By Neil Patel published October 13, 2015

5 Essential Skills for Content Marketing Copywriters Today

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It used to be that a decent writer was all you needed to run a content marketing campaign. Write a few blog posts. Publish. Awesome.

Times have changed.

How important is copywriting?

Today, content marketing is a vast industry. Writers are only one part of the composite marketing force that successful content marketing requires.

CMI’s definition of content marketing gives you a sense of the industry’s breadth:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

See? It’s not about writing alone. It’s broad. It’s about creating and distributing content for the end-goal of marketing: to drive profitable customer action.

As big as it is, content marketing still requires copywriters. In fact, some would argue that the role of the copywriter is more important than ever. (Note: 19% of B2B content marketers surveyed cited “becoming stronger writers” as a top five priority in 2016 research.)

Generating copy isn’t difficult or expensive. It’s relatively easy to find an inexpensive agency, a freelance writer, or a content brokerage to produce some articles.

But creating really good content is harder than ever. Why? Because the sheer amount of content has proliferated like never before.

The Vesuvius eruption of content has caused some marketers to declare that we’re now in a state of content shock – the idea that content marketing has reached its saturation point, and is no longer going to be effective.

The myth of content shock is parallel to that of “information overload” – the idea that a consumer is exposed to too much information, thereby preventing profitable action instead of driving it.

Content marketing has more than enough reasons to keep going. As the field of content marketing has broadened, it also has deepened. Marketers have discovered that the consumers aren’t motivated by popular, general-appeal content but by narrow, niche content.

There is still a need for content that reaches the niche needs of more consumers.

And who produces that content? Copywriters. But not your standard off-the-rack freelance writers. Instead, today’s content marketing copywriters must possess the awareness and skills to survive in the brave world of content marketing.

What skills are necessary? I’ve assembled this list of five copywriter skills that I consider to be essential for a successful content marketing approach.

1. Polished writing skills

Allow me to start with the obvious. A copywriter needs to write well.

Don’t let the simplicity of this skill deceive you. To be a good writer means mastery of a lot of different things like grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

These features are important but only get your foot in the door. I would say that those skills, crucial as they are, aren’t as important as these advanced skills:

  • Creating easy-to-read content
  • Making complex topics simple
  • Writing great transitions
  • Crafting compelling conclusions
  • Selecting the best vocabulary words within a specific context
  • Developing an attention-grabbing opener
  • Using the correct style

A writer doesn’t need to be a grammar tyrant to be skillful. After all, that’s why we see benefits from spell-checkers and copy editors.

2. Headline creation

Writing powerful headlines is a craft unto its own. Since the dawn of modern marketing, consumers and marketers both have realized how powerful these bits of copy are.

David Ogilvy (1911-1999) wrote, “Five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.” He believed that a wasted headline was a waste of 90% of the marketing budget.

Contemporary research has confirmed Ogilvy’s conjectures. According to studies, 80% of viewers read the headline but not the body copy. Heat maps typically indicate that people pay attention to pictures and headlines.

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Some types of headlines have become predictably clickable. Number-driven headlines are popular on sites like BuzzFeed for good reason. They work.

conductor-overall-headline-preferences

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Formulas for writing headlines don’t make the job any simpler. Headlines should be unique because people don’t want to read the same thing again. Headlines also need to be short. Most search results won’t show more than 65 characters of a headline.

Article headlines appear in a variety of places. A Facebook audience may not respond to a given headline in the same way that a Twitter audience might respond. Headlines may have to be customized according to where they will be distributed.

If writers can’t create great headlines, then it almost doesn’t matter how good they are. Nobody is going to read the content unless the headline is compelling.

3. Awareness of user experience

Copywriting is way more than putting words onto a screen.

Those words show up somewhere – on a mobile device, within a blog template, on Facebook, in Twitter, etc. All that copy has to fit within its cognitive and digital context.

That context and situation that influence the copy is called user experience. Let me explain.

Some people insist that copywriters have to know all about SEO, conversion rate optimization, web design, and UX testing. Those are great skills to have, but if we require writers to possess all those skills, then we wouldn’t find very many qualified writers.

Instead of setting the bar so high on technical requirements, I would suggest that writers be aware of user experience.

I define user experience as “how someone interacts with, feels about, and uses your website. It describes the overall interaction between human and website.” User experience has a lot of ramifications. It impacts content, design, conversions, search, and everything in between.

user-experience

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Instead of telling writers to know all about SEO, I would advise them to focus on the user. Use the words (keywords) that make sense based on the user, the topic, the focus of the blog, and all the other relevant features of the context.

