The Future of Copywriting is User-Focused
What is the role of a copywriter? How can language move a brand's strategic goals forward? In the second article in a series about the relationship between design and content, Ana Wang takes us on a whistle-stop tour through the history of copywriting and through to the present-day landscape – before giving us a view of its user-centric future.
Just do it.
Of course you do.
Think different (Apple, 1997): Thought to be a response to IBM's slogan at the time, ‘Think’, this slogan was almost ‘Think differently’ but was ditched in favour of the version we're all familiar with because Steve Jobs liked how ‘think big’ sounded and felt.
Just do it (Nike, 1987): This line was inspired by convicted murderer Gary Gilmore's last words ‘Let's just do it’, before he was executed by firing squad. The copywriter who came up with the line didn't even like it himself, and most people working at the agency thought it was unnecessary, so unnecessary that it was almost dropped from the advertising campaign altogether. But they kept it and the fanfare was immediate, all the way from pro athletes to people who didn't play sports at all.
These are all examples of copywriting, one form of them at least, and the one that's been glorified by television shows and the golden age of advertising.
Today, most copywriters are a far stretch from the fedora-wearing, whiskey drinking Mad men wearing suits, thinking up flashy slogans and advertising campaigns for everything from luxury cars to cold cream. That might still be a part of it, but the internet has changed the game.
In part one of this series, we covered the importance of thinking like a designer, not just when it comes to visuals but from a content-driven point of view too. In this article, we're going to dive into what that language and content looks like, and what the real difference is between copywriting and its shinier, younger, made-for-the-internet-age cousin: UX writing. Is there any? Let's find out.
Copywriting: from then to now
Copy is text with the intent to sell, advertise, or market. Copywriters are the people who write that text – among them chef and TV personality Julia Childs, publisher and playboy Hugh Hefner, Obi-Wan Kenobi (aka actor Sir Alec Guinness), and a slew of writers like Amulya Malladi, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kurt Vonnegut, all of whom started out as copywriters.
Copywriters could be writing billboards, advertising campaigns, sales letters, scripts, email headlines, social media captions, and on and on it goes.
Copywriting is not to be confused with copyrighting© (though you'd certainly not be the first), which is a legal action to protect the work of a creator, by law. Note the write vs right.
Most copywriters specialize in one or the other, and often not both:
Brand and advertising copywriting, usually a long term brand-building play focused on building brand affinity and awareness
Direct response (typically offline) and conversion (typically online) copywriting, usually with a focus on selling in the moment and getting people to take action
A brief history of copywriting
Even though the world's first (recorded and acknowledged) advertising agencies existed as far back as the 1700s – White Bull Holmes was started in 1800 and didn't go out of business until the 1980s – it wasn't until the 20th century that advertising reached new, booming heights.
Fuelled by the post-war economic boom, in many countries more people were living in cities than they were living outside of them for the first time ever, fast food was invented and adopted feverishly around the world, and the rhythm and pace of life had shifted entirely to demand and revere convenience, consumerism, and calls to action. Birth rates dropped, an entire half of the population entered the workforce, and families had disposable income. Design as a practiced discipline and industry in fact evolved out of the rising need for products to sell to people, and ways to sell to them.
Enter: new dreams, new brands, and new products made to prey on every desire, whim, need and want of ours.
When consumerism took hold, advertising became a big business, and when advertising became a big business, ads needed copy. Enter: the copywriter.
Here are some examples of ads written by copywriters:
A rare example of a modern ad that uses long form copy: McDonald's, 2012
Hush Puppies, 1980
For more, check out this gem of a site featuring a treasure trove of vintage ads.
But that was print, this is now. Today, we're faced with new challenges thanks to the internet, social media, and changing consumer habits.
To take a walk back at how copywriting has evolved over the past century, let's look at The Coca-Cola Company, responsible for some of the world's most well-known slogans. They've been at it for a fairly long time in the grand scheme of things when you consider that many of the world's biggest companies are only as old as a teenage human being.
