On the 244th episode of The Copywriter Club podcast, Sarah Greesonbach joins the show. After spending years in the classroom, she discovered the world of content marketing and e-commerce. Sarah is a prime example that you can be a highly paid and sought-after content writer when you position yourself as the expert and provide value time and time again.
Here’s what we talk about:
- Writing an ebook all about life after teaching and jumping into the online business realm.
- Putting your all into your passion without boundaries.
- Creating an open door after getting laid off.
- Going from $20-30hr to $800 blog posts.
- How to make the shift in money and clientele.
- The reality of setting up your mindset for growth and success.
- Why you shouldn’t be shopping in your dream client’s wallet.
- The clear and cut process of writing white papers.
- What white papers are going for these days and how it can be your in with a potential client.
- How to showcase your authority right away and take the strategy lead.
- One simple skill that makes you more money.
- The shift from “perfect business” to realistic expectations of building a business.
- How to create buckets, so you can focus on the most important aspects of your business.
- Using LinkedIn to work with ongoing and steady clients.
- The difference between writing for B2B and B2C.
- The truth about being creative and understanding your capacity for scheduling it into your day.
Want to create a profitable content writing business? Tune into the episode to learn how to make it happen.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
The Copywriter Underground
Rob: Over the past three years, we’ve interviewed hundreds of copywriters about their approach to business, their writing processes, their stories, and their tips for writing better copy. The vast majority of them describe themselves as copywriters, but today’s guest for the 244th episode of The Copywriter Club podcast Sarah Greesonbach calls herself a content writer. And I’ll be honest, I don’t see a lot of difference between copy and content. Both are designed to create and support a relationship between a company or brand and its customers. Both are part of the sales process, and both require a smart, strategic approach to make sure that they connect with the right people. We talked a lot about Sarah’s approach to content in this episode. And if you write and sell content as part of your business, you’re going to learn a lot from this interview.
Kira: Before we hear what Sarah has to say, this podcast episode is brought to you by The Copywriter Think Tank. The Think Tank is our private mastermind for copywriters and other marketers who want to challenge each other, create multiple new revenue streams in their businesses, receive coaching from the two of us, and ultimately grow to six figures or more. Up until last year, we only opened the Think Tank once a year, but today we invite a few new members each month. If you’ve been looking for a mastermind to help you grow, visit copywriterthinktank.com to find out more.
Rob: Okay, let’s jump into our interview with Sarah and find out more about her path to content writing.
Sarah: Through that is Craigslist, it was pretty amazing. And this was a bit more popular back in the early 2010s when Craigslist was more of a thing. But my story actually starts, I got a master’s in arts and teaching, and I taught ninth grade English. And they basically chewed me up and spit me out in about two and a half years. I had reached ultimate burnout as a workaholic because the classroom will take everything you can give it, so I gave it everything. And I had to make my escape. And at that point, I hit that wall a lot of writers hit where it’s like, what else could I possibly do? I did the teaching, that’s not working for me. Where can I go? And so I just started Googling a lot of stuff about how people hire, what they look for in a candidate when they’re trying to fill a position.
And that led me to the world of online blogging. And I wrote an ebook of life after teaching. I tried to start a website with that and a community, and I learned about e-commerce. And it just cracked open the world of the internet for me. So after that, I realized I could be a content writer because that’s a thing on the internet. And I used Craigslist and found a job that was closer to my husband. And they had a surprise for me, which was that I was laid off after about six months. So it felt like a lot of hope and then taken away, and then hope and then taken away. And while I was recovering from that and bingeing a lot of Netflix, I realized if that guy was selling my writing, so the marketing manager was doing the markup and selling that to companies as I know now, why couldn’t I do that? So I embraced my fear of the phone, started pitching and landed some of those early projects.
Rob: Okay. I first want to ask about ninth grade chewing you up and spitting you out. Ninth grade is pretty hard on ninth graders, but I can’t even imagine being a ninth grade teacher. Tell us just a little bit more about that experience. What was it that made it so that you just, two years was enough?
Sarah: Yeah. I want to maintain the innocent of the innocent, so let me think. I think it was the combination of workaholism and the classroom because there are people who can go into teaching and they have these boundaries built in, and they can go home and not think about work. They can not do the grading … That’s my husband, he was in the classroom and made it nine years. But the nature of the classroom is just that it will take everything you have. So you need to be as a circus wrangler, a teacher, a presenter, entertainer, subject-matter expert. There’s no end to what it requires from you. So if you can’t put the brakes on it, then that will be the end of you.
Kira: So let’s jump to that, being a workaholic or just not having boundaries because that makes sense for teaching, but it certainly shows up for freelancers and copywriters who don’t have boundaries. Many of us who tend to lean into being a workaholic even though we don’t want to, so how have you worked through that over time, I know this is jumping years, so that it doesn’t burn you out in this business?
Sarah: Yeah. It’s really been a journey, and it’s taken a lot of leaders for me to look up to like you guys and Ed Gandia, and people who can just reassure you that if you put boundaries in place, everything won’t fall apart. It’s okay, you can tell people no, you can tell people I can’t start for two weeks. I think I was so excited by being able to control my income and lean in and see the results of that and lean back see the results of that that it took until this year to really implement capacity planning. So I’ve been doing this for eight years in October, and this is the first time that I’ve really mapped out what I’m going to do in the next two months and how much time it will take and how to make sure I’m not having 10-hour days. So I’ve never really had that transparency in there before.
Rob: I definitely want to come back to the capacity planning idea. I think there’s a lot to explore there. But before we skip over, I also want to touch on the fact that you were laid off. And so this is something that I think is a pretty common experience for a lot of people who find freelancing whether they’re copywriters or designers or something else, they learn the skill maybe in a bigger environment, corporate environment. And then this layoff comes. And for a lot of people, it’s really disheartening. Some people, they’re able to pick themselves up and just move on. But for others, it’s a really hard thing to feel that kind of rejection. Tell us a little bit about your experience and how you got through that. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few, I don’t know. I was laid off at one point from a job. I know again, a lot of copywriters have been through that. Just give us a sense of what that felt like.
