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Copywriting, content design and content strategy

Let's kill those confused looks and get to know the differences.

What’s the difference?

When I start talking about what I do, I get a lot of confused looks and the occasional question. It’s fair. The industry has changed a lot over the past couple of decades.

Back in the days of Mad Men, “copywriting” was used almost exclusively by those in advertising. Today, our content needs are ridiculously high in comparison. So the term “copywriting” has been adopted by writers across a variety of industries and content types.

Content design is a relatively new term. We’re still debating it across the industry, and it may yet evolve into something else, but for now, it’s what I use. It’s also called “UX writing”, “microcopy” and “product content”. I’ve even seen “CX writing”, but thankfully that died a pretty quick death.

Content strategy is an essential part of producing good copy and content, even if it’s just a little bit of strategy. But you can separate content strategy from the writing part entirely and get two different professionals in. What you need all depends on what you’re looking to achieve.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Copywriting

When you hire a copywriter, you’re generally looking for help on the more marketing side of your business. You could be asking them to help you write your website, blog posts or opinion pieces, emails, video scripts, social media posts, search engine or social media ads, product descriptions… the list goes on.

A copywriter’s primary aims are usually:

  • To get people visiting your site (SEO or SEM)
  • To get people signing up to your services or buying your products (conversion)
  • To get customers coming back for more (engagement)

Some copywriters are better at SEO, others are better at engagement, others rock the conversion part, and very occasionally you’ll find someone who nails all three. Who’s good at what seems to comes down to a combination of interest, knowledge, experience, instinct and natural talent.

Often, you’ll find copywriters work to brief. If you don’t have one, they may send you a form to complete. If you’re not sure what you need, find a copywriter with content strategy skills and experience who can help you plan your project and create a brief with you.

The other thing about copywriters is they’re generally fabulous at one or two industries and find others a bit harder. That’s why we niche. I mean, I could probably write amazing copy about antique doorknobs, but as I’m not in the slightest bit interested in them, I’m likely to struggle to get it just right. (So if you’re selling antique doorknobs and need a copywriter, you’re probably best off finding someone else for the job. Smarthome doorknobs, though? That sounds far more fun.)

Content Design

There are fewer freelance content designers in the market as having a content designer on staff, working with your product design team (product manager, UX designer, developer and researcher) from ideation to delivery and beyond is generally considered best practice. But we’re still out here when you need us; it’s just our engagement model is likely to be more hands-on and involved than a copywriter may need to be.

Content designers are focused on interactive flows and solutions. Think apps, account settings and forms. Every word makes a difference to both the customer experience and task completion rate, and the business’s bottom line. And each word or phrase can require significant debate or tradeoffs to get them just right.

What do I mean by that? Well, here’s an example:


What I was working on: A sign up flow for a financial product
Information I needed to collect: The customer’s first name

When we used “First name” as the field label, marketing were happy and customers had no problems completing the form. But customers would generally enter their preferred name (like “Jen”) or nickname and, as a financial service, the business needed to verify their identities.

Preferred names + Online, automatic identity verification = Fail

The backup ID process was manual – painful for the customer, leading to high churn rates, and extra cost for the business.

So the solution? “Legal first name”. A bit awkward. Customers paused and were a little more nervous about continuing, but verification rates dramatically improved.

Maybe conversion rates suffered a little, but the cost tradeoff made it worth it.


And that’s what content design is – a constant negotiation between product, customer and business. It’s less about the words and more about the experience and guiding a customer from A-B.

A lot of writers out there like to treat content design and copywriting as two completely separate disciplines. Me? I believe they’re related and intermingled. A copywriter who can’t juggle business requirements with customer needs isn’t always going to nail it. A content designer who can’t sell and engage is going to struggle too.

Content strategy

Content strategy is a whole discipline in and of itself. There are elements of it in both copywriting and content design, but it’s a step back from the words.

At its core, it’s about defining and managing the content a business publishes. It’s style guides and messaging hierarchies and information architecture and voice and tone and audits and quality checking and so much more.

You need to call on a content strategist for different things at many levels, and the following are just examples:

  • Page: What should we say? How? Why? And in what order should we say these things?
  • Site: How do the pages and messages work together? How do customers get from one point to another? Where do we want to direct them, and how do we deal with the things we must say (like disclaimers and terms)?
  • Campaign: Where are we publishing (site, ads, social, videos, brochures, etc.)? When? Why? How do they all work together? How does it work within the existing site and content frameworks?
  • Business: What types of content do we develop? In what voice? What stylistic rules apply? What words should we use and which must we always avoid? In what languages should we publish and under what circumstances? Who owns what, when and why? How often must things be reviewed or updated? How is it all managed and tracked?

While many copywriters and content designers are great at looking at the content strategy for a page, the bigger the scope, the harder it can be. For campaign or site-wide projects, you’ll want to be looking at someone with content strategy experience if you don’t have someone internally already.

One point to note: Not all content strategists are writers. But all writers should be content strategists, at least to a degree.

If you need some help working out who and what you need, get in touch. We may not be a match, but that’s ok! I can point you in the right direction.

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Clever content. Awesome anecdotes. Fabulous finds.

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Hi, I'm Jen.

I’m a copywriter, content strategist, brand lover and customer champion. And I’m awesome.

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Can I drop by your inbox?

Clever content. Awesome anecdotes. Fabulous finds.

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