Coca Cola's very first ad was published in 1886, just weeks after the very first Coke was served in a pharmacy. ‘Delicious and refreshing’ was the slogan. Nice, simple, clear. Then, they got wordier around the mid 1890s: ‘Cola-Cola is a Delicious Beverage, Delightfully in Harmony With the Spirit of All Outings.’ When magazines started to print in colour, ads adapted to become more visual. Not so coincidentally, this is when Coca-Cola developed its first brand identity. After World War II, we start to see the introduction of music and jingles in advertising, so slogans become shorter to become catchier: thus, ‘Be really refreshed’ (1955), ‘Things go better with Coke’ (1963), ‘It's the Real Thing’ (1971), and ‘Always Coca-Cola’ (1993) paired with the introduction of the Coca-Cola polar bear. Finally, we get to ‘Open Happiness’ (2009), void of any filler. It's perfectly suited to catch attention and evoke an emotional response in today's crowded space, and it's short enough to be animated for modern multimedia, interactive formats. (Read all about Coca-Cola's slogan evolution in more detail here.)
So we can see that copywriting changes to adapt to the times and technologies. What now?
What's wrong with copywriting today?
Let's take a time machine back to the golden age of advertising. Picture this: you spend hours and hours, days, weeks, even months, trying to ‘get into the minds’ of your customers.
It's a far cry from many copywriting roles today which overly emphasize clever, cute, and personable copy. The field is filled with people who got into copywriting because they like to write, and they're probably good at it – they write engagingly and have a great voice. But the problem, if I could liken this to anything, is as if a designer was given no context on strategy or customer, and told to ‘make things pretty’. Slap a fun, friendly, engaging voice on it. Put some words down. Make it sound good.
Even though the Mad men (named after Madison Avenue where advertising firms in the 1960s were centrally located in New York City) didn't have access to the kind of drilled down data we all have at our fingertips now, the goal was always to dive deep into the psyche of the customer to sell to them. You can see this play out in the kinds of questions that were asked (‘Why did you choose this?’) and in the tenets peppered throughout the show. If you haven't watched it, here's a spoiler: Understand people.
Being tuned into user needs and experience will be mandatory again for copywriters, now that we're able to measure the success and impact of words through data.
Sound familiar at all? Oh right, just like UX design.
Enter: a new take on writing for people, something called UX writing.
What's this ‘UX writing’ I keep hearing about?
UX (user experience) writing is all the text on websites, apps, and other digital products that help people use and experience it.
Google gives a great explanation: UX writers help shape product experiences by crafting copy that helps users complete the task at hand. They set the tone for content and drive cohesive product narratives across multiple platforms and touchpoints.
Think of them as a cross between a copywriter and a technical writer, sitting somewhere between product design and marketing.
They usually work on and across UX and product/design teams, working on things like button copy to webpages to error messages. They write what's referred to as microcopy, which are the small words and phrases in a product to help people use it.
The role has exploded in recent years, following an uptick in UX design roles to better meet the needs of today's consumer landscape, which is busy, noisy, and oversaturated. A good experience matters more than ever.
The rise of UX puts the power back in people's hands to choose: to determine their level of affinity and loyalty to a product and brand based on what the actual experience of using the product is like – versus whoever can speak the loudest, spend the most dollars on ads, or market the best. Marketing's still important, in fact, marketing is a part of the user experience, but it's no longer the most important thing when there's so much choice out there. What gives the user the best experience is.
UX writing is what happened when someone realized that words were a big part of that.
How does UX writing relate to content design? Well, that really depends. At some companies, UX writers are content designers. At some companies, UX writers work within the content design department, and the roles are broken down. Similar to the whole UX/UI design debate, there is no hard line and it often depends on a number of factors, including the size of the company, the maturity of their content design department, and the scope of the work. Generally (emphasis on generally – companies are known to make up their own rules here), UX writing is to UI design what content design is to UX design. (Which means that whole UX vs UI debate? Applies here too.)
So think of UX writing as focused on the words themselves whereas content designers focus more so on the bigger picture. That means UX writing is like copywriting… or is it?
Copywriting vs UX writing: what's the difference?