Sarah: I can still vividly remember that feeling of being led into the conference room alone like a little puppy. I was cold from head to feet, and I didn’t really understand what was happening, and then they walked me out. And it was a really small team, so it was just me and a web designer and the graphic designer. So it definitely came as a surprise. But I did feel better finding out it was more of a change in direction, and the company was shifting models to be more sales focused and didn’t need the content in-house and that kind of stuff. But I took it hard because work was my life and my identity. And it’s really hard to separate that when the thing you’re good at you’re not allowed to go back there and do that for a little bit so you have to find your own way to do that. So I’d say, yeah, I had my two weeks of just eating sausage links and broccoli, laying on the couch, watching Netflix and had to move on.
Kira: And when you did move on, so you mentioned Craigslist or maybe the Craigslist was this job, but how did you gain traction once you got through that and you stopped bingeing Netflix and you landed your first few clients, what did that look like?
Sarah: It was really neat because I basically used the model that the company I’ve been working with was using. So I realized if that digital marketing company needed somebody to write content, surely there’s another digital marketing company that needs you to write content. And this is right when HubSpot was really picking up, and everybody really needed bloggers. So I found a few people on LinkedIn that were in my local network and offered to write for them. And that worked out, which was a huge rush. And then I realized I could find anybody across the country, there was no limit to who I could ask to work for because it was all digital.
Rob: So walk us through your pitch, as you were reaching out to people and saying, “Hey, I offer this thing,” how did you get people to say yes. And again, this goes back to the fact that so many pitches fall flat, so many companies just don’t respond. How did you get the response that you got?
Sarah: Somehow, I had the grace to not share too much information upfront because I feel like in another situation I could have gone on the whole story, “I was laid off, this is what I’ve been doing. Do you need anything, please hire me, give me a chance,” that kind of desperation that I can see now is really a turnoff for marketing managers. So at the time, I really just sent maybe a 15-word email of, “Hi, I see you do digital marketing for this kind of client, I’ve done that kind of work. Is it worth chatting? Do you need support with your freelance writers?” So I really clung to the idea that this was a model that I could tap into and not some kind of new thing that I was doing by myself.
Kira: And how did you grow it from there and reached the next level? Did you start bundling and creating retainer packages, what did that look like?
Sarah: I knew really early on, I was an English major in college. And I just have this vivid memory of staying up late and writing essays and listening to music and just feeling completely at peace with the world. So I knew I wanted to get into white papers and things that were a little longer and took a little more effort and you could charge more. So at that point, I got the basics covered by having those hourly contracts, maybe 20 or $30 an hour. I kind of shifted into value-based pricing after I found W freelance income with Brent and Dan and just climbed up the scale from there. So I started focusing more on subjects that could earn maybe 150 or 200 a post and then into white papers. So it’s was really trying to climb the value ladder.
Rob: Yeah, perfect. So let’s talk about what your business looks like now then. Are you still doing blog posts and content? Is it all white papers? What does a typical project look like, and how much are you charging?
Sarah: I look at it more as what kind of clients that I’m working with. And for a reason, because it’ll make sense a little later, people at different levels of charging need different kinds of projects. For me, about 50% of my work comes from high-performance agencies that are selling content to other brands in the B2B space, so Industry Dives, Smart Brief, Fierce Markets, those kinds of places where I come in as a contractor to the person who sold the project. I come in, I work on the project, and then I move on to the next project. So it’s kind of a model that lets me pick up assignments as I go and as I can fit them in so I can really easily scale to more projects or come back down. And then in addition to that, the other half is direct relationships with clients. And so that’s where maybe on a monthly or quarterly basis I’m helping them with the content that comes up.
Kira: Are you split 50/50 now or how would say you divide that up in your business?
Sarah: It seems to have reached a natural point of 50/50. So I try to get about half the income each month from regular retainer clients and then the rest from projects that come my way.
Kira: And because we’re talking about money, if you’re open to sharing, can you talk about just what that actually looks like in those two sides of your business because it is very different, and how you approach it, especially for copywriters that are new to either space?
Sarah: It’s so interesting to think about because from the writer’s perspective, it feels like one skill, like you’re just writing. But in reality, you can use that skill to write an $8 blog posts for a content mill or an $800 blog post for some kind of performance marketing situation. So for me, it was really about trying to find the people who really valued writing and were ready to make an investment in writing because that’s part of their marketing and they see it working, really being worth it for them, and being able to zero in on that. So that guided my thinking. I think it makes it easy to focus on the performance marketing because the way they set their pricing is based not just on the writing but being able to provide the platform and the publication.
I know that they’re charging a lot more for that side of the equation. And then the portion that I take from that might be 10 or 20% of whatever’s happening with that client. So I’m trying to think of what prices I could share to not violate any agreements. But it really was easy to go from the 5 to $600 range for a blog post with a private client into the 8, 9, 10 and $1,100 range for performance marketing.
Rob: And you mentioned that it’s the same skillset you’re using to write an $8 blog post or an $80 blog post for an $800 blog post. My sense is that a lot of copywriters get stuck at the lower end and they don’t know how to find the clients that are at that higher end. So maybe walk us through what you did to shift up or to identify those clients that are. It might actually be shocking to some copywriters to know that there are companies out there that pay more than a couple of hundred dollars for a blog post. How did you find them or how can other copywriters find them.
Sarah: Absolutely. I also vividly remember the first time I learned that someone made $800 for a blog post, and my jaw just dropped because that wasn’t in my realm of possibility, like who would possibly pay that much for writing? But you can see the mindset problems that are already in there to be devaluing the skill, devaluing the product. And I realized part of the problem is that we’re still shopping with our wallet where $30,000 is more of a down payment on a house, that’s huge, that’s significant. But for a company, especially in B2B, that’s a deal. If they’re going to get a certain number of leads, if they’re going to get a lot of positive attention, they have something to put into their marketing for the next six months, that’s a great investment. So shifting into understanding how marketing works and why somebody would do any of this was a really important part of it.
