Serious About Brand Sales? Don’t Send a Journalist to Do a Copywriter’s Job

Do you want to increase sales for your business?

I’m about to take a very strong stand on business writing and specifically, clear up misunderstandings regarding copywriting. I have finally reached my limit on “content marketers” taking swipes at copywriters.

And for the record, the two are not the same.

If you own a business…

If you’ve been overwhelmed with messages about how you need to include content marketing in your marketing strategy…

This article is for you.

I was motivated to write this after reading “Serious About Brand Publishing? Don’t Send a Copywriter to Do a Journalist’s Job” on

It was filled with so many inaccuracies (and no small amount of hubris), that I knew I had to set the record straight.

Straddling the Fence

A little background:

For the past year and a half, I’ve straddled the fence. Years ago, I used to identify myself as a copywriter.

But I was slightly frustrated when I had to explain at networking events that no, I could not help someone copyright their unique design for window blinds or for a golf course community idea.

I realize not every business owner is familiar with the copywriting profession. So I decided to make it easier for them by explaining I write content for businesses, such as web copy, case studies, white papers, email copy and more.

I started to call myself a content marketing writer.

But something strange happened over the course of eighteen months.

I noticed brands were being encouraged to hire journalists to write their content.

Because they knew “how to tell a story.”

A new concept was born: brand publishing. Brands started to hire more journalists to work as their own in-house media department. The marketing department now resembles a news room for many companies, complete with an editor-in-chief and editorial calendars.

According to The Content Marketing institute, the definition of content marketing is this:

Content marketing’s purpose is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior.

Attract and retain customers. Just keep that phrase in your mind as we move ahead.

Many believe that content marketing is simply the way marketing is now being done. However, I believe companies have always used content in their marketing.

It just now has a spiffy name to describe it.

The State of Journalism

It’s no secret the profession of journalism has been devastated by the birth of the Internet.

When the “world wide web” came onto the scene, it changed everything. Music, books, entertainment, media, commerce—all were significantly impacted by the technology.

Newspapers and magazines suddenly had competition—the public.

Media companies have experienced and continue to experience massive layoffs. Many journalists suddenly found themselves out of a job. It’s tough to get paid for your opinion when everyone is able to share theirs for free online.

As a result, there’s a glut of unemployed journalists.

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.

Many journalists who love their craft resent having to approach a major brand for a job. Some call it “going to the dark side.” It’s because for years, these journalists have looked at large corporations with a jaded eye, often accusing them of greed and unethical behavior.

Many of their concerns have been justified but not all corporations are evil. However, it’s difficult to shake that perspective when one is accustomed to only seeing the negative aspects of commerce.

Fast forward to today. The same journalists, who before vilified corporations, are now being asked to write about them in glowing terms.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

It’s not a comfortable fit. But journalists, like everyone else, have to make a living. And filling the role within these organizations as “brand journalists” seems to be a small compromise for having a regular paycheck again.

Journalists and Marketing

But here’s the thing: businesses have been humming along for centuries without journalists cranking out their marketing content.

In fact, these businesses have a history of using a specific type of writer to help them sell their products and services both offline and online.

That writer is called a copywriter.

There are some similarities between a content writer and a copywriter, but there is also some confusion between the two.

As copywriting legend Clayton Makepeace says, “Copywriting turns black ink into green money.”

Copywriting is not journalism. Copywriting helps a business sell their products and services. Copywriting is “salesmanship-in-print.”

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.

But here’s the deal—copywriters aren’t trying to tell newspapers and magazines how to write news.

However, journalists suddenly think they can walk into a business and tell them how to write marketing collateral.

It Still Is About Copywriting

Content marketers like to point to publications like Deere & Company’s, The Furrow, as a great example of content marketing.

John Deere started The Furrow in 1895 for one reason and one reason only.

To sell their tractors.

They weren’t trying to “tell their story” to the customer. They simply wanted a farmer to understand the benefits of owning a John Deere tractor. And it worked.

In 1904, the owner of Jell-O, Frank Woodward, was at the end of his rope.

The flavored gelatin just wasn’t selling. He finally had the idea to create a small cookbook with recipes using Jell-O and had sales representatives peddle it door-to-door. The ploy worked. It increased sales by $1 million within two years and Jell-O finally became a household name.

It wasn’t journalists who came up with these ideas. It was business owners. Sales people. And the point of these marketing tactics was to increase sales. Period.

Attract and retain customers? You bet.

3 Different Types of Copywriters

Not all copywriters are the same, though. There are different types of copywriters although all have the same goal: to sell their client’s products or services with their words.

Here they are:

Ad Agency Copywriter

This copywriter usually works on media ads: print, radio, television, and web ads. They are often focused on the concept of an ad and lean heavily on being creative with design. They’re usually employed by an ad agency but some are independent workers.

B2B and B2C Copywriter

This copywriter writes marketing collateral such as case studies, sell sheets, white papers, special reports, email copy, web copy and more. They can be either in-house or receive outsourced projects as an independent worker.

Direct Response Copywriter

This copywriter is probably the purest form of copywriter. I know some may disagree with me, but if you view copywriting as “salesmanship in print,” no other type of writer can hold a candle to the direct response copywriter.