There's currently a perception that UX writing and copywriting are completely separate fields and disciplines. Take a look below and it certainly sounds like it, doesn't it?
focuses on business needs
focuses on sales
common on marketing and advertising teams
focuses on user needs
focuses on experience
common on product and design teams
Where exactly did these differences come from? I can't be sure, but I see it a lot, and some aren't as neutral as I was above in pointing out the differences, making downright jabs at whichever kind of writing they're personally not aligned with. Anyone can have an opinion now, and surely someone one day decided that this is what makes copywriting different from UX writing, and then some other people stumbled upon this opinion and decided that it made sense.
But does it really?
Rewriting your perception: all text is copy
When data and tracking became widespread and accessible for all, this delineation between writing for marketing and writing for experience seemed to become more and more pronounced, so much so that the term UX writing was created and adopted to create that separation. (I myself hadn't heard of UX writing, until #1 it became a thing very recently and #2 I was working in tech.)
Copywriters defend their craft and livelihood, pushing forth the concept that the brand, the creative spirit, the story, and the positioning is ultimately the most important thing – and that copy must speak to the user/customer. UX writers similarly defend their craft and livelihood, aiming for data-driven decisions, clarity above all, and accessibility – and also that copy must speak to the user/customer.
Let's put UX writing aside for a moment.
The field of copywriting itself is extremely diverse, which I found out the hard way early in my career when I started to notice two very different strategic goals to copy, with practically no overlap and little awareness.
Often, these two subgroups don't see eye to eye on the main strategic goal of copy, even though both live under the larger umbrella of marketing. One's all about the brand play, and the other is all about conversions, aka sales, clicks and user actions. One thinks the other is scammy, the other calls them fluffy. One writes on intuition, the other writes on proven psychological formulas and triggers. One's all about being as short and concise as possible, and the other is filled with sales pages long enough to read like a short novel.
Still, both sides agree that copywriting is focused on people, just like UX writing. So why is there such a big divide?
Like with many things, when you put people in a bubble long enough, they start to see that bubble as the entire world and the truth.
And that's led to:
writing that over-indexes on clever and abstract and forgets about what actually speaks to people, leading to low conversion, sales, and results
writing that over-indexes on ease and clarity and forgets about the brand, leading to the bland copy that builds no long-term differentiation or loyalty
writing that over-indexes on results measured by data, leading to an over-reliance on psychological manipulation tactics that people are becoming more and more wary of
(All real scenarios I've come across and experienced myself – and this doesn't include the project management and process bloat that can come from this kind of misalignment.)
Here's a thought: all of these are copywriting, and UX writing isn't a separate discipline. It's just a new, refreshed approach to the same old goal: using writing and language to move a brand's strategic goals forward.
It just so happens that now, a brand's and product's goals are no longer separate from a user's, because today, an omni-channel approach is necessary. The experience of a brand now includes everything all the way down to website, emails, ads, and even what other people are saying. The goals that used to be so direct? (Get attention, sell things.) The paths to get there are now long-term, complex, and indirect.
Should there be a different writer writing for social media and marketing than the writer for a product and website? Maybe, if there's enough work and the team's big enough. But there's no need to treat them as completely separate disciplines when they're all coming together to write for people.
What we'll probably start to see happen is an integration of user experience and conversion, brand experience and product experience.
Paul Woods, COO of design firm Edenspiekermann, wrote:
‘Art direction and copywriting are as fundamental to the user experience as the UI.’
It feels like we're in a temporary interlude of sorts, where in the midst of confusion and disciplines not wanting to lose their edge (to generalize very broadly: brand teams care about creativity, growth teams care about numbers, product teams care about ease of use), everyone's all fighting to differentiate and define what they do.
Except they all hold a piece of the pie. You can't have a great line for an ad that drives to a website that doesn't make sense. You can't have a website with a great user experience that doesn't deliver on the brand message and story.
Welcome to the new, omni-channel, multimedia (even metaverse) world. All of it matters, we're just keeping up.
Ana Wang was previously the Head of Content at SuperHi. She is an ex fashion designer and copywriter who ran a whole bunch of ecommerce stores and brands and then helped other people run ecommerce stores, then helped other people help other people run ecommerce stores. Now, she's a creative generalist who plays with different mediums to tell stories.