And the other part I think it’s not that the skills are the same, but the activity is the same. So just because I’m typing doesn’t mean I’m creating something worth more value than something else. So it was really about instead of these SEO focused, Cora, Livestrong. These blogs that are just really content mills, focusing more on marketing where people need to make relationships with CEOs and people who have this really high level of readability and really high expectations for the content they’re going to actually spend time on. And then learning those skills to be able to write to that level.
Kira: And how do we find those clients? That sounds good. How do we find those clients?
Sarah: I think there’s a lot of different ways to go about it for prospecting. But some of the really creative and effective ways that I’ve seen is to, especially using LinkedIn, to scope out companies that are really active with their marketing. So if they’re regularly posting blog posts, they’re hosting webinars with other companies, they’re putting out huge research reports and then promoting that throughout the month. That’s all a sign that they’re really investing in content, and they understand the value of the content that they’re going to get. So to them, it would be a waste of time to pay a hundred dollars for a blog post because it’s going to need an extra two hours of editing. There might be a lot of back and forth with the writer because they’re not very experienced. It’s people who have learned that it’s worth it to pay more upfront to have a much smoother process and a better result.
Rob: So if we’re talking about content, we mentioned white papers earlier, we’re talking about blog posts. What else is out there? Just open up the vision for what’s possible as a content writer.
Sarah: Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the benefits that I’ve gained from plugging into the agency space because while in some situations you might be making less for what you might charge on the open market, the variety of people I’ve been able to work for and with and the kind of projects I’ve been able to do. In the past year, webinars and infographics have been a really creative, interesting part of the marketing space in B2B. I’ve also done much longer form like state of the industry reports based on original research, and that’s really neat. So for writers who really love data or really love learning new information about certain audiences, original research can be a really good fit too.
Kira: So let’s say that I’m a content writer and I’m really focused on what’s going to pay the most ultimately. And I know there are other benefits, it’s not always about the money, but would you direct me to white papers or to those industry reports as far as where I could charge the most if I know what I’m doing and I’m speaking to the right clients?
Sarah: Yeah. I think you end up making the most when you’re really passionate and fast about what you’re writing. So for me, the first step would really be, do I thrive with long form? Can I write very quickly once I have those ideas established and I get the structure and outlines? Because you might find even though a white paper might pay 7 or $8,000, if it takes you 40, 50 hours, that’s not going to be as lucrative as a blog post that takes you one and a half hours. So I’d really start with what your skills are and where you feel really drawn so you can try things out and see what’s going to happen faster for you.
Rob: So it’s been a long time since we talked about white papers on the podcast. So I’d love to just take a couple of minutes.
Kira: I don’t even remember talking about whitepapers, have we talked about it?
Rob: I think we have to go all the way back to maybe Jessica Mehring, so it was like episode, I don’t know, 12, 11, something like that. And she used to do a ton of white papers at the time, I don’t even know if she still does a lot. But let’s talk a little bit about the process of writing a white paper, what does that look like? Are you getting a brief from the client? Are you starting from scratch? Are you doing interviews? Walk us through that process so that we really understand what goes into that kind of a project?
Sarah: Sure. And that’s another reason why I love white papers is because they come with such a good structure that it’s easy to take on more than one at a time without really feeling overloaded because there’s these clear phases. So for me, this typically starts with a kickoff call. So every stakeholder that’s involved, anyone who’s going to be able to edit it, anyone who’s going to have a strong opinion once we’re done needs to be in that first call so that we’re all on the same page. And then from there, I’ll make an outline based on what we talked about to make sure that when I do speak with subject-matter experts we’re going to talk about the right things. I know a couple of colleagues really prefer to do the interviews first, so I’ve seen this switch back and forth. But especially in performance marketing, I like to have the outline first to make sure I’m making the most of my time so it’s not as exploratory.
I think an exception for that could be if it’s really trends or insight focused or if it’s really focused on just one subject-matter expert, then you definitely want to talk with them first, but otherwise that’s the order I’m going to take that in. Then there is probably two or three weeks of interviewing subject-matter experts. And that’s where you can really balance your schedule because you might be interviewing a set of 12 people for three different projects all during this short period of time. And so you can work on different parts of the project as you go. Then we get to the first draft, which I often don’t need a lot of editing after that because I’ve really perfected that process. But love a first draft and then maybe a second draft, and then it goes to design to be put into a PDF or a micro-site format.
Kira: So I’ve never worked on a white paper, I love long form. So I’m like, I should try it. What advice or tips would you give to a newbie like me if I’m working on my first white paper? Maybe it’s tips or even just what typically goes wrong and where we mess up.
Sarah: Yeah. I would really focus on that strategy call at first because a lot of marketers, they’re coming into that situation feeling a lot of pressure to get results, to talk about their product, to make sure it matches all their other messaging. And so sometimes they can be distracted by that short term gain instead of focusing on something that’s going to be really helpful. One example comes to mind, I’m working with a really large learning management system in the higher education space, and they’re writing about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And it would be really easy for that to go way too broad and be really fluffy. But instead, we’re able to have that conversation and talk about their real customers and interview people who are at the implementation level and account-servicing level to bring in real stories of real customers and answer those questions that customers might have that would make that ultimately way more interesting than something about the next five principles of diversity for the future, really big thought leadership like that.
Rob: And when you’re writing a white paper or something similar, are you writing from a template? Is there a structure that you’re following or is it all what’s developed from the research?
Sarah: Definitely starting with the structure. So I have an outline that I like to use, it’s a very basic outline. So introduction, and then your points and then your conclusion. But starting with something really firm like a tree trunk and the branches is what lets you add all those layers without making it really meandering or a document with just some copy pasted statistics in it. Having that structure so that you know what story you’re going to tell and where the different pieces fit in as you’re telling it is really important.
Rob: And would you say there’s like an ideal length to a white paper?
Sarah: I don’t know if there’s an ideal length, but I’ve seen the patterns, how they are. So it tends to be about 1,500 to 2,000 words is a really short white paper. Something that’s going to be really beautifully styled, maybe 5 to 10 pages in the final result. And then it seems to jump to about 3,000 words. So 3,000 to 5,000 words is the longer reports that I’ve seen. After that, you get into ebook territory and ghost writing, which is going to be a little different.
