What is a copywriter?

A copywriter persuades people to consider and buy products and services. They do this by writing sales materials for brands that encourage people to take action – to buy, to find out more, to subscribe.

The “copy” they produce is used to promote brands and ultimately, make sales.

A copywriter writes scripts for TV and radio, the words for sales flyers, company reports, posters. They write blogs and social posts. In fact, any promotional content that requires the imagination and the written word. Their work drives sales and is the voice of a brand.

Why copywriter, what do they copy?

Yes, confusing isn’t it. ‘Copy’ is a term from the early days of newspapers – well before TV, radio and the internet. A journalist or staff writer wrote the articles. These were sent to the print room where they were copied by a typesetter. He had to turn the written word into metal type that could be printed.

Copy was any article printed in the newspaper. Early advertisements that appeared in the newspaper were initially written by journalists who also produced news copy. Eventually specialist writers emerged (copywriters) and the first advertising agencies were created to cater to that demand.


Copywriting is nothing to do with copyright

Copyright refers to the ownership of a piece of content – the design, the picture, the words. The copywriter does not produce copyrights. The words a copywriter produces will have a ©copyright attached to it but that rarely belongs to the copywriter. They are paid to write copy and the ownership belongs to the company that commissioned them. E.g. a copywriter at the advertising agency Weiden & Kennedy wrote, “Just do it.” The copyright is owned by Nike.

Copywriting careers

Advertisers want to reach their customers wherever they are – sitting at home watching TV, driving to work in their car or on their phone while out for a coffee. They use different mediums to deliver a message – posters, video, radio, email, blogs, posts. A copywriter may specialise in one area or dabble in everything.

If they work for an advertising agency, they work on different accounts, it could be cars one day, washing powder the next, so they have to adapt the tone of their writing to each project.

Copywriters also work for magazines, websites or radio stations and will specialise in producing content in that format. They are also employed directly by companies, like a bank or retail store. These in-house copywriters will work exclusively on one account, keeping a consistent tone-of-voice.

Types of copywriting

Let’s look at the different types of copywriter and the work they will be asked to produce.

  • Brand copywriters
  • Digital copywriters
  • Direct mail copywriters
  • Social media copywriters
  • Retail copywriters
  • Copywriting for design
  • Radio copywriters

Brand copywriters

Brand copywriters are responsible for the image of a brand, the tone it projects into the world. The end goal is still to sell products or services but a pushy sales message can fall on deaf ears if your reader is not in the mood for shopping. A clever copywriter can get around this by using humour or education or other psychological tactics to get you to feel good about the brand.

A brand copywriter works for an advertising agency to develop brand advertising campaigns. They work within large teams, each member providing a different skill-set – art direction, creative direction, strategists, account management.

The copywriter is ultimately responsible for the words the ads use, but in this world, words and pictures are never separated. Copywriters are employed for their ability to develop ideas rather than their writing skills. Consumers are bombarded with messaging; getting noticed is difficult. An innovative idea that makes the brand stand out in a crowded space is highly valued. For this reason, they sit side-by-side with an art-director and produce concepts – rough words and pictures.

This is  mass media advertising – TV, radio, print. After an idea is generated, the copywriter will produce a script for TV or radio commercials, headlines and tags lines for posters, maybe a post for Facebook. They will spend more time thinking, drawing and talking than actual  writing.

Making a commercial is very complex and very expensive. The cost of airtime is huge so there is a lot of pressure to get it right. Here the copywriter must make sure the words he writes in a script are captured on video. The right director, the right cast, the right delivery, camera angles, locations, music, the edit – they are all decisions the copywriter will have a hand in. Actual writing is a small part of the job.

Digital copywriters

These people produce copy for websites, banner ads, blogs, newsletters, sms, any digital content. Again, ideas and concepts are very important, this is the product the agency  sells to their client.

The beauty of web-based copy is that it is trackable. The copywriter gets immediate feedback. You can easily see what works and what doesn’t from the data. The onus is usually on driving action, a click on a link, a call to action. For banner advertising your writing is confined by a much smaller space, so wording is crucial.

Digital copywriters will use the same psychological techniques that drive the consumer to act, to shop, to find out more, to give out their email address but they have data that can help them shape their decisions. The internet gives constant feedback about what people are looking for and what words are being searched for. This makes digital copywriting much more technical.

SEO (search engine optimised) copy and keyword strategy are tools that are extensively used. Writing for the web is all about traffic. Getting people to the page and keeping them there.

