Last week, i accidentally stumbled into a war.
As I was reading one evening, I came across two articles—one laying claim to brand publishing for journalists, and the other pushing back and saying that copywriters ought to rule the roost.
It occurred to me then that brands themselves might be staring down this problem. Who is best suited to create the kind of marketing resources that a brand needs? You need to know you’re hiring the right person for the job. Too often, businesses treat writers like they’re all the same, but not all writers are created equal.
Like mechanical and chemical engineers, jobs with similar titles can have wildly different skill sets and abilities. This is about more than job titles or semantics: Hire the wrong person and your outcomes will suffer.
So I think it’s time we put these two talented groups head to head.
(Full disclosure: I’m a copywriter now, but before that, I did journalism work for local papers.)
In our first corner, Journalists!
- Relentless bloodhounds: Won’t quit until they’ve found the truth.
- Impenetrable thick skin: Will ask anyone the tough questions, no matter who it is.
- Facts-obsessed: Experts at turning accurate information into a cohesive narrative.
- Unshakable MCs: Voice used is (typically) their own, though may be tailored to fit a publication.
- Masters of mass appeal: Know how to tell a story.
These are the folks who specialize in reporting the news on a lightning-fast turnaround.
They’re research specialists, trained to dig into a story like a bloodhound and fact-check relentlessly to get to the heart of what’s really going on. Journalists tend to build up a thick skin over time and aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions. And, because their field requires a lot of talking to everyone from esteemed experts to eyewitnesses, they tend to refine their interview and personal skills over time.
Traditionally employed by the media or operating as freelancers (who serve the media), journalists’ expertise lies in reporting a story to a broad audience; it’s their job to turn facts into a story with broad appeal. In news media, the voice journalists use in their copy is most often their own, not a brand’s, though it may be tapered or edited to suit the publication’s audience or viewpoint.
Given these skills, it’s easy to see how a hard-hitting journalist could be a huge asset for a brand. Their ability to weave factually accurate information into a compelling piece on a tight deadline bodes well for brands putting together editorials and news-style content.
In the second corner, Copywriters!
- Psychological warriors: Trained to know what readers are thinking and manipulate them into taking action.
- Content chameleons: Voice and tone can adapt to whoever is paying their bills.
- Creative juggernauts: Clever, bright and memorable copy is par for the course.
- Dangerously versatile: Known to work with multiple formats and styles, from website copy to sales letters.
- Spin doctors: Experts at selling products/brands in a way that attracts and retains customers.
If the journalist’s job is to tell a story, the copywriter’s job is to sell it. The copywriter sells the brand to a customer and that means getting into customers’ heads and knowing what makes them tick. They’ve historically been focused on writing marketing materials, from advertisements and slogans to website copy and marketing emails.
There are actually many types of copywriters who handle various tasks and different kinds of business assets. Borrowing a page from Mary Rose Maquire, here are three types you’ll find working for businesses:
These are your “Mad Men”—the guys (and gals) responsible for writing clever ads for TV, print and radio. Highly creative, these are the folks responsible for teaming up with design to come up with something that stands out when a brand wants to make an impression. You’ll usually find them in ad agencies, though there are some whip-smart independents running amok out there.
When you need a case study, white paper, monthly report or email marketing campaign, you’re probably going to deal with one of these folks. The B2C/B2B writer must blend a lot of talents, knowing how to dig into research and numbers, while understanding the psychology of the customer and craft copy that’s compelling to read. You’ll find these people in-house, outsourced or contracting on their own.
These copywriters have one thing on their minds: selling. They’re simultaneously copywriting’s “dark horses” and purest talents. They’re masters of persuasion whose copy may read like a used car salesman’s manipulative sales pitch, but will make millions in revenue from a single piece. Their work is more scientific than creative, deeply rooted in pulling the psychological strings that part people with their cash.
When you need a sales letter, email marketing campaign or landing page and want response rates to shoot through the roof, direct response writers are the unquestionable heavyweights who get it done.
in her piece, “Serious About Brand Publishing? Don’t Send a Copywriter to do a Journalist’s Job” freelance journalist Yael Grauer makes the case that brand publishing ought to be the domain of journalists:
“What happens when a brand publication hires a copywriter to do the top-notch editorial work usually assigned to a trained journalist?