Does the writer need to know about keyword density, semantic relevance, content silos, structured data markup, internal linking structure, and anchor text dilution? Maybe. And it sure wouldn’t hurt. But are these requirements? No.

If the writer focuses on the user, then many of the SEO issues will start to take care of themselves.

What about conversion optimization? Even in this case, focusing on the user naturally enhances the process of improving the conversion rate. The same holds true for elements of web design.

The essential skills of the copywriter don’t have to include SEO, CRO, and UXD. The writer simply needs to have a laser-like focus on creating the best content for the user.

4. Specialization

Gone are the days when you could simply hire a freelance writer from Craigslist and expect stellar results. Granted, some writers can learn quickly about an industry and produce expert-level content.

Increasingly, however, the task of content creation is only possible from someone who has deep experience within the niche.

Let’s take a random example. For a SaaS sales and marketing blog, can you hire a generalist writer to produce in-depth, detailed articles on advanced topics? Probably not. Unless the writer has experience with average MRR churn rates, LTV calculations, or expected CACs within a niche, producing a great piece of content is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Writers need experience and specialization.

5. Marketing awareness

The writer always should be aware that he or she is in the marketing industry. The idea of a T-shaped marketer holds true for writers as well as other marketing specializations.

Writers, for example, have deep experience in content, but they should have a passing familiarity with other features of marketing.

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When the writer realizes that her role fits neatly within the broader realm of content, digital marketing, and marketing as a whole, it helps her produce more compelling and strategic content.

A Singlegrain post explains that writers should understand how to sell benefits. The advice is one example of how marketing awareness helps the copywriter to create excellent and marketing-focused content.

Conclusion

My intent isn’t to set the bar unattainably high for copywriters. My intent is to help writers understand that content marketing has changed. With the change comes a fresh set of understanding and skills that will help them to improve.

For as long as it lasts, and I expect it to be a long time, content marketing will need copywriters. Keep honing your skills and developing as writers.

What skills do you think are necessary for content marketing copywriters today?

Want to improve your writing, content marketing, or marketing knowledge? Miss Content Marketing World 2015 or weren’t able to get to all the sessions you wanted? You can still gain the knowledge with our Video-on-Demand CMWorld portal.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Neil Patel

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar, and KISSmetrics. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls him a top influencer on the web, and Entrepreneur Magazine says he has created one of the 100 most brilliant companies in the world. You can connect with him on Twitter @neilpatel.

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  • http://www.directenergy.com/ Adam P. Newton

    Once again, you’ve delivered a cogent argument with tact, skill, alacrity, and relevance. Thanks for such a helpful article.

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      Adam, glad you found it helpful. Looking forward to hearing much more from you.

  • Carolyn Frith

    I think one of the most important skills for writers today is to be a good interviewer. You need to be able to talk with subject matter experts and dig deep to get to the essence of their thought leadership. Then you must synthesize their words, and translate where necessary to create your content.

    • Kurt Wolff

      This is where writers with a journalism background can come in handy.

      • Carolyn Frith

        Journalism is one area to pull from. Those with qualitative market research background also know how to ask the open-ended questions that provide revealing insights.

        • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

          Carolyn, I definitely think journalism has it right. The methodology of a great journalist can’t be topped.

      • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

        Kurt, definitely. There is a methodology that really does serve journalists well.

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      Carolyn, being a great interviewer goes far. By asking the right questions you can figure out what it is the readers want to know.

      Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • http://www.bigskywords.com/ Greg Strandberg

    Is there anything new here?

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      Greg, just some points that I wanted to reiterate. Do you have anything else to add? I’d love to hear :)

  • MT

    This is my favorite bit: “If the writer focuses on the user, then many of the SEO issues will start to take care of themselves.”

    This is not a comment about ME. HOWEVER. I have been preaching this for years. If a writer is aware of how users interact with a site (including how they search for content) then the important keywords will appear in a piece organically.

    Furthermore, I’m sure there are good ones out there, but every time I have solicited and received “content farm” pieces from outside resources they end up needing so much help that they negate the intended cost savings. You get what you pay for is one way to sum that up I guess.

    Thanks for posting.

    • Kurt Wolff

      I so agree on that phrase, it jumped out for me as well: “If the writer focuses on the user, then many of the SEO issues will start to take care of themselves.” It’s not a new concept, but it is something we sometimes forget, especially when we dig deeply into a topic. And if we’re keeping users engaged, we’re aiding SEO.

      • Carolyn Frith

        Totally agree. Google is finally getting smart enough to be able to focus on the user too. What they have always wanted is to provide the best user experience. That certainly doesn’t come from keyword stuffing.

        • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

          Carolyn, providing a great user experience is imperative — having everything fit in contextually will provide that value.

          I would definitely focus a lot of time and effort on keyword research as you’re alluding to.

      • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

        Kurt, I have learned over the years that your readers are your most valuable source of information. If you can figure out your reader’s persona then you can provide them with timely content. If you do that then all your efforts will be contextual and provide value.

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      MT — glad you liked the article and thanks for sharing.

      I agree with your point about figuring out how users interact with the site. Once you figure that angle out you can do so much more. That’s why I am constantly testing to see what strategy works best to yield great organic results.

      Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  • Lauren

    Great article Neil.
    The only point I would add is that content writers should know how to use specialized search engines and be able to do laser-focused research.

    There’s a lot of fabulous information out there – if you know how and where to look.

    • http://neilpatel.com Neil Patel

      Lauren, I agree. It’s important to know where your audience is and how to best reach them through unique content strategies. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.popwebdesign.net/ PopArt Studio

    Thanks for the article, Neil, it has been very resourceful. One thing I did not quite catch, though. How come is it that content writers had to be great writers in the first place, and now when the situation has changed – they need to be great writers – again, that is, still? Doesn’t that mean that the situation within the writing realm has not really changed at all, only the rules have?
    Thanks for your answer.
    – @popartns

  • http://www.limwriter.com/ Clement Lim

    Great points Neil.

    It’s not enough for content writers to be able to write well. They need to know their niche, know their audience, and understand marketing psychology.

    As a content creator in a technical B2B niche, I’m always working to improve my skills in each of these areas.

  • http://www.businessesGROW.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    Neil, I wonder if you even read the Content Shock article. It does not declare content marketing dead or even ineffective. It does however, point to the malignant growth of content and challenges marketers to think differently. In any human, natural, or economic system, when there is a dramatic increase in supply of something, there has to be an adjustment. I’m sure you don’t intend that life is business as usual in the content industry and all we have to do is create great copy to win. Please connect with me and I would be happy to explain this concept to you in more depth. It does nobody any good for you to mis-represent the basic concepts of information density and its impact on content marketing (which is alive and well and practiced by me).

  • Marlenegray

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  • http://ReportMom.com Maria Medina

    This is something very interesting that is worth paying your extreme attention ,a very good chance to work for those people who want to use their free time so that they can make some extra money using their computers… I have been working on this for last two and half years and I am earning 60-90 dollar/ hour … In the past week I have earned 13,70 dollars for almost 20 hours sitting ….

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  • JP D. Misenas II

    Just read this article Neil. As a content writer that’s just starting out, I felt that all five skills were incredibly valid and relevant. There was a good amount of information to take away from this article and I found it extremely helpful. Thanks for this!

  • sgregory57

    Great article Neil, thank you. I feel that knowing your target audience is one of the most important skills. I ghost write blogs for my clients’ clients and feel that I’m making assumptions and guessing about the target audience’s characteristics. Even if I get it right, I could be missing the mark. Given that I don’t have hours of time for research, how can I find out more about each target audience and what information would be valuable to them?

  • http://www.lucrativepen.com/ Oludami Yomi-Alliyu

    Guess I wasn’t stupid afterall. I started out online as a freelance writer, and with time, I knew I had to be more than just that. I took AWAI’s Copywriting course and had been a practicing copywriter ever since. Then in 2015, I went deep into digital marketing. Now I’m on my way to becoming a Certified Digital Marketing Professional by DigitalMarketer LLC. Would I be dropping writing? Never! I’ll just remain a copywriter with digital marketing skills.

    My LI bio reads “Copywriter and Digital Marketing Consultant”. This article simply proves I’m on the right track as a freelance writer and not just wasting time.

    Thanks, Neil :)

  • María Bolívar

    Hi! I’m fron Spain and I’m preparing an ABC Copy Content Marketing (I love this “title”) and I was looking for some information that support my idea. And I love the skills you talk about.

    All the information I found until now, was about complementing content marketing with CTA. But I knew there were more possibilities.

    Right now, I have written the abc from them and the right way to explain how they can be mixed.

    In Spain they are differenciated. Here, Content marketers only talk about content. And Copywriters only view sales pages.
    And I want to mix it because I think that Copy is not only for sales. It is a way to maintain consumers engaged with the brand.

    Well, if you want, when I finish my ABC Guide (in Spanish), I send you an English version (I want to translate it because I have so many English followers on Twitter)

    A lot of thanks because you have shown me that I’m not alone with my way of thinking and that I’m not far wrong with the future of Content Marketing.

    Happy weekend!!

    Maria