focused, and highlights how they’re going to benefit from the action you’re asking them to take.
- It works! Even if you’ve done your market research, you know your customer profile, and you’re a great writer, copywriting is still only a well-educated guess. There’s no way to know for certain whether it’s the perfect fit or a little off-centre. To optimise it, try A/B testing (for websites) or, for ad campaigns, run variations through test groups prior to rolling out the ads. This might seem time-consuming and pricey, but it’s certainly better than investing tens of thousands of dollars in a campaign that fails to convert.
Wondering how to find someone who writes copy like that? Check out our article ‘6 Tips for Hiring an Amazing Copywriter’.
If you need engaging copy that converts, get in touch with our Gold Coast-based copywriters. We know how to produce SEO-friendly website copy, and we know how to craft ad copy designed for excellent conversion rates. Whether you’re in small business or big business, we’re here for you.