Kira: Do you do eBooks and ghost writing at all?
Sarah: I haven’t as much because I’ve found to talk about something that long I would want it to be from me, but it hasn’t come up.
Kira: That makes sense. And pricing while we’re talking about the length, I think you mentioned 8K possibly for a white paper, if it’s lengthier. What is the price range from those shorter white papers to the lengthier ones?
Sarah: Yeah. I don’t tend to charge by word, but it does come out to about $1 to $2 per word. So on the shorter end, it might be at a dollar and a half per word just to account for all of the planning and the meeting that goes into every project. And then as it goes up, it might go back down to down to a dollar a word to account for the length of it.
Kira: Okay. And you mentioned speed when we were talking just about what we should focus on and what deliverables might make sense. It’s about how fast you are. And this has come up in a bunch of conversations on the podcast and off the podcast about speed and how fast we can be as writers, and how can we improve our speed and get faster? I tend to be a slower writer. How can I improve and get faster, what’s working for you that helps you move quickly through these projects?
Sarah: Definitely the outline, I think without an outline I would just spiral indefinitely. I’m not sure I could get anything done without an outline because that also allows you whenever you’re stuck somewhere, you can just move to a different section and work on that piece of the puzzle and keep progress going. I think also I’ve realized in the past couple months not being on my computer is really important to actually spend more time thinking about what I’m writing. Because when you’re thinking, when you have all those thoughts organized in your head, then you can basically sit down and write at the speed of your typing ability, which is really high when you’ve been writing for a long time. So it’s more about how much thinking do you do while you’re typing? Because if there’s a lot of that, then it’s going to slow you down.
Rob: Maybe my last question on white papers, is there any magic in pitching a white paper? Is it the first thing that you pitch or is it usually a follow-on project after you get started with something else? How is it that you start landing those kinds of projects in your business?
Sarah: The first white paper, I think you’ll need to get in there with a blog post because it’s always better to start with a shorter trial project, build trust, show them how easy it is to work with you and then move into something higher cost. I’ve found also white papers tend to be more of a quarterly asset for marketing managers. Unless there’s a new chief marketing officer who’s starting a content program, they’re not really going to come in needing five white papers right out the gate. So it’s more you might set up a cadence of blog posts per month and then add a white paper each quarter, add a case study each quarter.
Kira: So let’s break in here to talk a little bit about a few things Sarah mentioned. So Rob what stood out to you the most?
Rob: I know I’ve referred back to this podcast a couple of times now, but Sarah mentioned the desperation of needing the job. And it just reminded me of what Jared McDonald shared a couple of weeks ago about the person with the cocaine on their nose sniffing the desperation for the next hit or whatever. Again, it bears repeating, when we’re desperate, when we come across as desperate, when we need that job, that project so badly and we show it to the client, it really does turn off the client. They sense the desperation as opposed to sensing that you’re there to help them in their business.
And it kind of flips things around where they’re there now to help you make the mortgage payment or to help put food on the table as opposed to you’re there to help them with the problem that they have, whether that’s content or copy or whatever it is. She mentioned that desperation, and I think it’s well worth repeating. Maybe we’ll repeat it on every podcast, but whatever it takes to not be desperate. And when we talked about it last time, you mentioned it’s hard, it’s really hard when you are desperate to not come across that way, but it really is important that you’re there to serve your clients and not to flip the tables and have them serve you.
Kira: And if you’re caught in a desperation mode, it’s like, well, how can you show up differently? It’s testing, well, this didn’t work here, this didn’t work on this sales call, how can I test a different approach because something’s not working currently? I think if you could just look at it as more of an experiment and how can I test a new approach until you figure out what does work, especially in relation to sales calls. It could take the pressure off if you’re like, “I’m just going to test five different approaches to my next sales call or my next five sales calls to see which one works best.” And then you’re more in control. And I think anytime you’re in more control, the desperation starts to fade away because you feel in control of the situation. So I think we could probably stop there because we’ve talked about this so much on the show already, but it’s important to address.
Rob: What else stood out to you, Kira?
Kira: Well, I know we talked a lot about the difference between the $80 client and the $800 client and the $8,000 client. And so I think part of it is just about what Sarah said, find the people who value writing and are willing to make the investment. And they’re out there. And so instead of hitting your head against the wall because you’re trying to sell to clients who don’t understand copywriting or content writing and don’t understand the return they’ll receive on that type of investment, it’s just going to be so much harder to sell them on it. And so find those people who get it and are speaking the same language. They’re out there, and Sarah talked a lot about how to find them.
Rob: And there are advantages that go well beyond the paycheck that you get. Working with a high-end client usually is easier, the process goes smoother. Because they value you, they show up when you need to do research or interviews or they’ll help connect you to their clients or they answer their emails versus clients that aren’t paying a great deal, tend to look at you not as a partner or as a part of their business, a consultant helping them out, but as someone who’s just writing copy. And so oftentimes the irony is that that $80 client, the low paying client is much harder to work with than the $8,000 client. And so not only do you get more money, but you may actually have more time to do the work that you want to do. You work on better projects, you get better results, better testimonials, better case studies. Everything gets better when you start working with those higher paying clients.
Kira: Yeah. And I think just having a deep understanding of the prospects that you’re speaking to on sales calls and in your own marketing could help, especially if you are struggling to close projects because what money means to a client could be so different. And $3,000 for a project with a solo-preneur who might be new to business, and that $3,000 is their mortgage payment that they’re now sacrificing or it’s coming from somewhere else, and they’re pulling their money together with the hope that you can make it all happen for them and whip up a miracle is very different than even charging $30,000 or more to a company that’s like, “That’s no big deal, we’re not even going to feel that,” in a much larger company.
And that’s not to say that we can’t work with those solo-preneurs because that work can be really meaningful, and we can make a huge impact. But oftentimes, it’s worth looking at where you are in your business, and can you take on that risk? Are you willing to take that on with a client who might actually be dealing with their own desperation and their own stress around that $3,000 they’re about to invest in you? I personally, I wouldn’t want to take that on because it would stress me out too much to know that I’m taking someone’s last $3,000.
