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This site is currently under construction. We are, however, pleased to say that the SMU 102 Digital Copywriting Unit is now open. We've also added Marketing Principles and an Intro to Public Relations. Our Content Marketing Unit is currently in development.

SMU 102 - Session 1: What is copywriting?

copywriting wordle image

Purpose/Aim of this session

In this session you will be exploring the general concepts and components of copywriting. This session acts as an overview before we delve more deeply into specific aspects of copywriting over the remaining sessions.

Learning Aims for this session:

  • You will develop an understanding of what a professional copywriter does
  • You will learn the basic language used in copywriting
  • You will explore the basic approaches to professional copywriting
  • You will explore the attributes of effective copy

Learning Outcomes for this session:

At the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the 3 copywriting models
  • Explain the professional approach to producing copy - from first draft to final copy
  • Apply life experiences to your copywriting
  • Outline an effective approach to producing your own copywriting piece

How this Session Works:

  1. Read through the Overview that accompanies this session. This provides an overall context for the session
  2. Work your way through the items on the Preparatory section that accompanies this session
  3. Listen to the Lecture that accompanies this session
  4. Work your way through the branding scenarios in the "Scenario" tab.  Scenarios are practical activities to develop your critical thinking and apply your knowledge to a specific component of copywriting
  5. Work your way through the template in the "Template" tab.  The template will support you as you take the first steps in developing your own brand messaging copy
  6. You can browse through some carefully selected material in the "Reading Room" tab. These materials will build upon your knowledge of copywriting
  7. Familiarize yourself with the key industry terminology via the "Glossary" tab.

SMU 102 Session 1 Study Activities

  • Overview
  • Preparatory Activities
  • Lecture
  • Scenarios
  • Template
  • Reading Room
  • Glossary

image representing copywriting

So what is copywriting? Copywriting is the process of writing promotional advertising and marketing materials. We're going to make things simple and just refer to these different materials as branding materials. While there will be those who disagree, we also include public relations copy when we say branding copy. Copywriters are responsible for the text on brochures, billboards, websites, emails, advertisements, catalogs, press releases, event signage and materials, PowerPoint slides, and more. The text that is produced is referred to as "copy".

Unlike news or editorial writing, copywriting is all about getting the reader to take direct action. That action might be to make a purchase, opt-in or subscribe (e.g. newsletter), make a donation, or engage with a product, service, or company.

Copywriting is one of the most essential elements of effective branding - both online and offline. It's the reason why this unit of study follows the branding unit. You first needed to understand what is was you were promoting - your brand. Now comes the time to actually craft your strategic messages about your brand. The art and science of brand copywriting involves strategically delivering words (whether written or spoken) that get people to take some form of action.

It will come as no surprise that many professional copywriters spend pretty much all of their time writing. That's a little obvious. But actually, with so much of the world moving to the web, this is not the case for all copywriters. Essentially, these days, a copywriter is more than just a writer. S/he is a multi-skilled multi-tasker.

A copywriter has to know how people engage with copy - both online and offline - if s/he is to produce effective copy for a brand. It’s not just about writing a good "call to action", it’s about working with design and an audience's psychology to make sure that any call to action appears at the right place in the copy.

Copywriters are generally associated with sales and marketing. They’re the folks who write those snappy headings and catchy straplines like "Just do it" and "The car in front is a Toyota".  We understand why people make that association. But there’s more to copywriting than simply sales. So much more.

Copywriters are the writing equivalent of chameleons. They must have the skill and flexibility to adapt their writing from project to project, from client to client, and from format to format. One day they might be writing a case study for a supermarket’s consumer magazine, the next they might be putting together a series of articles to be published on an accounting firm’s website. Copywriting is about being able to adapt quickly and meet tight deadlines.

More than that, copywriting is about being able to understand and write for an audience. This is the big, key point. This is the skill that all good copywriters must have; they have to think about who the brand's audience is and how they can reach them with their writing.

