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Copywriting and content design — what’s the difference?

Sarah Richards

Content Design London

A couple of weeks ago, I was the guest on the ProCopywriters #ProCopyChat twitter chat.  I had a lovely time chatting to some really interesting, talented, and very lovely people on Twitter.

I thought I’d put together a recap for those of you who missed it.  The topic was the copywriting and content design, the differences (and similarities).  

Tell us a bit more about what you do and how you got there

Hello, I’m Sarah Richards. I set and implemented the content strategy, and introduced the standards and discipline of Content Design, for GOV.UK. I run Content Design London, which involves speaking, teaching and consulting all over the world  

How content design and copywriting are different

I started out as a copywriter at Ogilvy’s and Saatchi’s, doing traditional, ad-world copywriting. I don’t see content design as better – I see it as different. Personally, I have a very analytical mind. I love data and evidence.

I see the discipline of content design, in the way we developed it at GOV.UK, as being steeped in research and reflecting whatever the audience want and need, rather than what the organisation wants to say.  Some copywriters do that. Some editors do that. All content designers do that.

Content designers take the whole user journey and work out what messages should be put where. Then they work out what emotion and language to use (using SEO tools and research).

They’re only limited to fulfilling the audience need, not to a format or campaign or placement etc.

Copywriting and content design focus on the user/target audience: the difference of each discipline in communicating with users

Copywriting is often pushing information out to draw people in. Content design is the opposite: before we create anything, we find out what our audience wants and needs from us to see  *how* to pull them in

The definition I used in my book Content Design is:

“Content design is a way of thinking. It’s about using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it and in a way they expect.” 

Content designers are not limited to words. The point of content design is to create a good experience for people when they interact with your product, in whatever format that needs to be. Content design is user experience.

How a copywriter would approach a project vs how a content designer would approach a project

Copywriters are often told where their ad will appear: a poster, cinema, radio etc.

Content designers take the whole user journey and work out what messages should be put where. Then they work out what emotion and language to use (using SEO tools and research).  

They are only limited to fulfilling the audience need, not to a format or campaign or placement etc.

How a content designer start to work out what their user wants

Research before you write or create content for the web. Without knowing the actual customer’s needs, you can’t really structure your information in a user-centred way, so you’re missing an important part of the relationship with your audience.

Formats a content designer use to reach their audience

Content designers will use any format: BSL (British sign language) video, tools, calculators, calendars… anything at all. Content designers don’t need to do all the work, they need to know what the user wants. Then they can hire the right people to fulfil the need.

Using SEO tools

We use SEO tools to reflect user vocabulary. We don’t use SEO to push people to a page. Using the audience language means they will understand and engage faster, as well as giving you SEO.  

We’d never just do SEO to make a page just ‘findable’. We design for the human behind the search engine. We trust the search engine to do its thing.

The biggest mistakes a copywriter can make from a content design perspective

As I said, copywriting and content design are different. I don’t think one is right or wrong. I think often copywriters are too hemmed in by the brief! I think most of the time, copywriters know a different format would work better.

I think copywriters are often asked to provide a page of words when they know an infographic would be better. The ‘mistake’ isn’t from the copywriter, it’s the client hiring them.

Finally, where can copywriters learn more about content design?

If you’re interested in writing high performing copy for the web, SEO, and accessible content, we run courses that cover all of this and more. 2-day ContentDesign courses.

What do you think?

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