This type of copywriter relentlessly focuses on getting a prospect to respond to an offer. B2B and B2C copywriters may use elements of direct response, but not the full menu of tactics (unless they’re writing a long sales page for their website). Even then, they’re probably not going to come on as strong with their persuasive tactics as a DR copywriter.

If you really want a copywriter who understands response rates and gets you sales, find and hire a direct response copywriter.

Inaccuracies and Wild Assumptions

The Contently article makes several inaccuracies about copywriters, slyly positioning a journalist as the person who can do a better job when it comes to brand messaging. I’ll tackle them individually.

Myth #1: Journalists Do a Better Job With Research

Says who? And I don’t think it’s a fair assessment. Some journalists do better, some do worse. It’s the same for copywriters.

Copywriters have to conduct a great deal of research in order to write their copy. It certainly doesn’t come floating through the window on the wings of a garden muse.

Evernote is my favorite way to categorize my research. I also do this “old school” kind of research called… talking to people. Yes. Copywriters do talk to people who fit the targeted demographic of their company or client.

And if a copywriter is writing for a financial organization, you better believe they do a boatload of research. Businesses can’t make false claims or they’ll end up in a lawsuit. It’s up to the copywriter (and the client’s lawyers) to make sure the claims are truthful and legal.

In particular, Contently’s article quotes Duy Linh Tu, director of digital media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism:

“The crux of emotion in journalism comes out of facts, whereas the emotion in copywriting comes out of a hook or a tagline or an association with a larger thought.”

Perhaps Tu is thinking of ad agency copy, but even with that style of copywriting, there still needs to be a factual claim.

The point is, copywriters work hard at research because it is only when you thoroughly understand your market and its pain/pleasure points that you’ll be able to write effective copy.

Myth #2: Only Journalists Can Write Well

When you have a quote like this:

So 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.

The ignorance speaks for itself.

“Top-notch editorial work,” eh? How charmingly condescending.

Copywriters have been writing powerful, compelling copy for centuries. Many of my fellow copywriters hunt down “swipe files” from the past (high-performing long copy ads) and study them carefully.

I have a book by Clyde Bedell, How to Write Advertising That Sells, which was the 1940 textbook for a business course given at Northwestern University. He talks about telling a story in “Chapter 6: A Method of Approach to Copy – Part III: Selling Stratagems – Arouse Interest and Create Desire.”

In fact, here’s an insight: The copywriting Bedell taught (and just about every great copywriter before and after), was more about joining the conversation instead of telling a story.

“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. (h/t Robert Collier)

Copywriters are constantly improving their craft. They write constantly. To assume they’re unable to produce “top-notch editorial work” insinuates a sub-standard level of writing – which is an insult.

I’ll put a Clayton Makepeace or a John Carlton up against any journalist producing “top-notch editorial work” and I’ll guarantee you they’ll knock it out of the park when it comes to getting a response from the target market. Meanwhile, the journalist’s piece may get accolades from their peers but no sales.

Myth #3: Skepticism is Necessary for Business Writing and Only Journalists Know How to Do It Right

First, I don’t agree with the premise. Who says skepticism is a necessary quality for business writing? Why is it needed?

From the article:

[Copywriters aren’t] skeptical enough… and that’s a problem.

In addition to their experience asking hard-hitting questions—a skill that many reporters spend years honing—journalists are motivated by a heavy dose of skepticism. This approach helps them pursue the (sometimes ugly) truth and weed out any factual inaccuracies or PR spin.

Journalists aren’t afraid to ask probing follow-up questions or seek answers for contradictory claims or data. This skill would likely be considered aggressive in other professional settings. Knight Chair in Journalism Steve Doig teaches at Arizona State University, and he’s found that students of his who are nervous about the idea of approaching important people and demanding answers typically end up in copywriting.

This trait is perfectly fine when it comes to unearthing the truth in a news story.

But does it have a place in writing marketing material?

I say no.

Who’s receiving these “hard-hitting questions?” What “ugly truth” is being pursued? This confused me.

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.

If you get questions from them, you answer them.

It’s called customer service.

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.

The purpose of marketing copy is to sell the product. It’s to open the conversation between a potential buyer and the company. Customers don’t have patience for marketing that doesn’t immediately speak to their need or tap into a desire.

Leave the skepticism and probing questions where they belong: with the local and national news coverage.

If You Want Sales for Your Business… Hire a Copywriter

The Contently article ended on this note:

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.

A traditional media company would never send a copywriter to do a journalist’s job. As a brand publisher, why would you?

Let’s throw this one in reverse:

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?

Businesses don’t have time to play around. The economy is finally recovering but it’s been slow. They’re interested in staying in business. This means they need copywriters who know how to sell their products and services.

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.

Ultimately, you need a writer who can put your company’s solution in the best light possible AND persuade a prospective buyer to take a second look. If you find a writer who can do that, no matter what their background, you’ve found a winner.


About the author: Mary Rose Maguire

Mary Rose MaguireCopywriter. Content marketing specialist, B2B web copy, content marketing collateral, and email marketing. Tireless advocate for testing response. David Ogilvy is my invisible mentor, along with John Caples and Claude C. Hopkins. You can find me on Google+
 or Twitter.

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