Copywriting almost always has a goal, from selling more of a product to getting an audience to click through to a specific web page. It’s about influencing people’s behaviour with words. However, you can only do this once you know who you're writing for. This involves a certain amount of research and asking the right questions from your clients or your market.

The key for every copywriter, regardless of whatever industry or sector his or her brand falls within, is to find the clearest, most appropriate way to speak to their audience. That means neither hamming up nor dumbing down, but simply finding the best way possible to transfer a message.

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  1. Read the Copywriting Infographic created by ABC Copywriting, which provides an excellent and concise overview of copywriting:

  2. Read Distility's article Brand Copywriting: What is Your Brand’s Voice?  It outlines the links between brand, audience and producing effective copy:

  3. What exactly IS copywriting? Find out by watching the video below - and also discover how important brand copy is for business success on the Internet. This video builds on the concepts outlined in the article  Brand Copywriting: What is Your Brand’s Voice?

  4. Read Distility's article Brand Copywriting: What is Your Brand’s Voice? It outlines the links between brand, audience and producing effective copy:

  5. The article below provides an excellent overview of the copywriting process:

    Smith, C.T. 2013. The Copywriting Process – Understanding how copywriting works to ensure you get the results you want from your marketing investment!, Copy Carats.

  6. Take an intimate look into the creative processes from some of the top minds in the advertising industry. Get inspired as you learn about the people behind clever ad campaigns and see how they visualize their own search for a great idea in the chapter excerpt below:

    Griffin, W.G. and Morrison, D. 2010. Chapter One: Process is Pure: The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising's Big Ideas Are Born, HOW Books.

  7. The article below addresses brand stories as narrative - and as the conduits of meaning between a brand and its audience:

    Donovan, M. The Social Life of Brands, Practica Group LLC .

  8. Communication is not a closed system. It is not an objective enterprise between sender
    and receiver. It's messy. It's variable. Most importantly, it's interactional - a subject that is covered in the article below:

    Denny, R. 1995. Speaking to Customers: The Anthropology of Communications, Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior, Sage: Thousand Oaks.

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  1. Watch the video below, which will develop your understanding of what constitutes copywriting. It also introduces the foundation copywriting elements.

  2. Watch the video below, which is in the form of a panel discussion about copywriting.  The panelists cover very different practices in terms of copywriting - from online formats to traditional print advertising. It is an excellent overview of the subject.

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This is the first unit session. At this point we just want you to put your critical thinking cap on when it comes to the basics of copywriting. Do the scenario activities in the order they've been provided. Each scenario will get you thinking about a specific aspect of copywriting that will be applied to the following scenario in this session.

However, before you dive into the first scenario, there are two more quick bits of reading we'd like you to do. Think about the main points in each article and apply them to the scenario activities below.

Quick Reading

1. Siemasko, E. 2013. How To Write Cool Copy For Unsexy Stuff, Crazyegg.

2. Farnworth, D. 2013. 7 Ways to Write Damn Bad Copy, copyblogger.

Scenario Activities

  1. The image below is an example of real-world copy. The copy is self-focused and not audience-focused. There are also some fundamental problems with sentence length and benefit/value descriptions.

    How would you improve the copy? How would you add an emotional trigger? What changes would you make to make this copy more effective, based on what you've learned so far.
    an example of self-centred copywriting
  2. The image below is an example of feature-driven copy. Based on what you've learned in this session, identify the key aspects of copywriting that are missing from this copy. If you haven't made the connection for this second scenario, it relates to the CBBE Model's Cold Path we covered in the branding unit.

    an example of feature-driven copywriting
  3. This is a classic example of vague copy. Where are the unique selling points (USPs)? What's the headline? How would you re-write this copy to make it more focused and compelling?

