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Are Your Copywriting Skills Outdated?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Copywriting is an ever-changing field. Here's what you need to know.

Copywriting is an ever-changing field. Here's what you need to know.

Copywriting Has Evolved

I recently encountered a question about copywriting. If you're copywritten previously and are considering returning to the field, should you update your skills before jumping into a new job?

Is previous experience in ad copywriting for standard mass media (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, etc.) relevant in today’s advertising environments? Copywriting is copywriting, right? Her concern is valid, even if writing and copywriting skills are timeless.

Let’s look at some of the ways that advertising has changed and, specifically, how that impacts the field of copywriting.

What Is Copywriting?

First, let’s clarify what copywriting is. It is simply creating text-based content that will be featured in advertising. It could be text in a print ad, or a radio or TV ad script. Today, it could be the text in PPC (pay per click) ads or social media posts.

Copywriters are masters of writing that evokes emotion and action. Top talent in this field can be paid very well because their skills help create sales and profits for an advertiser.

The godfather of copywriting is indisputably John Caples. His “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play...” ad from the 1920s is a role model for ad copy that tapped into people’s emotional needs for approval and achievement. It tells the story of how someone who had never formally learned to play music amazed his friends with the skills he gained from a home study music course.

There’s just one issue with Caples’ kind of ad. It was developed for print magazines and newspapers.

Mastering the Medium

In his 1964 book, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” Marshall McLuhan posited that the characteristics of the medium (or media) used can be as influential as the message the medium delivers. His most famous quote is, “The medium is the message.”

What does this have to do with copywriting? Everything! Text that will be framed by a beautiful print ad in a magazine will probably not work for a Twitter tweet, even if the number of words could be the same for both. If the message in Caples’ classic “piano” print ad had to be redone for use on social media, it would likely be best delivered as a YouTube video that tells the story.

And since all social media is so visually dependent, this also requires that copywriters have a strong visual sense to marry the copy they write with the selected photos and videos.

Today’s advertising environment now covers so many more media formats than ever before. So writers who want to tap into the field of ad copywriting in today’s market need to be masters of the medium, not just masters of writing.

Mastering the Market

In addition to being versed in today’s media formats, copywriters also need to be thoroughly versed in today’s markets. Years ago, product and service advertising aimed for reaching more homogenous, mass markets. Today’s markets are extremely fragmented into many smaller market segments.

This can be either good or bad news for copywriters. The good news is that writers who have a wealth of knowledge and understanding of smaller, niche market segments can specialize in serving those segments. Specialists can often command higher fees than generalists.

The bad news is that there are so many segments that it may be difficult to determine what areas of specialty to pursue. Segments can also be so small that the number of opportunities and potential earnings is small, too.

So copywriters need to know the special needs of market segments, determine if they are qualified to serve those needs, and assess if there is enough of a market need for their skills to make them any money.

How Are Today’s Copywriters Hired?

These days, it is less likely that copywriters are hired full-time, except for possibly the biggest ad and marketing agencies. The more likely employment scenario for copywriters is through freelancing on sites such as Upwork and Fiverr, or somewhere else online.

While freelancing is appealing to entrepreneurial copywriters, the various online freelancing sites are extremely competitive. There are hundreds or thousands of talented writers competing for opportunities. As well, writers are competing with other writers from around the world who may be willing to work for substantially less.

On top of all this, clients can be very demanding. They always have been for creative work like this. But today, armed with analytical data, their expectations for ad copy performance can be high, even unrealistic. Add understanding analytics to the copywriter’s skill set!

Some clients are inexperienced, uninformed, and demanding. They haven’t worked much, if at all, with freelance talent. They might be from small, but growing, businesses who now need to start hiring help for marketing functions. Online freelance sites are often turned to for this help.

The problem is that many of these newbie clients have no idea how to evaluate copywriting talent or the written work produced. So their demands and expectations could also be unrealistic. Unless a copywriter is willing to educate them, and the client is willing to be educated, this can be a recipe for “clients from hell.” Add client management to the copywriter’s skill set!