Rob: Yeah. I’m not interested in doing that either. A lot of what Sarah talked about as far as white papers go is interesting as well. I know we haven’t talked a lot about white papers on the podcast at least not for a very long time. And the fact that she brings structure to the process, what she shared about that I just thought was interesting for anybody who might be listening that wants to write white papers. They can be incredibly profitable. If you have a template or an outline that you can bring to the process and you can complete the stuff relatively quickly, it can be a really nice product to offer in your business. It’s the kind of content that I actually like writing. They’re success stories you’re talking about results. I haven’t done dozens and dozens of white papers, but I’ve written several. And they can be fun, and like I said, very profitable.
Kira: And the key is, like you said, it’s the outline, and I love that Sarah mentioned that. That applies to all of us even if we’re not content writers. Just having those outlines in place so that we can just plug in and move quickly is so helpful. And I’m someone who will oftentimes just start from scratch because that’s how my brain works. But if I have an outline in place, I could move so much faster than I normally would on a project.
Rob: When I launched my freelance business, white papers was one of the things that I wrote quite a few of because the context that I had at the time needed them as part of their sales process. I quickly developed my own outline that I could bring to the process as well. So again, glad she mentioned it and talked about that because there’s certainly a lot of opportunity out there for this kind of writing product. What else stood out to you, Kira?
Kira: Oh, the last part I will mention is that we talked to Sarah, she mentioned she’s been in business for eight years. And I know we like to talk to all business owners, new ones, more seasoned business owners. And so it was really cool for her to share what she’s struggling with in her own business and be a little bit more vulnerable with us about the burnout that she’s experienced, especially in 2020 and how she’s changed her business because she hit that wall especially as the breadwinner at the time. I think also what I took away from that is that Sarah has been in business for eight years, and only in the past year has started mapping out her schedule and mapping out her hours and taking control over her schedule and her project load.
And it’s just a really great reminder that all of this stuff takes time and that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves, and that it took Sarah eight years to get to the point where she’s in more control of her schedule and has created these boundaries. And it could take less or more time for all of us. But I think these improvements that are so important can make our lives easier and our businesses more successful. They don’t happen overnight. And again, I just appreciate Sarah being so open about it.
Rob: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that because I think it’s important to remember everybody’s business is broken in some place. There’s no perfect business out there, there’s nobody that doesn’t stumble at some point. Maybe you’ve got the client relationship all worked out, and that’s never a problem. But that doesn’t mean that your copy couldn’t be better or it could be the reverse where you’re an awesome writer but the interactions with your clients, there are hiccups here or there. And even when you get to six figures, mid six figures, if you’re able to hit a million dollars in your business, there’s still going to be things that you can fix. And it’s a good perspective to have, there’s always a red light or a yellow light, not everything is flashing green in every business.
Kira: Oh yeah. I mean, there’s so many parts of my business that are broken, but the business is not broken. I get leads, clients, things are working. But my website is currently broken, and I need Matt Hall to fix it. We all have areas that are broken, it doesn’t mean collectively or holistically the business is broken. And it’s okay to talk about it, and it’s okay to realize that that’s normal as long as you’re not ignoring every single part of it that’s broken.
Rob: I’m like ticking through my brain all of the things that we need to fix on The Copywriter Club podcast website.
Kira: It’s too much. You can’t take it all in at once. It’s like, well, what’s broken? What is broken that is in the red zone and most critical right now to TCC? What is broken on my Kira Hug website that’s critical right now. And so I think if you can look at it that way and everything else could be put on the back burner, it makes it easier. Otherwise, I would be stressed out all the time, I would not sleep.
Rob: The flashing. It’s finding the one thing that you can fix this month or this quarter or whatever and making slow progress. It can take 8 years, it can take 10 years, it can take a lifetime. Let’s go back to our interview with Sarah and ask a question about how she works with her steady clients.
Kira: You mentioned that you have some retainers, I believe. You’ve been writing content for a while, you feel like you’ve got the goods, how should we structure retainers when it’s content based? And we know that maybe they don’t need a white paper every month. What’s the best way to structure those retainers with content.
Sarah: And actually retainer was more of the spirit of the word because my experiments with retainers haven’t gone as well. I’ve had a lot of confusion about what to do or what the expectations were. So for me, it’s more when I look back on a relationship with a client for the past five years and we’ve done two blog posts every month for five years. In my mind, that’s my retainer, that’s my guaranteed work that I know is coming. My mistake for using the word.
Kira: Okay. But it sounds like you have those steady clients, you know what they need each month, you’re invoicing them each month based off what you’re actually doing.
Kira: Okay, cool.
Sarah: And I think that’s been a value I can bring in by having this diversified client mix is to really truly be able to scale each month. So one month they might need four, one month we might need to add a white paper, and I can jump to that. And then if they don’t need that, there’s not the pressure of a retainer to use that relationship. But just because I haven’t made retainers work, I’ve heard other people do great things with them.
Rob: Yeah. I was going to say for the retainers that you’ve tried, were there boundary issues, why haven’t they worked for you?
Sarah: Such an interesting question. I think I only formally tried it once, and it did become a boundaries thing. I felt more like that I was signing on to be a part-time employee, which is very much not what I’m interested in doing. I got assigned an internal email address, I started being added to things that I wasn’t a part of, that kind of thing. And so it found the line between expert freelance contractor and part-time helper got really blurred whenever I tried that.
Kira: And I know I read that you write leadership content, which can bleed into what you do with white papers. But what advice would you give for someone who’s writing that type of thought leadership content for a client or maybe just for their own brand and business as a copywriter, they’re trying to build their authority? What makes that work and what doesn’t work with that type of content?