    an example of vague copywriting
  4. This is a classic example of overly hyped copy. The subliminal message this conveys is: "We don’t have anything interesting to say, so let’s CRANK UP THE VOLUME!!!" Exclamation mark-filled, empty hype instantly kills credibility and makes people run to the competition

    How would you tone down the volume, and convey meaningful reasons why customers should be interested? How would you make appealing claims, and then back them up?

    an example of overly hyped copy
  5. The copy in the image below is just plain bad. Misspelled words, poor punctuation and dreadful grammar. Nothing spells "amateur" like this copy. Which hardly lends itself to establishing credibility. Spot the errors and think about how you would re-write this piece of copy.

    an example of amatuerish copy
  6. Stiff to the point of rigor mortis....and just as lifeless. Rigid, unimaginative, highly formal language attempts to suggest maturity and superiority in a bid to demand respect. How would you re-write this to inject life while also conveying expertise?

    an example of still, lifeless copy
  7. An example of jargon-laden copy. It's an example of veteran business owners who know their business so well, they have a hard time communicating to less familiar audiences. It's like PhD-speak. Read the text and simply understand why you would need at least 10 years' experience within the company's industry sector just to understand what it is this copy is saying. Any thoughts about that heading?

    an example of jargon-laden copy
  8. Review the copy in the document below, which you will need to download. The copy is a real-world example of copywriting. Please keep the original text in a secure place as you will be working with this copy throughout the different sessions in the Digital Copywriting unit.

    Read the copy that has been provided. Think about what you've learned so far in this session. And apply your learning from SMU101: An Intro to Branding.

    This is a perfect example of copy that is simply far too long. It’s an example what happens when there isn’t a clear understanding of what the market (the audience) really wants or needs to know. Because they’re not sure, so they mention everything remotely related to the industry.

    What you will see is endless blocks of useless filler, which force website visitors to jump into and wade through oceans of unimportant details. Most visitors cringe and hit the back button.

    Instructions for this scenario activity have been included in the document.

    SMU102 Session 1 Scenario - What is Copywriting by SocialMediaU-USA

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The template for this session has been provided to get you thinking critically about a piece of copy that you previously produced...or copy that you are planning to produce in the near future.

SMU102 Session 1 Template - What is Copywriting by SocialMediaU-USA

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The Reading Room for this session provides carefully selected resources for you to further explore copywriting concepts, elements, issues and practice.

While this reading will develop a deeper understanding of the concepts covered in this session and the unit, it is not mandatory.

Austin, J.L 1962.. How to do Things With Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, London.

Buzan,T. 1993. The Mind Map Book: How to Use radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain's Untapped Potential, Dutton. New York.

Copyblogger Media, LLC. 2013. Copywriting 101: How to Craft Compelling Copy.

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., Cheng, J., Kleinberg, J., and Lee, L. 2012. You Had Me at Hello: How Phrasing Affects Memorability, Proceedings of the 50th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics, Association for Computational Linguistics. pp 892–901.

de Bono, E. 1999. Lateral Thinking: The Tool Kit of Pattern Breaking Idea Generating Tools, The McQuaig Group Inc.

de Bono, E. 1968. New think: the use of lateral thinking in the generation of new ideas, Basic Books, New York.

de Bono, E. 1995. Serious Creativity: Exploring Patterns of Thought, The Journal for Quality and Participation, Sep 1995, 18,5, pp. 12-18.

de Bono, E. 1976. The Mechanism of Mind, Penguin Books, New York (Requires a subscription to access and download. The subscription is free).

Kover, A.J. 1995. Copywriters' Implicit Theories of Communication: An Exploration, Journal of Consumer Research, Inc., Vol 21, March 1995. pp 596-611.

Rosenbaum, J. 2001. Practical Creativity: Lateral Thinking Techniques Applied to Television Production Education, International Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 17-23.

Sadowski, M.A. and Connolly, P.E. 1999. Creative Thinking: The Generation of New and Occasionally Useful Ideas, Engineering Design Graphics Journal, Vol 62, No. 1, pp. 20-25. Winter 1999.

