November 12, 2013

What is Copywriting?

Minute Read

In my previous post, I wrote about what a copywriter can do for you and your business. The benefits of using a professional and informed copywriter are many – from additional insight, to increased sales – and your business deserves the best. Today, I want to take a closer look at copywriting itself. What is it, and how does it differ from, say, a blog post?

A Call to Action

In the simplest terms, the one thing that separates copy from other types of writing is a clear call to action. It persuades the reader to do…something. It could be about sales, and most of the time it is promotional in nature. Copy tries to persuade someone to buy a product or service. It’s an advertisement appearing online or in print.

But it could just as easily be about joining a mailing list, or donating to a cause, or voting for a particular political candidate. Each example also contains a clear call to action (in this case, signing up with an email address, writing a cheque, or casting a ballot, respectively).

If it’s trying to convince you to do something, you’re looking at copy.

Benefits Over Features

Another criterion for copy is the emphasis of benefits over features. In trying to persuade the reader to do something, good copywriting will demonstrate the benefits of taking that action. How and why will their lives improve in doing so? It answers that all-important question “What’s in it for me?”. I don’t need to know that a new car goes from zero to sixty in 4.3 seconds (feature), but I would be interested to hear that the powerful engine makes merging with traffic safe and easy (benefit).  I don’t really care that a battery lasts twice as long as another brand (feature), but tell me that I’m going to save money by buying only half as many batteries over a year (benefit), and you have my attention.

Demonstrating this idea is one of the key components of good copywriting. When I taught academic writing, I was always telling my students to ask “So what?” whenever they made an argument or point in their essays. The same applies here. Fast engine. So what? Longer lasting batteries. So what? That’s what people really want to know.

Emotional Reasons

People do things – whether it’s buying, voting, donating, or whatever – for emotional reasons. Sure, we generally look for proof or logic to rationalize our decisions, but it’s our emotions that first pull us to action. Copywriting appeals to our wants, fears, and desires. It is not manipulative. It simply identifies the core emotion that exists for a particular audience, and then clearly explains how the action will help it.

Sometimes that core emotion is negative (fear, guilt, insecurity, vanity), and other times it’s positive (love, passion, benevolence, sympathy). It should never be about cheap gimmicks and pulling on heartstrings, but good copywriting identifies and acknowledges that the emotion exists.


We don’t like being sold, and we don’t like being told what to do. When reading something, if the push (Buy this! Do this!) comes too soon, many people simply stop reading. The call to action never gets the opportunity to emerge as the solution to a particular problem or want.

Good copywriting often takes the form of a story or discussion between friends. It’s personable. Conversational. Emotional. It sets the scene, paints a picture, makes a promise (the benefits), offers the proof…all before the call to action. When it’s done right, the desired outcome, whatever it is, should be a given. Of course they’re going to buy this product. Of course they’re going to make a donation.

We respond to storytelling across culture and language.

It’s About That One Person

One of the first things a copywriter will do is identify the target market. Who are they? What do they want? A good copywriter will go one step further and zero in on a single person – the ideal customer. They will make that one person very real in their mind. Gender, career, family, fears, interests, age, income. And then they write to that individual. The copy speaks directly to them.

Good copywriting can not be written to everyone. It can’t be written to a whole target audience. It can, and should, be written to the perfect client. And the good news? That doesn’t preclude appealing to others.

Content is Not Copy

You’ve likely seen the terms copy and content used interchangeably. That’s a mistake. Copy serves a distinct function. It persuades in order to get someone to do something. Content? It’s a little different.

Content is king. Web content. Content marketing. Basically, content is everything else. Oversimplified? Maybe. But let me explain.

Content should not have a push. It should not have an endgame beyond offering information or enriching the user experience. A blog post is content, but it should not be copy. No one wants to read a blog that constantly pushes them to do something each and every post. Content explains, explores, advances, informs, entertains, provokes. It does not sell.

Content engages the audience. It builds trust and authority. It makes your (potential) customers come back to your blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed over and over again. It establishes a relationship between you and them, and makes them ready to buy when you do send a piece of copy their way. It gives them something with absolutely no expectation of getting anything in return. As an added bonus, frequent and high quality content is a great way to rank well with the search engines. Always good.

And it’s the single most cost effective method for acquiring new leads and customers (but that’s the subject of another post).

The two work in tandem: content establishes the relationship and keeps them coming back for more, and the copy asks them to do something.

Just Give Me the Essentials

Here’s what you need to remember:

  • Copy has a clear call to action.
  • Copy emphasizes benefits over features.
  • Copy appeals to emotion.
  • Copy is like a story or conversation.
  • Copy speaks to one person.

Content is arguably more important, but copy is definitely more specific in terms of its parts and function. Good copywriting requires a copywriter that understands them all.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.


Bryan Johnston

Former high school English lit & drama teacher. Current writer, stand-up comedian, & improv performer. A big switch? You betcha.

International expat for 12+ years with stops in Beijing, Dubai, Shanghai, & Guangzhou. Dad to a university sophomore, an eleven-month old charmer, & the two best doggos. Lover of funny things & people. Oh, and craft beer.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}