What Does a Copywriter REALLY Do? 2023 Career Guide
Table of contents
What does it take to become a successful copywriter?
A good copywriter writes advertising, marketing copy, and publicity material that persuades people to do what the brand needs them to do.
Too many people come into this job thinking it’s about being artistic or creative. First and foremost, writing advertising copy is about helping the advertiser sell their product. To do that, your words need to interest, persuade and convince the reader (aka “the audience”) to do something concrete, like purchase the product. Just as the headline on the Goodyear billboard persuaded me.
If you can do that, while also being creative and engaging, you are destined to be a great copywriter.
In this post, I'll try to elaborate on the different elements that make up professional copywriting.
What is a copywriter?
Copywriters are professional writers who are responsible for writing promotional materials like landing pages, emails, promotional ads, and websites, which must be compelling and effective to reach the intended audience. The average Bureau of Labor Statistics Copywriter earns an estimated $80,777 annually.
There are two important professional distinctions you should know about being a copywriter:
A copywriter is not a content writer. With content marketing being the flavor of the decade, it can be easy to confuse being a copywriter with being a content writer. A content writer writes longer form educational and informative content with the goal of creating awareness, engagement, and preference for the brand over time. A copywriter generally writes shorter advertising copy that is designed to prompt immediate action.
A copywriter is not a creative writer. As much as you will need to use your imagination and creativity in this job, copywriting is not just creative writing. What you write as a copywriter may be entertaining or even inspiring, but if it’s not convincing, it’s not going to do its job.
Will AI replace copywriters?
Since we developed one of the most popular AI writing tools, we get this question a lot. In fact, we wrote an entire post about it.
AI can write copy, but the copy it writes needs to be monitored by humans. This means that many copywriters who spend all their time writing copy will need to add "AI copywriting expert" to their skillset. The first stage is to familiarize yourself with the various ways to work with an AI copywriting assistant.
As long as there are ads to be writtten, web copy to be produced, and slogans to think up, copywriters will still have jobs. Many copywriters are already utilizing the new AI technology to be more productive and produce copy faster than they ever could manually.
Types of copywriting
$600 billion. Or over half a trillion. That is the size of the global advertising industry in 2022. This includes advertisements created for TV, the web, other digital media, print, events, social media, email, SMS, chatbots, videos, podcasts, and lots more.
Fun fact! In 2022, the average American was exposed to between 4,000 to 10,000 ads each day. In the 70s, that number was between 500 and 1000. But audiences only notice or register about 100 of the advertisements targeted at them.
Take a look at how the different kinds of advertising have grown over the last decade.
People see ads in a lot of different formats, so advertisers need a lot of different kinds of ads.
For you, that means you need to start thinking about what type of copywriter you want to be.
It’s a wide spectrum that ranges from TV commercials to website copy and retail displays to sales emailers. Your interests, skills, and market demand should help you narrow it down, but to give you a birds-eye view of what’s available, we’ve put all of the options into this handy graphic.
There are three major categories of advertising copywriter: digital advertising copywriter, mass media copywriter, and direct marketing copywriter. We explore each of these categories in more detail below.
Right now, the hottest sector in copywriting is online or digital advertising. In 2020, when everything else slumped, digital video and display ads still grew at 18% and 15%, respectively. And they haven’t slowed down since. Spending on digital or online advertising in the US is close to $190 billion, and it will reach double the spending on TV advertising by 2024. The demand for copywriting talent across all industry verticals, from healthcare to education and beauty to travel, is massive.
But online advertising is a large space with subsections of its own. Here’s a breakdown of the five fastest growing online advertising formats in the US in 2021 that you might consider as areas for specialization:
- Search advertising. This is the text you see at the top of your search pages, and in 2021 it grew by 33% to $78 billion.
- Mobile advertising. This area includes mobile apps and in-game advertising, and it grew to $135 billion in 2021.
- Digital video ads grew by over 50%, reaching almost $40 billion. YouTube alone made $28.8 billion in ad revenue in 2021.
- Social media advertising, which includes everything from Facebook to TikTok, grew to $58 billion in 2021.
- Digital audio. Podcast advertising and other digital audio ads have come in at close to $5 billion. Sounds small right now, but it’s growing faster than social, video, mobile or search advertising.