Sasser, S.L. and Koslow, S. 2011. Creativity and Ad Theory, Chapter 13, Advertising Theory Textbook,
Rodgers and Thorsen, eds., Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, NY, pp 191-211.

Zinsser, W. 2001. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 25th Edition, Quill.

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A Dictionary of Common Copywriting Terms

Like any area of practice, copywriting comes with lingo and jargon. You’ll find brief definitions of commonly used terms among writers, designers, creative directors, advertising folk and other people who create, or manage the creation of, marketing materials below.


What we're supposed to establish in our communications. Never fake authenticity.


One of the goals of brand messaging. The intention is to form favorable impressions that will motivate the consumer to seek out and buy product or service.


On a return envelope, the slip of paper between the envelope’s back and the adhesive flap. Since the envelope cannot be sealed without removing the bangtail, it is certainly seen by the prospect and almost certainly read, hence its significance for marketers.


What your product or service actually does for your customer. Benefits are the crucial "what’s-in-it-for-them" that must form the core of your branding message.


The text of a given piece of copy, as opposed to other written elements such as headlines, subheads, captions, etc.


In the Old West, cattle ranchers seared their mark, the brand, onto the hides of bulls and cows. Today, a brand is the sum of the ideas, feelings, thoughts, and experiences of and/or about a company or organization seared onto the consumer’s brain. Different worlds, different goals, but a lot of the bull still remains.


The art/science/black magic of making a brand. Do not confuse the creation of a logo, which is the graphic representation of the symbol of the brand, with branding, which encompasses an enormous range of messages and experiences.


Business Reply Card, a pre-paid and pre-addressed postcard the prospect returns in response to a direct mail campaign.


Business Reply Envelope. Like the BRC, it’s prepaid and pre-addressed. Although it’s more expensive to produce and fulfill, the BRE ensures greater privacy (for things such as credit card numbers) and can support a larger, more complicated response form.

call out

A brief selection of copy that is deliberately designed (often within a “box” or with different type) to stand apart from the main body of text and draw attention to a special point, such as a sale, free shipping, or an important feature.

call to action

The written equivalent of the sales close, the call to action incites the prospect to take a specific action in exchange for a specific offer. While it’s one of the most important elements of a marketing piece, it’s also frequently neglected and/or insufficiently considered.


Printed material — such as brochures, pamphlets and sales sheets — created to provide information and support sales.


Short for composite. A visual mock-up of a set of concepts or work in progress used to either sell or present ideas to the client.


In advertising/marketing lingo, the "big idea" behind a given marketing element or campaign.


Material, such as ebooks, blog posts, newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc., that prospects might actually want to read, as opposed to marketing impositions (such as broadcast commercials, print ads, junk mail) that are frequently perceived as annoying interruptions.


The written word. All the writing found in ads, direct mail, brochures, Web sites and other marketing materials.

copy brief

In an agency, the document that paints the target the copywriter must hit. Good briefs define the objectives, articulate the strategy, illustrate the intended audience, outline a number of “points” the writer must include, and lists items of evidence the writer can use to make a persuasive case.


The art/science/craft of writing copy. Not to be confused with "copyrighting," which concerns the legal rights and obligations of intellectual property.

cosmetic violator

No, this isn't an inter-galactic rude entity. It’s a graphic element, such as a starburst or button, that deliberately “violates” the design harmony of a piece in order to draw attention to its message, i.e., "Sale ends March 31!" or "Free overnight delivery!"


The physical product of a marketing/advertising campaign or project, such as an ad, a press release, a TV commercial or a Web site.