Sarah: Thought leadership content is so interesting to me because you have to walk this really fine line of saying things that will resonate with people but also not just being an echo chamber for everything that’s already out there. To me, the best thought leadership starts with really deep conversations with whoever you’re writing on behalf of because they’re often going to have this perspective from having years in their career or just being in leadership of something that’s really unique but just a slight twist on how the world is happening right now. And I see this a lot in the language thought leadership is using. So people saying it’s the new normal and then getting upset that it’s not the new normal, it’s just a acceleration of what was. It almost feels like word banter on top of the internet, so it’s endless.
Rob: It seems to me that thought leadership content could be a massive opportunity for a lot of copywriters because when you think about who needs it, it’s C-level employees or vice-presidents, and they’ve already got so much stuff on their plate, there’s no way they’re going to sit down and … Especially because they’re not writers, take four or five hours to write out a blog post or create some content around that. So I don’t know if I really have a question here. But as far as seeking out that kind of content, would you recommend looking in BnB industries or at enterprise-level companies or is that a need across all industries? And how would you make those kinds of things?
Sarah: Yeah, I think so. I think often thought leadership for executives is going to be a marketing initiative. So someone in the marketing area of the business decided that that’s a really good move. I see that a lot in startups when they’re trying to have a really strong presence for the CEO and maybe even build the runway for being acquired or having their IPO. So looking for companies again that are really active with content and that are doing a lot of webinars and positioning their CEOs as experts is a great way to find companies that are going to be interested in that. So approaching those companies. For me, LinkedIn has been a really powerful tool to start those relationships. Focusing a lot on people who are already writing for the blog and then marketing managers who are really active.
Kira: So let’s talk about your business because it sounds like you’re doing so many things right, and you’ve got this great business. How do you approach business growth at this stage in your business where you’ve been at it since I think 2013? So how do you approach it now? How do you think about it when you’re thinking about growth? What does growth mean to you? I know I’m throwing a bunch of questions at you, you can answer whichever one works.
Sarah: That makes sense. I think the book Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port was really formative for me. So really everything I’m doing comes from that from 2013 and just this idea of creating a type of client that’s a red carpet client and you just know very clearly who you want to work with. And then following my gut with who makes me excited to work with them. So for me, that ends up being a lot of the HR tech space, higher education, digital marketing. Those are things that I’m endlessly curious about and I really want to learn more about. And I think that translates into when I’m prospecting or when I have a new referral come in, they can sense that energy.
Rob: I think this dovetails with what Kira was asking about how your business runs. You mentioned at the beginning as we started talking, capacity planning and how you’ve just started doing that in your business. Walk us through what that process is. How do you get stuff from the to-do list into your calendar? How do you figure out how much time you have for the stuff that you’re taking on? All of the things related to capacity planning.
Sarah: Yeah. I think it’s a whiplash from how I could work before I had kids to how I can work now. And I think it took me four years to realize that those numbers have changed a little bit. So I was signing up for the same workload and then suddenly feeling stressed and overwhelmed and working at nights weeks and weeks in a row. And I couldn’t figure it out for some reason. But because I’m so passionate about what I do and the workaholism thing, the solution was to work more and to work harder and feel stressed. I saw the results from that last year, I had my first 200K year, which I wouldn’t have thought was possible. But when you close your eyes and ignore everything but work, suddenly it happens. Once I realized that’s not sustainable for how I was doing it, it really was a wake up call to sit back and say, “How much am I actually signing up for? Am I being reasonable or gentle with myself? Am I protecting the goose?” as some people say with the golden goose. And I definitely wasn’t, so that was my priority this year.
Rob: How did he do it? How did you make that change? How can we do it?
Sarah: Yeah. It’s Ed Gandia, my coach, he has a great actual capacity planner. I’ve seen some pop-up on the internet, but it’s really a simple Excel spreadsheet or Google Excel spreadsheet. And so I’ll have it broken down by day. And I think the first revelation I had was that I was trying to fit six to eight creative hours of work in a day. It’s basically planning for the best case scenario every day of your life, which is not what happens when you have kids. So that wake up call made me realize, well, I actually spend two hours a day Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday on phone calls, I wasn’t accounting for that. So that’s a 10-hour day if I was not capacity planning, no wonder I’m tired. So first being able to put in this layer of I have admin and email and social for an hour and a half a day, then I have two hours of calls every day.
I really can only do two Pomodoros of creative work each day and then breaking that out over the next few months. So it was a process of setting up the spreadsheet and deciding to be accountable probably about six weeks ago, and then literally this week is when it kicked in. So this is the first week that I’ve had where I actually plan a reasonable amount of work, do I say no to assignments or I negotiate the start date because there’s too much on my plate already? And I’m not used to it because I’m still used to running on adrenaline, but I can see how even a month from now I’m just going to have a different life.
Rob: And as you go through the process, I know that this is the first week that’s really working for you. But how do you anticipate this will impact your income? Is it going to go down to adjust for a better lifestyle, is it going to stay the same? Is it even going to go up because it frees up more time for stuff?
Sarah: I’m still afraid of that actually, so I don’t know because I do only bill a project rate, and I’m very fast. But if I’m spacing out enough time to accomplish things without stress, I’m not sure how that’s going to turn out. So I think it still comes back to a leap of faith that if I stick to these principles that people I admire and trust are teaching that it’s going to work out in my favor. Also, there’s no alternative. It was this or what else is there to do? I can’t just work myself to death. I was trying, but again.
Kira: I’m just curious to, was there a moment where you just hit burnout with the previous capacity load or was it just a slow drain for you? What triggered you to make this change because it is a big change? It’s really scary, it’s hard for many of us to make these changes.
Sarah: I’d say all of the above. 2020 with the pandemic, so the people in the B2B space, it was an opposite story, and we had too much to do. There was just demand coming from every angle, and I think that’s why I had my best year. It was also the year I brought my husband home to be a stay at home parent in March just right before COVID hit. And things were going fairly smoothly, I felt I was going to get the bandwidth I needed to keep working and then he broke his leg, so he couldn’t walk for a month and a half.
Kira: You’re like, “This is not part of the plan, you are not supposed to break your leg.”