Mass media copywriter
This is the more traditional type of advertising that many of us grew up with. It’s the TV ads, print ads in newspapers, magazines and on billboards, and everything else you might have seen on Mad Men. Thanks to the advent of digital media, the share of TV advertising against total advertising has dropped from 46% in 2017 to just over 25% in 2022. That said, it is still seen as extremely prestigious to create mass TV or print ad campaigns.
There are three main aspects that differentiate mass media ads from other types of advertising:
- The goal of mass media advertisements is to create aspiration or desire for a particular brand rather than to prompt an immediate purchase.
- The key elements of the ad—the copy, design, and the images or visuals—have to work perfectly together for the ad to be effective. Even in a text-heavy ad, like this Fanta ad which took it one step further with flavored paper, the copywriter cannot work in isolation. While the text is very engaging, it just would not work without the perfect design, typography, and, in this case, print and paper engineering.
Mass media ads can be very effective in terms of growing brand awareness and market share. For example, the most effective advertising campaign in the United States in 2021 was the “Dream Crazy” campaign by Nike. This campaign, which used mass media like TV and print as well as digital display, resulted in Nike achieving an all-time high stock price and earned it around $6 billion in brand value.
To get your start in mass media advertising, it’s best to get in with a local agency to learn the ropes. After that, you can work your way up to one of the “big six” advertising agencies: WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, Dentsu, Interpublic, and Havas (or one of their many subsidiaries) over time. AdForum offers a handy guide that lists every agency in the world, along with the kind of work it specializes in.
Wondering what a copywriter does at an ad agency? usually ad agency have a costant incoming flow of clients and campaigns. A copywriter works with the campaign manager to come up with a winning concept, write the copy for the ad, and execute the campaign with the rest of the team.
Direct marketing copywriter
Writing direct marketing copy is often said to be the most challenging of all. Direct marketing can be both physical and digital, but the difference is that it is copy-heavy and directly addresses the recipient.
Direct marketing (or direct response advertising as it is sometimes known) calls for a very different style of writing because the goal is to get the reader to take a very specific and immediate action. Any ad that ends with “Call Now”, “Buy Now”, or “Click Now” would typically be a direct response advertisement. Mail-order catalogs, landing pages and squeeze pages on the web, emailers, and telecalling are some other examples of direct marketing.
In a retro-twist, direct mail is making somewhat of a comeback since it effectively breaks through the digital clutter in our email inboxes. In fact, 80% of millennials say they would pay attention to direct mail, even though half of them ignore digital ads. And if you thought direct mail was boring or not as interactive as digital ads, then take a look at this piece of innovative direct mail sent by WWF for Earth Hour 2021.
What does a copywriter’s workflow look like?
Now that you have a better idea of what kind of copy you want to write, it’s time to get into the weeds.
You land the job and your first project comes knocking. Here’s what your typical project workflow would look like.
1. Understand the brief
Every creative project starts with a creative brief. Once you have the brief in hand, your job is to obsess over it to understand exactly who the creative is addressing (your target audience), why (what is the social, emotional, or functional problem they are trying to solve?), and what the ad is supposed to accomplish (what do you want them to do after reading or watching the ad?).
2. Do the research
Your product or customer does not exist in a vacuum. Your job is not just to know them but also their world, including the market context, trends, competitors, etc. Do your primary and secondary research by talking to as many customers, both past and present, as possible, as well as competitors and other relevant stakeholders. Pour over original research reports, focus group studies, market surveys done by the client or their agency, or any other relevant information you can find online.
Getting through all the reports and articles you find will take time. Smart copywriters use tools like Wordtune Read to digest the main ideas of any number of long-form research or reports quickly. Spend your time distilling valuable insights, not reading through pages of reports.
3. Come up with a few idea directions
Work with your team to come up with some initial directions based on the insights you’ve gathered from the research phase. As seen in the image above, you can always rephrase each idea and give it a different spin.
4. Pitch 3 to 4 strong ideas to your creative director/client
At this stage, you’re mostly working with headlines and outlines of the concept rather than fully fleshed-out executions. You will come away from these pitches with more ideas and valuable feedback that you can develop into stronger ideas.
5. Develop the shortlisted idea
Developing the idea is an iterative process designed to flesh out the selected idea into something real and tangible. It involves writing and rewriting, and it ends with a mock-up that can be presented to the client as a viable campaign.
Using smart tools like Wordtune helps sharpen the text with the right words. If a line just doesn’t sound right (and there are always a few in any copy), Wordtune will give you several alternatives to play with and tweak until you reach the exact tone and text you need.