Direct Mail copywriters

Direct mail copywriters produce copy for mailing lists and are very disciplined salespeople. They have an audience of one. The customer gets to their mailbox and the copywriter has to start a conversation right from the envelope.

The ability to track each piece of mail and the response to it, means that advertisers can easily assess how successful the copy is at achieving its goal. This is called the ROI (return on investment.) The advertisers know exactly how much the mail piece costs to send out (the investment) and how many sales they make from that piece. This turns the direct mail copywriters into brilliant sales people. They know exactly what works and what doesn’t.

Direct mail copywriters still have to be conceptual thinkers to draw attention to the piece in the mailbox. There is no point writing great copy if no one reads it. You can find fantastic examples of direct mail where visuals and copy work together.

This skill at producing one-to-one conversations that end in a sale or phone-call have allowed many direct mail copywriters to become very effective digital copywriters. Much of their work is now taken up with writing email copy, developing sales funnels and re-targeting emails.

Social media copywriters

As social media has risen to prominence in our lives, so has the role of social media copywriters. Every marketer will use some form of social media to build their audience, to create leads and sales.

Short attention spans and tiny spaces to work with make it quite challenging. Writing very short snappy copy is just as difficult as writing copy that is pages long. Being too pushy might work against, you have to use psychology to get people on your side.

Using lessons learned in direct mail, social media copywriters often use A-B testing. This is when two pieces of copy are developed. Both are sent out to two small audiences to find out which one performs better. The winner is then rolled out to the larger audience.

The talent here is to balance salesmanship against engagement.

Retail copywriters

As a retail copywriter, you have to be persuasive, to get people to put their hand in their pocket and hand over money when they are near a till. There is an urgency and high energy with this type of writing, building excitement for sales and promotions.

You are talking to customers who are close to making a purchase. They might be near a shop or online, so you have to be able to describe the features and benefits in tiny spaces, like a shelf talker or product page. Promotions, sales and giveaways will drive the messaging. Keeping this fresh and exciting is the key.

Knowing the mindset of the shopper at the point of contact is how you will get people to stop and reach out. Retail copywriters will use slightly different language at different points along their shopping route. The messaging starts as people walk up to the store and then continues all the way from the door to the till. From reminders to stick something in the basket, to temptations to try something new.

Copywriting for design

We do a lot of shopping with our eyes but when you are standing in the shop and a bit unsure what the product does, the copy on the pack can tip the scales and make you buy the product. Writing packaging copy is a combination of sales copy and brand. You have to project a personality of the brand and get practical information across, all in the tight space that the designer has allowed. 

Brand identities are often born out of design agencies, and they will ask copywriters to help them develop a tone-of voice for the brand. This document outlines the personality the brand will project into the world. It also defines how every other copywriter who works on the brand should approach their writing.

Part of the process of developing a look and feel for a new brand is the name. This is a specialist area, generating a unique and compelling name. It is hugely important step – one word a brand will use for its whole life. Just try and find a url that is not taken and you will see how difficult it is to create a new name. 

Company reports are another mainstay of design agencies. These are extremely import documents for the client that outline the financial performance of the company for its shareholders. They are long and detailed. This calls for a specialist writer that can deliver long form technical copy.

Copywriting for radio

Brand and retail copywriters will get their fair share of creative briefs that ask them to write a radio script. But there are copywriters who do this all day, every day. Radio stations often give clients package deals – airtime and written scripts, so they have copywriters working in-house.

A copywriting creates a script that is read by a professional voice-over to bring it to life and then music and sound effects add colour and clarity to the written word. You use sound to create pictures in someone’s mind.

Like a TV commercial, radio commercials are sold in specific time lengths – 10 second, 15 second, 30 second or one-minute slots. The words they write have to fit. You write the words but also have to accommodate time for sound effects, jingles, pauses for dramatic delivery.

As a rule of thumb, you can fit 90 words into a 30 second spot but that is reading at quite a clip, great for an urgent retail message but if you want more of a relaxed pace you would have to scale that back.

The copywriter has to control the delivery of the message to get the story they want across, so often they will help direct the talent and oversee the sound mix the sound engineer makes to get the story right.

About the author

I have worked in the advertising industry for over twenty as a copywriter and Creative Director. I got into the business purely by chance. I then spent the first part of my career working on brands. I then branched out into retail, tried my hand at direct mail. That served as a great education to move onto digital and social campaigns.