Sarah: Yeah. And that was the, okay, what, moment of my life. But it felt like in the Terminator when all the flesh burns away and you just see the skeleton. And I got to see how determined I was to make all this work, but I also got to see that I needed margin in everything I was doing. Because if he literally couldn’t walk, if anything happened to me and I’m the breadwinner as the freelancer, suddenly the stakes were just higher than I thought they were. So it was definitely just the spotlight shown down, and I had a revelation.
Rob: So you’ve shared a couple of things that you’ve struggled with in your business, what else hasn’t gone right? Over the eight years, this is maybe nine years of doing this kind of business, what else have you struggled with in addition to the two issues you’ve shared so far?
Sarah: This year and last year, so I had the fortune of reading Tara Mohr’s Playing Big and then taking Linda Perry’s Skill For Success course within three months of each other. And it really was like peeling back a layer and seeing all these mindset issues that I’d have. And I realized freelancing for me has always been a way to hide from people, I think. And the idea of being visible or being seen for what I do or what I know was very scary. So I wanted to go straight, I wanted to coordinate everything by email. Give me the assignment, I’ll write it. Send it back, it’s over, I’m free. So going through that process of realizing that to have a successful business you need to actually be a person interacting with other people and being known and seen and having these long-term relationships, I think that was really hard. So I’ve probably made the most progress on that in the past six months.
Kira: And have you done that, the whole visibility thing? What is the plan for that moving forward for you?
Sarah: So Linda is key, so I think following her podcast would be step one. But I think acknowledging things you’re afraid of and just making space for that in your brain and seeing that it’s not the dangerous thing that you think it is, I think these things grow in our mind and so they keep us from doing the things that we’re capable of. It really is just a lot of self-reflection and pausing before you do the thing that feels natural to you.
Rob: So this is a question I’ve asked of a few people. But as you’ve gone through this process, especially more recently, if you could go back 10 years to just starting out Sarah as a content writer, what advice would you give to yourself? I guess I’ll just leave it at that, what advice would you give yourself?
Sarah: The very first thing I would do 10 years ago is to lock down all of my finances and save up three months of a backup because the minute that I had financial security with what I was doing, it changed everything about who I would reach out to, what projects I would take, on how much work I took on at a time. So I went from needing to cash every check that I got as I made it, sometimes I needed it a few days earlier and it hadn’t arrived, to slowly having a monthly payroll. And then suddenly last year at the beginning of the year, I was able to have that reserve just the entire year to lean on. And I think that makes it a lot easier to feel legitimate like you’re paying your taxes and doing everything you’re supposed to do. But also not to jump on opportunities or overload yourself just because you need the money at the time.
Kira: That’s great advice. And can you talk a little bit about new revenue streams you’ve created more recently? I think it’s with your institute that you’ve built or maybe something else and what you’re building as you grow.
Sarah: My first side project was Life After Teaching. So I had a $7 ebook that I would try to target at teachers. And I learned a lot about what marketing is and why people buy and how to get the PNG of the buy button in the right color, you get that on the site. And over the years, I’ve always had something else happening on the side because I realize now I could never let go of that teaching bug. I am a writer, but I love to teach writing. So getting back to that was important. I had fivefigurewriter.com, which is I would do some webinars and some training. And then about two years ago, I realized what I was super passionate about was helping people get into B2B because it was such a mysterious and awkward process for me. Understanding what’s the difference between B2B and B2C, how to rate those main formats that are getting more popular now. Teaching that has been really rewarding.
So about two years into that with the B2B Writing Institute. And so that’s been courses, and then just yesterday we opened the membership pilot. So I’m really excited about that.
Kira: Can you give us the cliff notes version of the differences between writing for B2C and B2B? And I guess for anybody who maybe doesn’t recognize those abbreviations, it’s to consumers versus writing to businesses is the main difference.
Sarah: And it’s really interesting because the only thing you can find online about the difference is that there is no difference. So everybody’s really emphatic that it’s all for humans, so it should all be the same. And of course that’s true because the person on the other side of the computer is a human, but they’re motivated by completely different things. So to me, the difference between B2B and B2C is with B2B you’re really speaking to those human emotions. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from psychology, food, safety, psychological safety. But with business, with people representing businesses, Seth Godin has a much better hierarchy, which is the hierarchy of business needs. And so that starts with things like avoiding risk, avoiding hassle, gaining praise, making a profit. So these are the things that are on top of their mind.
So if you kick off an article to a CEO talking about creature comforts or personal things, you’re not engaging the right parts of their brain, they’re not going to be in the right context for reading the thing you’re writing about. So to me, it is a big difference between B2B and B2C with how you’re framing, what you’re talking about.
Kira: Very cool. Because you mentioned your membership, I’m just really interested to hear your process for launching a membership because we have our membership, we know other copywriters who are launching memberships. What does it take for you to get to this point, What’s the type of work that went into it in order to officially launch it?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s been a process. I’ve definitely had this vision in mind for two years, but I didn’t want to move too quickly and then have something I couldn’t deliver on because I really want this to have staying power. So for me, I’m watching really slowly. Yesterday was just a personal email to the 70 people who have already bought the course. We’re getting it started, if you want to come in for two months because that’s the price of the course. I wanted to give value back for people who invested in that really early. So this is just our pilot to make sure that what I’m providing is going to be something that’s really helpful.
Rob: I want to shift the conversation just a little bit again. You’ve written for some big publications. Can we talk a bit about pitching those kinds of writing opportunities? I know they’re not necessarily clients, but the pitch process is somewhat similar. How do you pitch in order to write for someone like Fast Company?
Sarah: So I cheated a bit there because I’m always inclined to let other people do the marketing for me when I can. And most of my access to those kinds of publications have been through the agency relationships or somebody who has already syndicated. So my clips in Fast Company, it’s not because I approached those editors and sent a pitch, but I’ve seen that process happen. It’s more that I’m working with companies who already have that relationship and it gets picked up every once in a while.
Kira: So let’s talk about what’s coming up next for you, launching the institute, getting people in there. What else are you really excited about over the next three to six months?
Sarah: The number one is more research in the B2B space because I see a lot of things happening in the industry where more people are using writers and more people are doing more content marketing. So seeing those behaviors from the side of the writer is going to be really interesting.
