Are the words on your website just dancing around their hashtags?

June 2, 2011

Is your Home Page the literary equivalent of watching paint dry?  Does the About Us section make you sound as if you’ve had a personality by-pass?  Need help, but not sure where to start?  Do you get a copywriter, or a content writer?  Is there a difference – and does it matter?

Short answer – YES.

YES there’s a difference, YES it matters, YES you need a copywriter, and YES you need a content writer (that’s two writers, or one who can do both!).

In geek-speak content = copy

Some people think the words “copy” and “content” are synonymous.  Not true, and it’s a dangerous fallacy.  But here’s how the confusion came about.

Copywriters have been around for ever (you’ve seen Mad Men).  But the content writer is a relatively new creature – one who specialises in writing for digital media.

Why is it called content?  Because that’s how people who produce digital, especially web designers, regard words – as filler.    When creating a site they build a “wireframe”, a skeletal framework with page layouts and navigation systems.  Then the graphic elements are added.  Finally they show the empty pages to the client and go “where’s the content?” – a bit like pulling into a petrol station and saying “fill it up”!

The term “content” has stuck, and the attitude that goes with it (words are a mere commodity, quality is unimportant, buy on price) is all too common.  I was recently asked to quote on rewriting the web pages for an outdoor activities company on the Mendip Hills offering potholing, rock-climbing and rafting adventures for stag and hen weekends.  Rewrite?  Yes, the original copy (sorry, content) was written in India – and they just didn’t get it (Somerset, wetsuits, cider, strippers, hangovers, none of it!).  But they were cheap (obviously).

Interruption Marketing vs Permission Marketing

Having said this, a lot of people involved in marketing on the web have developed a far more sophisticated understanding of how to influence consumers – and the term “content” means something very different to them.  When they talk of content they are referring to a specific type of web writing, rather than web writing in general.

To understand where this kind of writing came from you need to understand how the age of “Interruption Marketing” has been superseded by the arrival of “Permission Marketing”.  Read “Permission Marketing” by Seth Godin, but here’s a very brief resume.

Interruption Marketing, as the name suggests, is when a TV commercial interrupts your viewing, or a press ad interrupts your reading, and attempts to grab your attention.  20 years ago you didn’t mind, and it worked.  Now you’re suffering from information overload, it annoys you, and it doesn’t work so well because you’ve become really good at screening out stuff you don’t want (otherwise you’d go mad!)

Permission Marketing has been spawned by the arrival of websites, email marketing and social media.  As Seth says “The internet is the greatest direct mail medium of all time and the low cost of frequent interaction makes it ideal for Permission Marketing.”  He defines it like this – “Permission Marketing encourages consumers to participate in a long-term, interactive marketing campaign in which they are rewarded in some way for paying attention to increasingly relevant messages.”

Content makes people love you

The way it works is this.  A company posts free information, advice or help on their website, blog, facebook page and so on.  This is designed to attract readers who find such “content” sufficiently interesting and valuable to either visit the site regularly, or to volunteer their contact details and give permission to receive regular communications from that company.  So, I like curry, I go to to check out curry sauces.  There are free recipes, a blog about Indian cookery, and a Curry Club I can subscribe to for regular foodie updates.

A recent post on Copyblogger, which gives advice on copywriting and content writing, explains that “What works is a value exchange — your valuable information for your prospect’s valued time. Your subscribers need to know they can trust you – that you’re not a soulless self-promoting spam-bot.”  Gradually you become a “likable expert…who won’t let them down.”

It’s a gradual relationship-building exercise – one that Seth likens to dating.  The hard sell, or the kind of copy that works in Interruption Marketing (where you have 30 seconds, or 50 words, to get a result), is totally inappropriate – like a clumsy attempt to grope someone the moment you meet them.

So, content writing, in this sense of the term, is very different from copywriting – to make a crude distinction, content tells, copy sells.

Copy makes people buy from you

Interruption marketing is still with us – TV commercials, press ads, even those pop-ups that get in the way when you are trying to read the content on a web page.  It still works, otherwise successful companies wouldn’t continue to use it.  So the world still needs copywriters.

There is an attitude, however, amongst the brave new generation of digital designers and writers that conventional advertising is dead and that traditional copywriters are dinosaurs.

As Mark Twain once remarked “Reports of my death have been exaggerated”.  It’s a little early to dismiss those skilled in writing that sells – especially if you want a website that generates new business.

A lot of content is cheap crap

The explosion of digital media has created a massive demand for content.  This has been supplied by legions of writers who sniff easy money.  In fact the going rate can be pathetic and the standard of writing derisory.  Pay peanuts and what do you get?  Monkeys.

This is partly because the content that is generated will be sliced, diced and shuffled around to turn a single article into a raft of marginally different ones.  These are posted on multiple sites, with back-links, in a bid to build traffic through SEO.  In this instance quantity is more important than quality.

There are, however, some very good content writers – they understand it’s all about providing quality content that’s of value to the reader.  Personally I would recommend – go to their website and you’ll learn there’s considerably more to “content” than I have been able to cover here (including helping clients get their messaging absolutely clear, writing in-depth sales collateral for proposals and writing books – ghost writing, editing, project management, coaching and writing books themselves).