A mailing piece with some heft and immediate visual presence, such as a box or tube, that often contains a gift or premium for the recipient. While dimensionals are expensive to produce and mail, they can be the most cost-effective way to reach difficult audiences, such as C-level executives or very wealthy consumers. Also known as "lumpy mail."

direct marketing or direct response marketing

Marketing that aims for an immediate action, response or sale (as opposed to "awareness") from its intended audience, who are often directly targeted through personalized communications (such as mail or e-mail). David Ogilvy considered direct his "secret weapon," though most mainstream agencies still regard direct as a bastard step-child of "real" brand messaging— you know, the kind that wins awards, regardless of its actual effectiveness.


Qualities your product or service has, such as power-steering or a silk lining.


For Position Only. In mock-ups or comps, the initials "FPO" are used to mark graphic elements, such as photos, that are merely placeholders, not approved components of the ultimate design.


In business-to-business (B-to-B or B2B) marketing, the employees who screen mail, phone calls and other in-coming communications intended for high-level executives. Marketing professionals regard these people with the same mix of fear and loathing Harry Potter feels for trolls and dragons.


The textual equivalent of FPO graphics, "greek" copy is gibberish that simply illustrates where and how the copy will flow. It looks like this — Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh euismod, etc.


Just as in journalism, an element of copy above the body that trumpets the important content to come. In any piece, it’s almost always the most frequently read copy. That’s why the headline is so important — get it right and you’ve cleared the most difficult hurdle, capturing the prospect’s attention.


Stands for "integrated marketing communications", a strategy that combines communications tactics from numerous disciplines including, but not limited to, direct response, advertising, public relations, events planning, website development and more.

Johnson box

The headline in a direct mail letter, often set within a rectangular "box". It's the part of the letter that’s most likely to be read.


Again, from journalism, a line of copy just above the headline that’s used to create context or "kick" interest for the story. Example:

    Kicker: Experts predict 10.5% income tax increases next year
    Headline: Gonyph Associates will save millions of dollars for thousands of taxpayers. Will you be one of them?

knock-out type

This is copy set in "reverse" (white on a black background) or in a contrasting color on an illustration or photograph. Test after test shows that knock-out type consistently reduces readership (as opposed to simple black-on-white). Use with caution.

lift note

In a mail package, an additional message, often from the president or a satisfied customer, that complements the main message in the letter and brochure. The tone is usually casual with an eye toward a more personal appeal.


What you promise in exchange for a response from the prospect. It had better be compelling: The offer is second only to the list (the people to whom you’re directing your message) in its impact on response rates.


The unique place a brand or business occupies in the market or in the mind of its prospects and customers. The simplest way to articulate a position is to think of your brand as the [blank] kind of product/service for [blank] kind of people.

postscript or P.S.

An additional message after the formal closing of a letter. The P.S. is second only to the Johnson box in readership and usually restates the offer and/or a key benefit, often with an additional appeal to urgency.

proof point

A piece of evidence, such as a statistic, endorsement or physical description, that substantiates your marketing pitch. You can never have too much proof. Yet too many messages go out with too little.


What businesses want with hot prospects and customers. Unfortunately, these "relationships" tend to be rather one-sided, as we’re more eager to “relate” to them than they are to us.


In an article or in a more substantial marketing piece, such as a long brochure, it’s a vertical stretch of copy set apart of the main body of text, usually with its own headline and often with a special graphic treatment. The sidebar is often used to present testimonials, brief case studies, or subordinate features and benefits.


Miniature headlines, in smaller type than the main headline, used to break up the monotony of long strings of text AND to communicate the major points of your story at a glance.

tag line

A brief, static phrase intended to accompany the brand name/logo on a variety of marketing materials, such as FedEx’s famous, though no longer used,  "Absolutely, positively overnight". A good tag line encapsulates the brand’s distinct quality or the company’s unique selling proposition (or both).


In direct mail, the brief bit of copy on the outer envelope. It has just one important job: To get the recipient to open the envelope. If the teaser fails, everything else is moot.


Unique Selling Proposition. A promise a company can fulfill that distinguishes it from its competitors.

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