Content VS Copy: The Difference, and Why it Matters

By Alan Blose in Creative on May 15th, 2014

In casual industry conversations, the terms “content” and “copy” are often thrown about synonymously. Though the two are certainly related, it’s important to be able to distinguish them in order to market most effectively.

Content VS Copy

As a creative-type working in a mid-sized, direct and digital agency, I often find myself involved in discussions regarding websites, mobile, blogs, micro-sites, social media and all things digital. Since our agency has its roots in the discipline of direct marketing, our clients generally come to us for our expertise in generating a measurable response — often culminating in some type of sale. Of course, it’s pretty hard to make a sale without using words, so there are many conversations in which we (myself included) use the terms “content” and “copy” interchangeably.

So, what’s the difference? Here’s my take on it. Your mileage may vary of course.

Waaaaaay back when, back in the Jurassic Period of Advertising (i.e., pre-Interwebs), the separation of the marketing and product teams was much more clear. Mostly. The product team’s job was to inform, conveying the facts in a much more literal fashion, and focusing on communicating product features. The communication objectives of the marketing team were, for the most part, to change the brand perception or solicit a change in behavior. And they focused on translating product features (as provided by the product team) into consumer benefits.

Each group had their own area of expertise and applied their skills accordingly. A product manual wasn’t an assignment for the marketing team. Just as the product team wasn’t tasked with building a demand-generation campaign.

Today, however, we casually refer to all text as “content” — and often expand that meaning to include imagery, infographics and video as well. (After all, a “content audit” isn’t restricted to the words on the website; it includes all information, verbal and visual.) Which, of course, further confuses things. What we often refer to as “content” is in fact copy, by its strictest definition.

Copywriting and content writing follow different guidelines. And again, they have different objectives. In some cases, the difference may be subtle. However, it’s important to be able to make the distinction — especially if your role requires you to evaluate copy and content. So, the distinction matters. Here are some guidelines to keep it sorted.

Content Tells

  • In its strictest definition, the objective of content is to inform, explain or entertain the reader. The writer exercises his/her skills to craft messages in a way that the reader will understand it.
  •  Credibility, accuracy and authenticity are crucial to creating content (much like they are in journalism).
  • Content was traditionally meant to endure, and therefore took the form of books, trade publications, magazines, and white papers.
  • Personality, authenticity, and credibility are essential to effective content creation.
  • The true purpose of content is to present facts, features or ideas. While these ideas may be persuasive, selling isn’t the primary objective.
  • Effective content connects with reader, gets them thinking, or leaves them with a satisfying feeling of having read something that affects or affirms their worldview.

Copy Sells

  • Again, looking at the strictest definition, copy is text written to sell, market, raise awareness, or in its most generic sense, advertise. A copywriter’s craft is to position and sell the benefits of a product or service.
  • Copy is meant to last in the mind of the audience, to change perception and behavior.
  • Copywriting is about the relationship between the customer (or target audience), the benefits of the product (or service) and the company that provides it.
  •  At its best, well-crafted copy engages the reader emotionally, tapping in to their needs and leads them to the conclusion that those needs can be best addressed by the products/services provided.
  • In order to effectively generate a response, calls-to-action need to be included. The reader needs to be told what to do.

Why It Matters

The ability to distinguish between content and copy is a crucial skill for writing in the digital world. There are situations that require factual, informative text devoid of the sales pitch or persuasive marketing voice. Other situations demand the benefit-driven text crafted to resonate with the customer’s needs, compelling them to action,making the ability to distinguish between content and copy crucial in the digital world.

And though it’s all writing in one form or another, there are different skills required for each. Just as different writers have varying abilities to switch between brand voices, not all copywriters can switch off the marketing voice in order to craft effective content. Switching from the voice of a content writer to that of a marketing writer is equally as challenging. The language used in much marketing copy today often defies the rules learned in the academic world in order to emphasize a point, focus attention or engage the imagination of the reader and ultimately make a sale.  

The question of whether copy or content is appropriate is answered best by simply considering the objective of the communication. Both are valid and effective tools in the writer’s toolbox. The real trick is to be able to assess the situation and deploy the appropriate skills to achieve the objective.

So how is your agency making the distinction between copy and content? Is it a non-issue for your day-to-day work? Do you out-source content or do you have content development and strategy in-house? Are your writers able to effectively switch between a content and copy? I’d be very interested to learn how your agency is addressing these challenges. Let us know in the comments below!  


  • Sherene Strahan

    Just discovered this Alan and it’s really useful to see the differences laid out simply, concisely and effectively. I’m a journo who now teaches businesses how to write CONTENT – not copy. Yet most of my clients and prospectives see the two as interchangeable. Now I’ve got a really good foundation for explaining the difference.