If you want your website to attract and create a loyal audience that’s predisposed to buy your products and services steer clear of those content writers who’ll knock out lines by the yard for $5 an hour.  Find someone who can present valuable information in an engaging way – not one who is just going through the motions.

 Want traffic?  You’ll need to interrupt people

How are you going to get people to your site in the first place?  Press ads, pay-per-click, email marketing, sales literature – you are going to need them all as part of your overall marketing mix.  But getting people to stop what they are doing, pay attention, become interested, feel the stirrings of desire and then actually take some action, all in the space of a few seconds, requires a combination of very specific skills.

This is where a good copywriter excels…and a content writer flounders.  If you want to understand why this is the case read my recent post entitled “Talking great copy is easy.  But can you torque it?” – it explains how the very best copywriters use words and images to create ideas that explode in the brain and stir up the heart.  You’ll soon realise that the content writer, and even the average copywriter, are incapable of creating the incendiary effect that is required.

Copywriting = sex

Certain pages on your website need to sell – sorry, I know it’s a four letter word, but let’s get real.

Why?  Because of two other words – “competition” and “price”

Even if your content makes people like you, there comes a point where they have to part with some cash and get into bed with you.  To make them want to do this you must convince them of two things:

  • That you are genuinely different, and better, than all the other providers offering something very similar
  • That it is worth paying you as much (and ideally more) than those competitors – because you need to make a profit

You therefore need a writer who is capable of separating you from your competitors, and of making people willing to pay more – one who can construct arguments that are persuasive enough to deftly separate someone from their money, in a way that causes no pain.  This writer must use words like a scalpel – because they are performing brain surgery.

Returning to Seth Godin’s dating metaphor.  If you are happy buying endless drinks for people, and dancing round handbags all night, then a content writer is fine.  But if you want to part someone from their clothes, and get them in the sack, find a copywriter.


Content and copy, relationship building and persuasion, work best when they are combined.  Otherwise the copywriter is likely to get the brush off, or, at best, a one night stand – neither of which is much help to those trying to build a brand.

  1. Paul Simister June 5, 2011 Reply

    Excellent article about the difference between writing copy and writing content.

    I hadn't thought about it in these terms but you are right.

    I see more people who are resisting overt selling messages but you have to eventually decide if the relationship is going anywhere, whether it's going to be a long term one way giving/taking deal or a mutually satisfying consummation.

    • Jim June 5, 2011 Reply

      Hi Paul,

      Many thanks for positive feedback - glad you found it interesting. Keep in touch...


      • Sonja Jefferson June 14, 2011 Reply

        Great article Jim as ever. There are so many different types of writer it's important that our clients understand the differences. Neither content or copy are great words for what we do are they? Time we came up with some better ones (although we'd have to change our name!).

        In defence of valuable content as a marketing approach - it's amazing how much business you can pull in by dancing round your handbag in the right way. Often far more attractive than launching yourself at your unsuspecting target and ramming your tongue down their throat.

        Apologies if I'm taking the analogy too far!!!

        Seriously though, there's a time and a place for overt sales messages and many people jump in with this too early. A mix of content and copy works well. On any of the website projects we manage and deliver we use a mix of the two skills combined with good design. Content/copy/design - the essential ingredients.


  2. Jim June 15, 2011 Reply

    Hi Sonja,

    Thanks for positive comments.

    Totally agree about the words "content" and "copy" - we are definately underselling ourselves!

    Also, I guess my article is guilty of over simplifying in the hope of being a bit provocative. Great content/great dancing around a hand bag can be very seductive, while the "tongue down throat" approach is generally a total turnoff.

    I guess the underlying point is that content and copy both get the desired results...provided the writer knows exactly what they are doing. The problem is that the people who are really good at it make it look easy, and then everyone thinks they can do it!



    • Tim Gander June 17, 2011 Reply

      "The problem is that the people who are really good at it make it look easy, and then everyone thinks they can do it!"

      Gosh, that reminds me of another skill people think they can do or buy cheaply. Just can't put my finger on it right now *thinks thinks* ;)

  3. Jim June 18, 2011 Reply

    Hi Tim,

    You wouldn't be thinking of photography by any chance?!



  4. Mark Stonham June 25, 2011 Reply

    Great debate started here Jim,

    I would add, 'and then there is Content Marketing'.

    Words, pictures, video, links, social media, SEM, web, email and the list goes on.

    Key skill is how you mix these ingredients to attract, engage, nurture, transact with and deliver to your customer, combining Art and Emotional engagement with Science for Monitor, Test & Measure.

    The next (marketing and sales) chapter is just beginning...


  5. Jim July 9, 2011 Reply

    Hi Mark,
    Yes, it's all getting very complicated. I remember the days when you just took a "twenty double" on the front page of your local newspaper and the artwork was pasted together with Cow Gum....ahhh, those were the days!

    Kind regards,


  6. Sonja Jefferson July 17, 2011 Reply

    This is a really good article on the content/copy debate. Copyblogger agrees - you need a bit of both if you're going to be successful online. See:

    • Jim O'Connor July 18, 2011 Reply

      Many thanks Sonja, good article that spells out why both skills need to be brought into play at the same time.

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