That Was Then...

Years ago, I remember seeing promotions for courses that taught you how to easily (of course!) make money from copywriting. That was before the Internet. With all of the market and medium knowledge required today, on top of stellar writing and client management skills, it is no longer an opportunity for those who want to dabble in the field to make a few easy bucks. It must be approached like a business.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 12, 2019:

Thanks for your kind words, Linda! Appreciate you stopping by. Have a beautiful day!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 10, 2019:

This is interesting and informative, as always. I'm always impressed by your knowledge. Thank you for sharing it, Heidi.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 10, 2019:

Flourish, I should have probably added that visual awareness to the list of skills that a copywriter needs to have! If you can't marry the visuals and the copy, especially these days, it won't be effective.

Thanks for adding that important point to the conversation! Have a great weekend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 09, 2019:

I read your article with great interest. Some of the most effective social media copy grabs the reader from both a visual angle (vivid photos) and a text angle (captions that are funny, surprising, etc.). You can definitely identify the ones that are excellent. It seems to be a well-practiced skill but there are definitely some technology tools that go a long way in facilitating success.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 06, 2019:

Peggy, it certainly was wonderful to watch the Internet go from being purely academic to the paradigm shifting tech it is.

You're right, the competition for copywriting is incredible and doesn't look like it'll ease up anytime soon.

Glad you found the article interesting. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a terrific day!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 06, 2019:

Hi Heidi,

The Internet has certainly changed things in so many ways. I found your article about copywriting very interesting. As you mentioned, the competition must be fierce. It must have been fun for you to be there as a copywriter when the Internet was just emerging.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 05, 2019:

Hi Dina! First, thank you for your kind words!

When I started copywriting, the Internet was just emerging. So it's been wonderful to be a participant and observer of this unique moment in history. But, as you implied, it's been and continues to be a rapid revolution that can be very challenging to keep up with.

You bring up an interesting angle to the issue. Does it govern making a living online? Even if not being done as a client service, authors need to be good copywriters to promote themselves. As painful as it may be to accept, authors and writers need to think of themselves as salespeople and business owners. And, yes, that means selling products and/or services, or earning advertising/sponsor income.

But with your writing being centered on research and academia, you are in a unique situation. I don't think I can appropriately answer the question since academic publishing can be governed by lots of rules for such things as peer review and reporting of research results.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions! Have a great day!

Dina AH from United States on March 05, 2019:


I am going to sound like a total newbie (because I am, I guess). First, it's so inspiring to see such good writing--you weave in references that give context and history to copywriting. It's kind of silly now that I think of it, but I assumed this was a new form of writing. Even more impressive is the balance you strike between giving that history and placing it in contrast with the Internet. And, I like that you don't say that one is better than the other.

I do agree that, as a medium, the Internet is rapidly changing the rules of writing as a whole. It's daunting to find information on what actually works for writers online and to stay on top of the game-changing techniques, rules, and so on.

Do you feel like copywriting is what governs making a living online? Must we be selling thing (be it services or products) to be effective as writers online who garner the attention of bigger corporations (and therefore bigger opportunities)? Are we bascially selling knowledge for clicks or is it always necessarily a product?

Most of my writing is centered around research and academia, so I am trying to figure out the parameters of this online-writing/writing-for-profit thing. (I hope this makes sense).

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2019:

Doris, first, thank you for inspiring this post! Because I, too, did copywriting many years ago, your Mailbag question got me thinking.

I just have a lot of skepticism about courses that claim to teach you all you need to know about copywriting. My fear is that they will teach you the mechanics of copywriting (you already have the talent), but not how the copywriting market works now. Those courses will probably tell you that you can freelance to help people with their websites and social media. Yeah, everyone knows that.