Rob: So that’s the end of our interview with Sarah Greesonbach. Before we go, I think we should touch on just one or two more things that Sarah mentioned. One of the things that stands out to me is always a good reminder about what Sarah was saying about boundaries. If you’re going to work on retainers, one of the drawbacks is that oftentimes your clients see you as almost an employee or somebody at least who’s going to be there to respond to their needs as they think they need responses. And having really firm established boundaries, things that maybe you’ve outlined in your contract or in your proposal and then sticking to them throughout the process and the process of working with you I think is really important.
Kira: Yes. And along with that just the planning that we already talked about, capacity planning, and Sarah has done that and started to plan given her business space to operate without always pushing everything to the limit. And so I think that’s just so important. And that comes up in so many conversations we’ve had with copywriters recently around not necessarily planning projects and just saying yes to most of them and then wondering why you’re stressed and late on a deadline. And so I think capacity planning is something that we could all do better. So that’s a big one. And also just asking yourself, how much am I signing up for? And this is always a struggle for me because I always tend to take on way more than I can handle. If you’re that type of person, just realizing that you need to be really clear with a system or some type of accountability system, whether it’s your team or business partner or friend or colleague who can question you and say, are you doing too much?
And I know that that’s something that we’ve talked about for TCC. Rob, the two of us, we come up with a lot of ideas, and sometimes we need someone to tell us, “No, don’t do that, you can only do three things at once. Stop trying to do everything at once.” There are people who can help you do that, whether it’s coaches or colleagues or friends.
Rob: Yeah. As we think about how do you raise your prices, how do you make more money in your business, capacity planning is a really important part of that. If you’ve got more time for doing work, then fill that time with the work. But once you fill up your capacity over the next couple of weeks, now you’ve got to start looking at your time differently. It’s like, you either need to charge more for i or you need to be doing different things with your time that you can earn more money from. So shifting your business to products or starting your own product or offering something different from just trading hours for copy. So understanding what the capacity is and how you’re filling it, knowing how you show up. Are you working intensely, are you wasting time during that is all really important. So things that we should be thinking about as we think, okay, how am I using my hours? Am I using them wisely? Should I be charging more for them? All of that comes down to capacity planning.
Kira: All right. We touched on B2B versus B2C. Anything you want to add about that?
Rob: It’s interesting because Sarah points out that the audiences are different. And there’s this idea out there that because you’re talking to people that they really aren’t that different. To me, there’s a tension between these two ideas because you are talking to people, and they do have the same needs as people have. But especially when you’re talking to enterprise level clients, these clients with really big budgets, they’re not spending their own money. And so some of the considerations are different. They need their boss’s approval, and so they may not be willing to try out things that push the limits, whatever those limits happen to be in the industry that you’re working in. So there are some pretty fundamental differences that you have to navigate. And I think as you start to work in a business to business type environment as opposed to business to consumer, you start to realize what some of those differences are.
And as you do that, you get more effective at it. You realize, okay, if somebody is spending corporate money instead of their personal money, maybe the objections changed just a little bit. So for your proposal, you’ve got to address different issues, things like helping a company grow as opposed to worrying about making the budget or a variety of things. And this might be something that would be worth talking about in a deeper level in The Copywriter Underground at some future point.
Kira: Okay, we will do a training on this topic, we will go deeper. All right, cool. And as we wrapped up, we talked about the creative workday. And Sarah shared that she realizes that she can only … Not only. She can fit two Pomodoros of creative work in a day. And just having that realization of what’s realistic when we speak about capacity planning. But I think just as creatives, we often forget that there is a capacity to our creative work every day. We are not creative machines, most of us aren’t creative machines where we could just start at 9:00 AM and work until 5:00 PM and just write creatively and write conversion copy and content all day and just churn it out. I think what’s popped up in a lot of conversations we’ve had with writers is this relief when they realize that other writers feel the same way and function in a similar way that we all do have a capacity. And maybe it’s an hour or three hours or five hours of creative work a day, it’s different for everyone, but that there is a cap to it.
And I think when we get into this profession of creative writing or any type of writing, we think that because we’re traditionally comfortable with more nine to five jobs that we should be writing from nine to five. And that’s where we get into this really vicious cycle of putting our clients first and working on their work all day and then wondering why we haven’t had time to work on our own business. But once you realize, like Sarah realized, well, I can only do two Pomodoros of creative work a day, it’s a really freeing moment because then you could start to focus the other time on business development and other areas of your business. And so for me, it’s been really freeing to know that I’m not the only one who hits a wall with creative work.
Rob: Yeah. I don’t have a lot to add to that other than to agree. For me, it’s the same thing. I can write really intensely for a couple of hours and then it trails off. And I have that same corporate mentality. It’s like, once I’m done writing, I feel like I should still be at my desk working. It’s very hard for me to pull myself away and say, “Well, maybe I should go work in the yard for a couple of hours. Maybe that will rejuvenate me and I can come back and do this.” So understanding what your creative limits are, how much time that you have to execute and do things really well and then balancing the rest of your day around it I think is … It’s something that we learn and get better at as we do more of it, but it’s something that we can all do better.
Kira: Okay. We want to thank Sarah Greesonbach for joining us to chat about her business. You can learn more about Sarah and the programs she offers for content writers by visiting b2bwritinginstitute.com or just stop by there to connect with her and ask a question or two.
Rob: That’s the end of this episode of The Copywriter Club podcast. Our intro music was composed by a copywriter and song writer Addison Rice. The outro was composed by copywriter and songwriter David Mutner. If you enjoyed what you heard, please visit Apple Podcasts to leave your review of the show. As Kara made me admit last week, I might just cry if you leave us a nice review. So if you want to see me cry, give it a shot.
Kira: I have never seen you cry, and I would like to see you cry.
Rob: All right. The gauntlet is down, the challenge has been thrown out. If you’re ready to invest in yourself, your copywriting business, and finally achieve your goals, visit copywriterthinktank.com. We’re accepting a few new members right now, so get your application in. Thanks for listening, we will see you next week.