The Historical Difference Between Content Writing And Copywriting

by Michael de la Guerra in ,
Two people discussing the difference between content writing and copywriting examples.

What has a letter from your mother gotten you to do before?

26 million American women voted for the first time in the 1920 presidential election, thanks to the 19th amendment, which was certified just months prior and gave them the right to do so.

But it was a young legislator from Tennessee who cast the ratifying vote that gave the house the 36-vote majority it needed to sign that amendment into law.

His name was Harry Thomas Burn, and he had voted against the measure every single time before. 

But that day he flipped, thanks to a letter from his mother. 

“Hurray and vote for suffrage,” she wrote in the letter. “Don’t forget to be a good boy.”

That was enough for him to flip his vote and change the world.

History has shown us what the power of an image or letter can do many times:

  • In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. penned a letter to the local clergy while in jail for participating in a march without a permit, after they criticized that type of direct action, saying protests weren’t the way to bring about change. The letter was published in The Atlantic and his book Why We Can’t Wait, and became a rallying cry for activists during the civil rights movement.
  • Nicholas II, “The Last Emperor Of Russia,” received a letter from his mystical advisor, Rasputin, in 1914 that urged the tsar to avoid catastrophe and not engage in a war; the leader didn’t listen—his army shrank, his power waned, and he held onto that letter until his execution in 1918 (a testament to what ignoring the right message can lead to).
  • The 1968 image of South Vietnam’s chief of national police shooting a Viet Cong operative in the head with a pistol was transmitted all over the world thanks to the reach and popularity of television— the photo became a symbol of the war’s relentless violence, and influenced anti-war sentiments in America that ultimately led to the “bitter end” of US involvement and subsequent withdrawal. 

We’ve used informative means of communication to inspire change long before the internet or even the printing press. 

And if you are in the business of inspiring change through marketing, by sharing some kind of story with the world, then it’s important you understand this: content has always been marketing.

But we’ve made a major shift online in the last two decades, which has spawned a new term: “content marketing.”

Tony Robbins And The $400M+ Content Marketing Strategy

Tony Robbins became a millionaire by the time he was 24, hosting seminars with his partner, John Grinder.

This was in 1984. 

But in 1988, Tony released his first infomercial via Guthy Renker, which catapulted him toward what is now an estimated $400+ million business. 

The simplicity of the infomercial is similar to modern-day “content marketing”: 

  • Create a piece of valuable information that helps people get a result they want so they will trust you
  • Once they’re ready to get that result, they’ll come to you, since you’ve educated them about their problems and potential solutions

Today, Tony uses all sorts of digital means to get his content out to eager viewers, but it still follows the infomercial format. 

So, again, content has always been marketing.

The Difference Between Content Writing And Copywriting

Content is meant to transfer new information to those who seek it. “Copy” on the other hand is a bit of an amorphous term. It’s generally used to represent words that are designed to drive a sale, or to inspire an action of some sort. 

You can argue that “content marketing” is copy because its purpose is to draw someone closer to a brand, but copy in the “traditional” sense is the words that make the action happen (especially in direct response marketing, which is designed to get a “response”). 

To make this easier to digest, take the infomercial example: the teaching portion of the infomercial would be described as content, while the part where the host or company tries to get you to take action and buy would be considered copy. 

In modern-day terms, content is a blog post like this, a white paper/report/book, or some kind of free video, while copy is a sales page, opt-in form, or some other kind of persuasive text meant to inspire an action. 

“Content” is any form of marketing meant to educate your prospects, and “copy” is what turns them into paying customers.

Do You Have A Copy Or Content Problem?

The difference between copy and content is important, because problems that arise from these two crucial elements of your business will look different. 

Copy Problems

  • No one opting into your email list
  • No one clicking links in your emails
  • No one responding to your ad
  • No one purchasing product from your sales page
  • Etc. 

Content Problems

  • No engagement with your content 
  • No traffic to your website
  • People not understanding what you do
  • Etc. 

But if you believe the two to be the same, you will try to find one solution. 

The Goal Of Your Content Vs. The Goal Of Your Copy

By now you understand that “content” is any form of marketing meant to educate your prospects, and “copy” is what turns them into paying customers.

But in keeping with the idea that a common human connection is the #1 goal of modern marketing, my friend and mentor Jennifer Hudye sums it up nicely:

The goal of content is for people to understand.
The goal of copy is for people to feel understood. 

What she means is that “content marketing” is all about educating people and providing as much value as possible so they are better able to make decisions about what you can help them with.

But when you want someone to actually take action, a different approach is necessary. 

You want to know what your clients, customers, patients, and students desire most—what their wants, needs, and pain points are.  

And you want to know what those are beneath the surface. 

In other words, copy is all about understanding someone so well that you’re able to get them to take an action they wouldn’t otherwise have taken. 

Examples Of Content Marketing And When You Need Them

Here are a few instances where you would need content:

  • Blog posts
  • Books & ebooks
  • White papers & lead magnets
  • Informational videos 
  • Infographics
  • Brochures
  • Catalogues 
  • Case studies
  • Newsletters

Examples Of Copy And When You Need It

And here is when you would need copy:

  • Website copy
  • Sales & product pages
  • Landing pages
  • Opt-in forms
  • Video sales letters
  • Email copy
  • Facebook Ads
  • Direct mail campaigns
  • Webinars

But If Your Content & Copy Don’t Connect With Your Market On A Human Level, It Doesn’t Matter

Whether you need content or you need copy, nothing matters if you don’t connect with people. 

If your market isn’t touched on a human level by your content, they won’t consume it and form a bond with you. 

And if your copy doesn’t connect, they won’t take action and do business with you. 

That’s the philosophical adhesive that binds these two together: the need for human connection. 

The world is littered with bland content. 

Hell, the world is littered with exceptional content that provides so much value it has the adverse effect—people shy away from it because it’s too dense (and if you’re still reading up until this point it means you’re different).

But what makes any piece of copy or content truly stand out is its ability to touch another person at their core. 

So make sure both your content and copy are set up to connect with the people you can help the most, or they’ll get that help from someone else. 

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