Will they train you on how to write copy for new media like social media? Maybe. But you have to remember that the rules and culture for these mediums are changing at a rapid rate. Plus, the hottest ones out there are visual with both video and photos which have virtually no copy. In my opinion, the only way to understand these new mediums is to use them. For example, if you're not using Instagram, you'll have a very, VERY hard time writing copy for it. So maybe the better education is to spend your time getting active on the social networks so you can see which ones are a good fit for your skills. And that's free except for your time.

I doubt there is any chance these courses will assist you in making genuine contacts. I'm guessing they'll say to sign up for freelance sites like Fiverr and Upwork. You could do that without them. You can sign up for those sites with the skills you have now. But you have to be very specific about what you can and cannot do. Only do direct mail? Say so. But also say what kind of direct mail you do, what industries you serve, etc. It'll reduce the number of inquiries you get, but it'll filter out the undesirable inquires, too.

Lake house? Well, that sounds lovely. Hey, I'm never satisfied either. :)

If you do decide to jump back in the copywriting pool, keep me posted. I'd love to hear how it goes.

Thank you so much, again, for your inspiration and conversation! Have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2019:

RTalloni, you are so welcome. Appreciate you stopping by. Have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2019:

Hi Liz! True, knowing your medium is so key these days, even more than in the past. Glad you found the article interesting. Thanks for stopping by and have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2019:

Bill, it's been years since I was actively writing ad copy, too, other than for my own work. I'm well aware that I may no longer have the chops to compete, and would have to do some serious retooling. I'm not up for it. Your chickens don't care and my dogs don't care either. So let's just leave it that way and move on to what's right for us right now.

Thanks for chiming in, as always! Have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2019:

Claudia, you got that right! It is a true specialty. Those who have the greatest skill can command some great fees, too. But I think it's tougher these days to stand out and make a name for yourself in this area if you don't have some agency experience. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2019:

Hi Miebakagh! This is a highly specialized writing skill. So while anyone can do it, there are only some who really excel at it. Practice your skills by looking at ads and websites, thinking about how you would write the copy for them. Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your writing adventures!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2019:

Pamela, glad you found the article informative! So true that competition is fierce. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great week!

RTalloni on March 04, 2019:

Thanks very much for sharing these insights.

Liz Westwood from UK on March 04, 2019:

I have read your article with great interest. You have explained a lot about the art of copywriting these days and the importance of knowing your medium and tuning your skills accordingly.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 04, 2019:

I have a marketing background, but I haven't done any serious copywriting for a number of years, so yes, I imagine my skills are outdated. I think we'll just leave it that way. If I don't return to it, it will never be an issue, correct? The chickens don't care so why should I? lol Have a great week, Heidi!

Claudia Porter on March 04, 2019:

Interesting article Heidi. Copywriting is definitely a special niche and writer's have to have a knack for it.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on March 03, 2019:

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Heidi for taking my question and making an article out of it.

I keep getting solicitations from copywriter's courses is why I asked. I think being a former subscriber to trade oriented magazines got me on their mailing lists. However your last paragraph puzzles me. Are they worth the investment in time and money to verse someone in todays media market? Each claims to acquaint the taker with a particular medium and also help that person make contacts in the market. But as I recall, trade schools of 30 and 40 years ago promised to find students jobs and got sued when they did not follow through.

Most of us old-time copywriters apprenticed our trade because there weren't that many schools available to train us. I apprenticed in radio commercials and in direct mail, and later wrote for a small TV station. (I think I could step back into direct mail without further training.)

So in your line of work, how do you view writers who take those courses? Most run about $400-$500, so do they help one understand a particular medium in which they were not trained? Are they a help in making contacts?

I said I would never return to copywriting because I am retired and didn't want to go back to work. We are comfortable, but a lake house would be nice, and a little extra income would help that along. People are never satisfied, are we?

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 03, 2019:

Hello, heidithorne, thanks for sharing. I do not have this knowledge or skill. But I will someday do. Hope you can be a point person here.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 03, 2019:

I learnd a lot about copywriting because I knew so little before. I imagine with the vast number of websites, blogs, etc.that competition is fierce. Thanks for this interesting article.