The quality of reporting can suffer.
Sure, copywriters can write effective prose; their persuasive calls to action get results.
But there’s one thing they’re simply not trained to do, and that’s reporting.
Here’s the difference: When an assignment lands on a journalist’s desk, she rolls up her sleeves, makes a half-dozen phone calls, and gets her hands dirty tracking down specific details that are important to the story.
(. . .) Instead of simply presenting information in a compelling way, journalists find and then distill the most relevant facts for their audience. In fact, a trained journalist won’t even begin writing until all of this work is well underway.”
She also argues that copywriters aren’t skeptical enough, insinuating that those who “wind up in copywriting” are usually too soft to do a journalist’s hard-hitting reporting work:
“(Copywriters are) not skeptical enough—and that’s a problem.
(. . .) Skepticism leads journalists to vet their sources more intensely by checking into their backgrounds and seeking independent confirmation of information.
Send someone without reporting skills and experience into the reporting field, and you may wind up with a beautifully written report riddled with inaccurate information—or one that doesn’t really tell much of a story at all.”
She ends off on this note:
“A traditional media company would never send a copywriter to do a journalist’s job. As a brand publisher, why would you?”
That doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of the copywriter, but is it a fair assessment to say that copywriters are not strong researchers, lack thick skin and aren’t skeptical enough to get brand publishing done?
Copywriters, obviously, disagree.
In a response to Grauer, copywriter Mary Rose Maquire wrote an equally scathing piece called “Serious About Brand Sales? Don’t Send a Journalist to do a Copywriter’s Job.”
“I can’t blame a journalist for wanting to continue to write for a living. But I do believe there is a difference between investigative reporting and marketing. With the former, you’re trying to find the truth. With the latter, you’re adorning it.”
Macquire goes on to explain that brands have been “humming along for centuries without journalists cranking out their marketing content,” highlighting that even journalistic efforts dating as far back as The Furrow, a magazine by John Deere, were conceived of by businesses and executed by copywriters.
While telling stories was the medium, the goal was to sell tractors—something she asserts copywriters are better set up to do:
“It is copywriters who have helped businesses grow. Not journalists.
But suddenly, journalists are arriving on the scene (perhaps reluctantly), to declare they’re the new darlings of the marketing world and as such, superior to “traditional” writers such as copywriters.
(. . .) Copywriters have been telling the story of businesses for ages. It’s not a new concept.
But more importantly, a copywriter knows how to SELL your story so your customer buys into it. Done right and you’ll have a happy customer who swears by your product (hello, Apple, IKEA and In-N-Out Burger).
Journalists may know how to weave a good tale. But business owners need more than a good story in order to persuade their prospects to buy.”
She also points out that while journalists are tuned to writing stories and reporting, their approach may be too one-dimensional when trying to join a conversation with a customer.
“As for demanding answers, that’s the province of journalists. I don’t see it offering any value for the marketing department, unless it’s the executive offices wondering why the copy isn’t bringing in sales.
(. . .) Telling a story” only takes into consideration one point of view—the writer’s.
But joining a conversation already going on in the head of your buyer is instead considering their point of view. Because it’s the only way you’ll reach them.
Because let’s face it, if you have a product or service that you want to sell, you want to speak directly to your perfect customer. You want to follow up with solutions that will help them.”
Her parting shot, equally as cutting as Grauer’s:
“A business would never expect a journalist to do a copywriter’s job. As a brand who is interested in increasing your revenue, why would you?”
OK, Time out.
Both sides make compelling arguments, but I think what we’re really missing here is a sense of what brand publishing really is, how it interacts with the rest of your marketing efforts and the enormous fact that journalists and copywriters actually share a lot in common (something both Grauer and Maquire confess in their pieces).
Let’s start there.
Here are the things both journalists and copywriters share in common:
- Professional prose: Both have a strong command of the English language and can put a sentence together.
- Headline heavyweights: Both excel at nabbing attention with just a few words.
- Pitch perfect: Both copywriters and journalists are used to pitching ideas to people and being met with rejection.
