So you want to be a copywriter? Good choice.
Copywriting is the foundational element of marketing. In this digital age, video and design get a lot more fanfare, but in the end, it’s the copy that moves people to take action.
That maxim holds true whether we’re talking Facebook ads, email, or interstate billboards: Words matter.
Yet despite its importance, copywriting is chronically misunderstood. Myths abound about the practice, because the world relies on outdated ideas as a frame of reference.
Copywriters are not slogan purveyors. They are an amalgamation of researcher, creative writer, and data analyst. It’s precisely that golden ratio of skills that gives the copywriter their power.
In this article, I’ll lay out what it takes to make it as a successful copywriter — the skills you need to hone, and the roles you’ll need to master. If you’re looking for practical advice from a copywriter with nearly a decade of experience, you’re in the right place.
The Skills You’ll Need
Not just anyone gets to be a copywriter.
A lot of people try, i.e., half-heartedly write something and hit publish, but that doesn’t make them copywriters. These same humans are left wondering why no one reads their blog, why their emails don’t convert, and why no one appreciates their brand story.
In reality, copywriting is a speciality that requires years to master. And when really good copywriters go to work, results follow. Here’s what you need to focus on to get good:
Ever stumbled upon a webpage where the copy seemed like it was speaking directly to you? Like the company understood exactly what you wanted or what you were going through?
That’s not serendipity.
Copywriting is a hard skill, not a soft one. That means it’s typically informed by data rather than the whim of the writer. And when I say data, I’m talking about the qualitative kind.
Whether it’s survey results, one-on-one interviews, or some other kind of feedback loop, copywriters must access the voice of customer data (VOC) to bring themselves in tune with the needs, desires, and pain points of their audience.
It’s the only way to develop a real sense of empathy with your audience and write stuff that resonates. So yeah, you’re going to need to get good at conducting research and analyzing the results.
The legendary copywriter Eugene Schwartz summed it up best: “Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that exist in the hearts of millions of people and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product.
This is the copywriter’s task: not to create this mass desire — but to channel and direct it.”
From the text on your latest social media meme to the checkout button on your pricing page, every piece of copy needs to be intentional.
Knowing how to make your copy persuasive requires a not-insignificant understanding of marketing psychology, or why consumers behave the way they do.
Take the concept of loss aversion for example. Loss aversion posits that people are much more likely to act in order to avoid losing something they believe they already have than they are to gain something new.
Need an example? Just look at any limited time offer that uses the word “save.” The inverse of saving money is to lose it. So when a sale invites you to save, the copy is actually saying “don’t throw away this money you could keep by buying now.”
Loss aversion is everywhere, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The more psychology you understand, the better you’ll be able to influence human behavior with your copy.
It’s all fine and dandy to have some data and understand some psychology, but those are only guideposts. The real fire — the light that will convince people to stop, stare, and buy — springs from your ability to translate data and knowledge into words on the page.
I’m talking of course about your creativity. After all, marketing is an attention game. Yes, the copy needs to be clear, and yes, it needs to be wrapped in the context of your audience’s perspective.
But it also has to be interesting. And pulling all that off takes creativity.
Thankfully, creativity is a skill. Don’t buy the you’re-born-with-it B.S. Creativity is a muscle, and the more you work on it, the stronger it becomes. That’s good news, because you’re definitely going to need it.
The Roles You’ll Play
Copywriters don’t just author one type of content. Since words are a core part of most campaigns, you’ll be expected to don a variety of masks and play the part required. In most businesses these roles will come in one of three flavors:
When businesses are looking for a content writer, they’re looking for someone to write content for their blog. (And probably their emails, social media, and website.)
In this role, you’re basically an essayist. Sure, most people will say blogger, but I hate that word, so I’m saying essayist. Because that’s what blogs are, really.
You’ll be doing a lot of research in this role, which could take two forms: keyword research or article research. In the keyword research part, you’ll be using an SEO tool, like ahrefs or Moz, to identify what people are typing into Google most often in your industry.
This data informs what topics you write about. Every company that’s even remotely interested in making money online will want to rank for the most purchase-heavy keywords in their industry. And they’ll need a content writer to write blog posts that are optimized for those keywords.
Personality plays a role here, because every memorable essay is written by a writer with a distinct voice. For the love of all that is holy, inject some personality into the posts you author as a content writer. The internet is already too full of bland writing that reads like it was authored by primitive AI bots. (Some of it probably was.)
So don’t be boring. Do everything in your power to write entertaining articles that inform your readers. Do that and you’ll win their trust, which means your traffic numbers will increase, which means you’re doing a good job.
Conversions make money, so conversion copywriters are in high demand.
This role requires the most data analysis, because you’ll be constantly testing new copy treatments across websites, landing pages, emails, and social media.
In essence, conversion copywriting requires that you develop an understanding of your audience, identify where conversions could improve in the customer journey, and test new copy until you significantly improve whatever metric you’ve set as your goal.
It’s not a fast process. If your client or employer doesn’t have voice of customer data on hand — and a lot of them won’t — you’ll need to conduct the research yourself. Then you’ll need to categorize and analyze it. All that comes before you write a single word.
Once you’ve written new copy for the homepage or promotional email, you’ll have to test it. And you won’t always beat the control copy. But when you do find a breakthrough, all your hard work will be worth it, because you’ll deliver more revenue, which is what every marketing executive or small business owner values most.
It isn’t enough to just have a good product; these days you’ve got to have a compelling story behind the product.
“Yeah, this electric jetpack works great, but why did you make it?” Every brand needs a story, and that’s where the brand copywriter comes in.
This is the type of copywriting you’ll often find in agencies, because the writing helps shape the backstory and personality of the brand. This includes not only finding a voice for the company, but also dictating those guidelines across all marketing initiatives.
“Yeah, but is it on brand,” is something you’ll often hear these writers say. Their purvey might also include script writing for commercials and slogan writing as part of the brand identity.
While this is perhaps the most glamorous role a copywriter can take on, it’s also the most expendable. After all, once you sculpt a personality for a brand, why do they need to keep you around?
I highly recommend making brand work an ancillary part of your repertoire. Yes, get good at it, but don’t make it the only thing you can do.
So should you be a copywriter? If you have any interest in how language and perception affects human behavior, then the answer might be yes. In the best instances, copywriters can create messages that resonate with millions. And perhaps make their employers millions too.
By Zach Watson