6. Make the pitch presentation
The second round of presentations to the creative director/client gives you the green light to proceed with the commercial development of the idea.
This step is all about putting the finishing touches in place based on the client’s feedback. You’ll also thoroughly proofread and copy-check all of the text, work on extensions or more creative variations of the idea, and generally get the idea ready for execution.
If your idea is bounced—which is adspeak for not approved—go back to the drawing board and start over from Step 1.
TV ads or video ads requiref video shoots and post-production; print ads need photography and art direction; radio or audio ads call for voice-overs and editing. If it’s a website, for example, you will need to work on development and testing, etc. This is the final phase before you actually launch the campaign to the intended audience, and it requires coordination with multiple team members, ranging from art, design and production to post-production and publication.
A copywriter's team
Copywriters have to work with large teams to get the job done.
- Every copywriter teams up with an art director to form the “creative team”.
- Each project will have an account executive or project manager as the liaison between the creative team and the client(s).
- Internally, the creative director is the boss, greenlighting which ideas can progress to the client(s).
- The client is the person who is paying for all of the work to be done and giving you feedback on your ideas.
Top 5 skills all copywriters need
Needless to say, good advertising copywriters are in great demand, but what does it take to be the kind of digital copywriter who can command their price?
From everything we’ve seen so far, it’s clear that a copywriter’s job is not just about writing copy. Sure, words are the final output, but selecting the right words takes more than just great writing skills.
Here are the five core copywriting skills you need to master as a copywriter in 2022:
1. Understand your audience = research + insight
Every successful advertisement was founded on deep research and one breakthrough insight.
For example, the hugely successful Nike “Find Your Greatness” campaign tapped into the powerful insight that greatness is not just something champions should strive for. Ordinary people can achieve it, too. They tapped into the “everyday athlete” in their audience and the rest is history.
The best copywriters don’t start with the product they are trying to sell. They start by understanding their audience. As top B2B copywriter Ann Handley puts it, “learn to develop ‘pathological empathy’ for your audience so that you can walk in their shoes”.
Your big breakthrough insight is going to come from a deep understanding of your customer, so ask questions and be curious about your audience. Research their problems, challenges, hopes, fears, and dreams by talking to and observing as many of them as possible.
“‘Pathological empathy’ means focusing relentlessly on the recipient. And it’s something you can work at. I don’t think we’re all naturally empathic. You really do need to put yourself in the midst of the person you’re writing to.”
Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs
2. Be relevant = authenticity + honesty
The world your audience lives in is as crucial to your copy as the audience themselves. If your copy is to be relevant, it has to be steeped in the culture and context of the audience. Otherwise, it will sound inauthentic. And audiences today can smell “fake” from a mile off.
To develop this skill, keep your finger on the pulse of the pop culture or subculture your audience is most familiar with or a part of, as well as the larger social changes that are relevant to them. Small things can put audiences off a product in an otherwise perfectly good advertisement. For example, not factoring in changing gender norms or using the wrong emoji can make you look out of touch and cause an advertisement to fall flat on its face.
For example, the Pepsi “Live for Now” commercial was inappropriate on many social and cultural levels and evoked so much audience outrage that it was pulled within 24 hours of being first aired.
“There is your audience. There is the language. There are the words that they use.”
Eugene Schwartz, world-famous copywriter and author
3. Bring it together = words + art
The world’s longest-running ad campaign is the Absolut Vodka Bottle print ads. The idea was so powerful that it worked for over 25 years and won Absolut an over 50% share of the crowded US alcohol market.
It worked because each ad hit the sweet spot between text and visual to bring the drink’s bottle, a symbol of its brand values, to life.
Anyone can say that a product is great, but an excellent copywriter can use words to tell a story and help audiences feel, smell, taste, or hear why the product is the right one for them. Of course, mastery over language and grammar is also a given.
“Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.”
Howard Gossage, advertising innovator and original Mad Man
4. Elevate the outcome: tools + technology
In 2023, copywriters can no longer count just paper and pen as the tools of their trade. Successful and efficient copywriters also need to learn how to use the right tools and technology to do their job better:
Smart tools to help copywriters do their job more efficiently include:
- Word processing software
- Smart editors and AI-powered writing assistants
- Task management and team collaboration software, such as Trello, Monday, Slack or Discord
- Graphic design software
- Research assistants like Wordtune Read
Technology platforms to drive more effective performance outcomes include:
- SEO and keyword planning tools
- Campaign performance analytics dashboards, especially Google Analytics, to understand advertisement and campaign effectiveness
- A/B testing tools
- Website heat maps and user experience tools
- Programmatic advertising basics
Finally, in an omni-channel world, all copywriters are expected to keep pace with the evolving world of digital marketing, content marketing, social media, influencer marketing, etc. They need to fully understand how each piece of the campaign integrates with the rest to deliver a seamless brand experience.
