What is copywriting? From the origins to the digital revolution

With the birth of the internet and the consequent digital revolution, even writing for advertising has changed course, with new styles, new influences, new needs, and new consumer interests. What is copywriting and how has it evolved over time? What is the role of the copywriter? These are just a few questions that we will answer in this post with the copywriting guidelines.

Copywriting is the activity of writing texts to attract the attention of potential customers and encourage the purchase of a certain product or service.

The secret of copywriting lies in finding the right balance between promotion and storytelling, with the goal of attracting and winning over the largest possible number of potential consumers. Therefore, the job of a copywriter requires not only excellent language and marketing skills, but also great creative skills. 

To understand what copywriting is and how it has evolved, we must look at its origins, the historical context, the first copywriters, and how copywriting itself changed how advertising is conducted over time. Also, we will look at some effective copywriting guidelines.

 

The origins of copywriting

John Emory Powers is still regarded as the first copywriter in history, the father of modern advertising. Around 1870, he began his career in advertising, initially working for American department store chains, and later he established himself as a freelance copywriter. What makes him a memorable character in the history of copywriting is not only his recognition as the first copywriter ever, but above all his unmistakable writing style, known as the Powers style. Powers was known for a simple and easy-to-understand language, without exaggeration, characterized by very short titles. 

After Powers, in around the same period, there is another personality relevant to the history of copywriting: Claude C. Hopkins, known for being one of the main promoters of hard selling and direct advertising. According to the rules he collected in the guide “Scientific Advertising”, advertising exists for the sole purpose of sale and profit, so the message must be clear and concise, with no twists or turns. Such a style is perfectly in line with the advertising needs of mail order at the time, which needed to be concise, especially for issues of space within the catalogs in which the texts appeared. 

Last but not least, there is Bill Bernbach, who is still considered one of the most influential advertisers of the 20th century and known for having started the second creative revolution of advertising in the United States. With Bernbach, the advertisement becomes the result of a creative process in which copywriters and art directors collaborate, creating perfect combinations of images and words. He changed the way advertising is done, leaving ample room for persuasion and inventiveness and totally departing from Hopkins’ idea of scientific advertising.

“Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It’s the most practical thing a businessman can employ.” (Bill Bernbach)

These copywriting styles are a bit far from what we find today, the result of a continuous evolution of technologies, interests, and purchasing needs. Over time, we have moved from the first forms of advertising through newspaper ads, catalogs, and posters, to digital forms that make advertising ubiquitous and addressable to everyone. So how did contemporary copywriting evolve and what are its main features? Also, let’s see some guidelines for effective copywriting.

 

The advent of the internet and the evolution of copywriting: some guidelines

As we have already mentioned, the advent of the internet and new technologies has led to new consumer habits and new ways of buying. As a result, it has also changed the way of communicating, advertising, and therefore of copywriting. 

The copywriter, in fact, no longer deals only with writing texts for paper advertising. Instead, a copywriter’s work is much more oriented toward writing text for websites, email marketing, newsletters, brochures, and advertisements. The basic concept of copywriting remains unchanged: writing persuasive texts with the goal of attracting potential customers and thus selling the advertised product or service. 

To achieve this goal, the copywriter must understand the functionality and potential of the product, the qualities that make it unique and different from others, and write a convincing and credible text that entices consumers to purchase it. 

In this regard, we can outline some guidelines for effective copywriting:

  1. Speak in a positive tone. Don’t underestimate the power of positivity and optimism that influences users’ behavior towards a product. As we have already pointed out in another post about viral marketing, content that arouses positive emotions has a greater impact on potential customers, and positive consequences also in terms of conversions.
  2. Be direct and personal, addressing users in a clear way, using short and concise phrases, and closing the distance between the sender and the recipient, between the brand and the consumer.
  3. Use data and statistics to support what you are talking about, without exaggeration. The real data allows you to add credibility and concreteness to the message and the product or service you want to promote. 
  4. Emphasize the actions you want the user to perform, not only through assertive CTAs, but also through the use of action verbs. Remember that the ultimate goal of copywriting is to push the viewer to perform a certain action, and it is therefore necessary to write a text that encourages the audience to read your text and that encourages potential customers to take the desired action through convincing phrases and CTAs. However, when it comes to contemporary copywriting, one cannot help but refer to SEO writing and optimization. In this regard, we could include a fifth point among the above guidelines:
  5. Write with SEO thinking in mind. In a previous post, we talked about new digital marketing tools in the fashion industry, but these tools are applicable for any area. Using tools such as the website, e-commerce, and blogs, has given rise to different types of digital content and this highlights the need to write text that is optimized for SEO, with the goal of improving the positioning of a website or a brand page in search engines and, consequently, increase its visibility on the Internet.

 

Guidelines for SEO copywriting

We can say that SEO copywriting is a variant of contemporary copywriting that serves to meet the marketing needs born from the digital revolution.

Neil Patel defines it as “creating useful, compelling and valuable content that targets specific keywords so that other people will gladly promote it on social media platforms”. Since the ultimate goal is search engine positioning, there are other new factors that the copywriter must take into account when writing a text:

  • The search for the keywords most used by users must be entered in the title, subtitle, and repeated several times within the text. This step must be natural, not forced, in order to ensure readability and encourage the user to continue reading;
  • The use of internal links that refer to other relevant pages that can deepen the topic we are talking about;
  • The use of external links to authoritative sites, which not only allow the user to expand their knowledge, they also demonstrate that what we are talking about is the result of research and deepening through reliable sources, thus also increasing the quality of the content;
  • The structure of the text: according to research by the Nielsen Norman Group, about 79% of users say they do not read an entire text on the web, but only scan the most relevant parts. This means that the copywriter must adopt writing strategies that visually capture the reader, using, for example, bulleted lists, words in bold type, and paragraphs to break up the text.

However, these are just a few of the many factors to consider when creating content from an SEO perspective, but it is clear that contemporary copywriting must have different characteristics than those of 20 years ago in order to keep pace with constantly changing digital marketing and communication approaches. 

Speaking in more general terms of copywriting for business communication, it is necessary to make small distinctions between copywriting for B2C and B2B. 

 

What is B2B copywriting? 

While B2C copywriting leverages emotions to encourage impulse buying and targets a very wide audience, B2B copywriting has to deal with a different and longer buying cycle, one that requires technical insights for a much more niche target audience. 

The guidelines for copywriting that we listed above remain unchanged: write concise messages, communicate directly to the user, provide data, real numbers, and practical examples of how the product or service offered can be used. 

Although the contents for B2B must be at a high level of information and quality, you can not give up an engaging narrative and the use of simple language in favor of one that is too technical and professional. In addition, Forbes has highlighted a very common copywriting mistake for a B2B audience: focusing everything on the technical features and explanation of the processes that revolve around the product rather than highlighting the value and benefits that this can bring to a company. 

It must be taken into account that B2B communication is increasingly favoring content marketing strategies, emphasizing high quality content that is diversified according to the different objectives of the company and the various stages of the buyer’s journey. 

B2B copywriting, therefore, ranges from shorter content such as posts for social channels and advertising campaigns (to create awareness), to product landing pages, newsletters, and e-books (to generate leads), to whitepapers, case studies, and PPT presentations (generally used to encourage and convince buyers). This wide range of content in constant evolution and expansion, allows us to reflect on the role of the copywriter that is currently being tested by Artificial Intelligence and advanced technologies that have given birth to robot writers. This is the case of JPMorgan Chase, which in 2019 purchased an AI-based machine for editing of marketing content based on Big Data analysis. This tool, which has already been adopted by about 250 companies worldwide (source: persado.com), is able to replace the human copywriter and speed up the process of creating content for digital marketing.

Based on the above and on the stages of the evolution of copywriting that we have traced in this post, we just have to imagine the challenges of the near future for this activity and the possible scenarios that copywriters may encounter.