- Relentless research: While journalists thrive on investigative research, copywriters are no slouches, either. They spend hours delving into the customer’s psyche, pain points and needs, also researching the competition and examples of past successful marketing efforts. It’s a different kind of research, but both require a head for details and a willingness to dive in and get messy.
- Deadline-driven: Both copywriters and journalists operate on tight deadlines and can deliver in a pinch.
- Storytelling savants: Both copywriters and journalists are able to spin a yarn. Journalists deal with storytelling every day of their lives, but copywriters have been telling the stories of brands and products ages, too.
There are also some important exceptions we need to make:
- Many journalists can adjust tone/voice: Though journalists are usually used to writing for a broader audience, most can tailor their work to style guides and adapt to different brand voices and audiences.
- Many copywriters can also do reporting work: It’s simply not fair to say that just because someone is used to writing sales material they can’t also put together a compelling story line or piece of journalism.
we need to understand that “Brand Publishing” is a nuanced and expansive thing.
It’s not just blogging and articles, and it’s not just turning your brand’s website into Huffington Post 2.0. It’s about publishing marketing collateral—including stories, reports, guides, videos, etc.—that ultimately help in creating customers.
After all, brand publishing is when brands “treat themselves like content producers, not advertisers,” and “content” means many things to many people.
Ultimately, a brand publisher is going to need both, but be very careful about who Gets which tasks.
Having access to a talented journalist means having access to someone who can investigate and report on a topic or issue. That’s a huge asset to those who are trying to put together timely, informational reports.
The quality of work and investigative reporting that comes as their “default” is a massive score for brands, and I’d argue that having some in the fold will give you a competitive advantage. Writing these kinds of pieces is what comes naturally to them, and if you need a storyteller who is born and bred to report like a journalist and produce a news story—you can’t go wrong by getting a journalist.
But then, a B2B/B2C copywriter can also be counted on to produce this material, just like a journalist. Granted, you’ll need to evaluate their body of work before you let them go wild, but the fact remains that copywriters of this nature have been contributing to blogs, articles and more for quite some time, and doing a fantastic job of it.
For example, who wrote the following pieces, a copywriter, or a journalist?
- The Unexpected History of Guerilla Marketing
- The Ultimate Guide to D.I.Y. Home Security
- Gutting the Music Industry, One Stream at a Time
- What Does it Mean to Be a Gamer?
- THOR: God of Crash Test Dummies
It’s a mix, but can you even tell? Probably not, and perhaps that’s what’s most telling.
it’s more than just telling stories.
Free-floating storytelling without any intent to create a captive customer or an overt call to action at some point in the cycle is ultimately worthless to brands unless it can ultimately be monetized by sales. While not every piece of content needs to be a lead-capture machine, it DOES all need to eventually connect back to a business objective (attracting and retaining customers).
But the copywriter is the only one of the two who should be called on to write the elements of a brand publishing campaign meant to capture customers and drive action—and there are a lot of them. Their ability to cross between different content formats makes them an indispensable monkey wrench in the marketer’s arsenal.
But just for fun, if you could only have one of the two, which one is more likely to be able to adapt?
While this will undoubtedly ruffle the feathers of journalists everywhere, I’m going to say that a copywriter will find it easier to take on the type of content a journalist is used to producing than a journalist taking on a copywriters’ job.
Both groups have incredibly intelligent people who could learn the others’ work if they really want to, and both have elements of difficulty, but I think the road from copywriter to journalist is less difficult than coming the opposite direction.
To do copywriting work, journalists need to learn how to sell. They need to learn the ins and outs of the customer buying cycle, understand motivations at the different points and learn how to use copy to do more than tell a great story. They’d also need to learn new formats and styles to do copywriting work. Landing page copy is not like reporting the news, and even eBooks are different than articles.
To do journalism work, copywriters need only take the skills they’ve already cultivated in addressing audiences and telling product/brand stories, dial down the salesmanship and start telling stories about something else.
As disagreeable an opinion as it will be for some, I think it’s likely easier to learn to research and be skeptical about what you find than it is to learn to manipulate human behavior.
OK, your turn to chime in. What do you think?