Not Everything is Copy: Five Differences Between Copy and Content

(Plus Tips for Writing Both)

Looking back on her childhood, the late writer Nora Ephron shared, “We all grew up with this thing that my mother said to us over and over, and over and over again, which is ‘Everything is copy.’ You’d come home with something that you thought was the tragedy of your life – someone hadn’t asked you to dance, or the hem had fallen out of your dress, or whatever you thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being – and my mother would say ‘Everything is copy.’”

While everything may have been copy in the Ephron house, this is not the case in marketing. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, there are five key distinctions between copy and content:

  1. Purpose

It’s easy to see the confusion between content and copy. They’re both marketing terms, they begin with the same letters and copy is even a form of content. However, the chief distinction between the two is purpose. Content is written with the goal of establishing the source as credible and educating the audience. Content leverages data and anecdotes to hold the reader’s attention as it relays information. Content provokes thought, but copy inspires action. Copy’s purpose is to entertain the reader and launch them into the next stage of the sales funnel.

  1. Tone

Depending on the topic, content can go in many different directions. Thus, content writers can explore a variety of options when establishing the tone of their piece. Because of its educational nature, content is likely to contain jargon that speaks to the audience for the product or service advertised. Copy, on the other hand, is typically written in informal, friendly language. Well-written copy adheres to a single tone throughout.

  1. Length

One rule of thumb for crafting effective content: you should be able to summarize it in three sentences. If you can’t articulate the main points of your content piece in three lines, it may require some editing. Good content presents information as a fluid journey. Whereas content               tells a story, copy provides a snapshot. Think about Nike’s tagline: Just do it. Or Mastercard’s catchphrase: There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard. These are the punchy bits of copy that stick with us long after the advertising campaign ends.

  1. Focus

The focus of a piece of writing is its main point. Both content and copy should have a focus, but each take the reader on a different route to get there. As mentioned in the last bullet point, a piece of content is typically longer than a piece of copy. Content allows writers to provide more context on their way to the focus. With copy, every word counts. Each one moves the message to its focus.

  1. Required Skills

Because content and copy diverge in purpose, tone, length and focus, they require different sets of skills from the writer. Magic happens when you approach content as a rewriter. Perform as much research into the topic as you can, structure a narrative and then narrow your research into key takeaways through editing. Editing should uncover the hierarchy of information and leave you with a piece of content that is clear and concise (remember, you should be able to sum it up in three sentences!). Wear your brainstorming cap when sitting to write copy. Perform research, learn the lexicon of your audience and then play around with their words. Brainstorm synonyms, make word associations and consider the meaning of the product or service you’re advertising beyond its use. For all the differences between these two writing processes, they both begin with research. Both content and copy writing are essentially acts of distillation.

Using words with intention is a crucial aspect of marketing. Understanding the difference between content and copy is a major part of that. Not everything is copy, but all elements are equally important for crafting an effective marketing strategy.

This blog was developed based on lessons learned from AllWomen’s September 2021 webinar on the psychology and practicalities of writing content and copy, which was given by Natalie Palkovich.

By Alannah Dragonetti, Editorial Specialist

Photo by Judit Peter on Pexels