5. Continuous improvement: curiosity + feedback
A copywriter can never know everything. With each new brief and product category for which ads are being created, there is a new learning curve to overcome. Copywriters have to be lifelong and efficient learners. The two skills are non-negotiable:
Curiosity: To write about products they have never used or to speak to audiences very different from themselves, copywriters need an open and curious mind. They must have the ability to ask questions and assimilate new perspectives.
Feedback: This is a copywriter’s best friend. While a lot of jokes do the rounds about impossible client feedback, in reality, a good copywriter knows how to get constructive feedback from clients—who know their audience best—and act on it.
Your next 5 moves: how to get started as a copywriter
1. Take a course
The good news is there is no minimum qualification or degree to become a copywriter. With the right skills, anyone can become a successful copywriter, regardless of their educational background. However, a specific workshop or course to learn the ropes of writing advertising copy is always helpful.
There are many free and paid courses available on the internet, as well as some from reputable industry bodies such as the Association of National Advertisers & Direct Marketers Institute (ANA & DMA), American Writers and Artists Institute (AWAI), and CMI, all of which you can explore to build your skills.
2. Identify a niche
Most courses will expose you to the various types of copywriting and the nuances of each. Knowing these differences will help you identify the best kind of copywriting for you. Do you want to specialize in a vertical such as hospitality or education, work on print ads, write website copy, or perhaps pen catchy jingles and scripts? There are a lot of choices out there, so it’s best to go deep into just a few copywriting niches and build your reputation as an expert over time.
3. Create a portfolio
It’s finally time to get to work. Whether you have paying clients or not, start creating your own portfolio of original work. Here are three ideas to get you started:
- Create fictional brands, write a brief for them, and then create ads based on those briefs. Get an aspiring art designer friend to team up with you, or find one on freelancing sites like Fiverr.com and invite them to collaborate with you to build a mutual portfolio .
- Pick any five existing brands in verticals and industries that you like, then create your own ads for them that address a new audience they aren’t yet targeting.
- Pick existing ads and improve them to practice your skills. Critiquing various aspects of published ads helps you hone your own craft.
4. Engage and network
You need to let the world know you're a copywriter! Update your social media accounts to reflect your new title (start with “freelance copywriter”) and declare that you are open to work.
Once you have a portfolio of work, whether paid or self-created, share it on social media and tag other copywriters and potential clients you know. You could even be vulnerable and ask for critiques from your peer group.
Share your own critiques of existing ads on social media, but make sure they are well-analyzed and constructive. The idea is not to insult anyone but to open up an engaging conversation or discussion on how good can be made better. It’s an excellent way to engage lots of people and grow your network and visibility as someone who cares about great advertising.
5. Register on freelance sites and apply for copywriting jobs
Leverage sites like Behance, which is the world’s largest network for showcasing and discovering creative work, as well as Contently and Upwork. These platforms allow you to display your portfolio of work and get seen by potential clients and employers.
Use the job boards of industry publications such as The Drum and Adweek to find and apply for jobs. In the meantime, offer to write copy for any friends who work at startups and local businesses to keep practicing your craft and growing your portfolio. The feedback from these early gigs will teach you a lot about how to handle client expectations and feedback, as well as give you a better idea of your own strengths and weaknesses on the job.
What to look for in a copywriter
When interviewing copywriters, make sure:
- They have experience with your specific industry, vertical or niche. If you are in the hotel industry, for example, you want to find copywriters who not only worked in that industry, but that can mention specific projects they were involved in.
- They are able to create copy that matches your brand voice, style, and tone. This can be copy for website, billboards, podcasts or any other medium.
- During the interview, make sure they listen and ask questions. A good copywriter is in part a researcher and an interviewer. That's how copywriters manage to write accurate and focused copy.
- They manage to WOW you. They don't have to create a winning slogan on the spot, but if in the course of an hour meeting they don't come up with at least one idea or direction that you find interesting, they might not be the best match for you.