Sue Bowness is our guest on the 319th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. Sue is a content writer and professor who helps her clients and students tell better stories through content. In this episode, she shares her insights on the content writing industry and how it’s changed over her two-decade long freelance career.
Tune in to find out:
- The real difference between being a business owner vs being an employee.
- The mindset reframe you need to take on when you decide to start your own business.
- Copywriting vs content writing… Are they the same?
- What is the true value of content writing and how do you position it to clients?
- How much can you actually charge for ONE blog post?
- Are you stuck on finding a niche? Try this.
- How can you make a boring topic tolerable to read?
- What does it take to run a profitable business for two decades?
- How to navigate trends and changes to your industry.
- How to be more productive as a full-time business owner?
- Creating multiple income streams to fulfill different passions.
- How joining the Think Tank helped her business and the power of being surrounded by high-level ambition.
- Are you writing your business emails the wrong way?
- Do you need a college degree to be a content writer?
- The skills that crossover with degrees and other business experience.
Check out the episode below or read the transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:
The Copywriter Think Tank
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
The Copywriter Underground
Free month of Brain.FM
James Turner’s episode (79)
Rob Marsh: We talk a lot about copy on this podcast. I mean, it’s in the name, The Copywriter Club Podcast. So over the past few years, we’ve spent hours talking about persuasion, and sales, and calls to action, and dozens of other copywriting strategies and tactics. We don’t often talk about content, although the last couple of episodes we have talked about content, but it is a really big part of the work that many copywriters do. So today’s guest on the podcast is content writer and strategist Sue Bowness. We asked Sue why more copywriters should take on content projects. We also talked with her about the things that she’s done that had the biggest impact on her business, how disciplined she is with her schedule, and a lot more. So stick around to hear what she had to share with us.
Before we do all of that though, this episode is sponsored by the Copywriter Underground. We recently rebuilt the entire back end of the underground to make it easier to find the training and resources that members of the underground have access to. Everything from creating the perfect proposal, which is one of the trainings in the Underground, to running a successful sales call, which is another training that’s in there, to more than 40 in-depth newsletters on topics like persuasion, overcoming objections, managing your time, getting more done. I’m barely scratching the surface here. There are monthly coaching calls, weekly copy critiques, and a fantastic group of supportive copywriters in our exclusive Facebook group. Check it all out at thecopywriterunderground.com.
And one more thing before we get to our interview with Sue. I feel like I’m going on and on here, but I need to introduce my guest host for the day, James Turner. James is a conversion copywriter, marketing collaborator who’s worked in SaaS, tech, and education and e-commerce and about, I don’t know, 50 other niches. I’m going to ask him about that in just a second. Once more, James is a friend going back six or seven years. At parties, I’ve called him my wingman as he introduces me around. He’s a bit of an extrovert, which is an exception around copywriters. Welcome back to the show, James.
James Turner: Hi Rob. Thanks. It’s great to be back.
Rob Marsh: And you don’t have a niche, right, or do you have a niche? I mean, you’ve worked in lots of niches.
James Turner: No, I remain nicheless.
Rob Marsh: Okay, you’re one of the few. We may have to sell you a program on choosing a niche or something someday. We’ll see.
James Turner: I’d buy that.
Rob Marsh: Okay, so let’s get to our interview with Sue and hear what she has to say about being a content writer.
Sue Bowness: I’ve actually wanted to be a writer since grade three, so that was exciting. I actually have my grade seven autobiography on my bookshelf over there and it says, “Wants to be a writer.” So I guess as I grew up it was like how do I actually make that happen, right? Because the writer that I wanted to be were the writers that I read as a child, right? Because I was always a big reader, and so I wanted to be like Gordon Korman, or Shel Silverstein, or Lois Lowry. And then I was like, but I need to make a living at this, and so how do I do that? And I became a big magazine reader when I was in high school, and so always liked those elements of writing. So I was like, how do I make this work? So I applied for an internship after I finished my bachelor’s degree in history in English, pretty typical story, where I could do the most reading in. I got my dream job through my dream internship at a general interest magazine here in Canada.
So the magazine, I was lucky enough for it to turn from a weekly, sorry, from monthly into a weekly. So we all got hired and then two years later, unfortunately, the magazine got folded and we all lost our jobs. So sad day, but at that point, I was starting to think, who are these freelancers coming in and out of our office who seem to write all the great stories and have this kind of lifestyle where they’re able to do a lot of writing? And what I wanted to do was a lot of writing. I didn’t want to go into another job where I would be still working my way up doing the kind of work that you do in entry local positions. I just wanted to be writing right away.
So I thought this freelance thing might be for me, and so I started writing in technology, mostly for magazines and newspapers. Started in tech because it was 2002 and that was sort of a boom time for that niche and there were lots of publications to write for. I’m naturally the person who likes to write, who likes to explore technology in terms of how it meets the consumer. I’m definitely not a programming person, but I understood enough about it to make a go of that one, and be naturally interested. Then over the years, I’ve added other niches and specialties. I moved into writing about entrepreneurship and careers. I’ve written about business, just things that are adjacent to technology or new places to explore.
Then when I went and got my Ph.D. in English, which I did following a successful master’s where I discovered that it was fun to research and explore about our early Canadian magazine history is what I wrote my master’s thesis on. I decided to, maybe now that I’m familiar with educational institutions to pitch them, and so that became my focus after that. So now I work a lot for higher ed. I do writing like blog content and still a lot of articles, journalism-type stuff only for alumni magazines and research magazines, that kind of thing, and use my interest in that kind of content to create content for readers outside of the university where I’m taking maybe an interesting science topic and translating it for the general reader. I feel passionate about that because I think there’s a lot of interesting research out there that the public doesn’t really know a lot about, and so it’s fun to get that information out there, get some recognition for the people who are doing this great research. I’m always after I do my stories, I’m thinking like, “I’m glad somebody’s looking into that.” And it’s such a great field I think for communicating that information.
I feel like what I brought with me though is always the storytelling and the journalism. That’s been at the heart of my writing. Even though I’m doing more content, less journalism now, it’s really thinking about how to tell those stories, and how to inform people out there. Then freelancing has stuck for me. This is actually my 20-year anniversary of being in business since 2002. So it’s just, really for me, worked as a lifestyle and I really like the freedom of it. I like to travel, so that’s allowed me to do that in the summertime, take time off when my editors are off and that kind of thing. I like the freedom of working from home. I’m disciplined to create my own schedule. So it’s all been a lot of fun.
A few years ago I was thinking, this might be my only job, and so how do I keep making it work? And that’s one of the reasons I joined the Think Tank, is how do I keep going with this, learn new tips and that kind of thing because I’d never been part of a formal group, even though I’d had freelancer friends and that kind of thing. I thought it would be fun to move that in a new direction.
Rob Marsh: So yeah, we’ve covered a lot of ground there. So I want to go back to where you started writing for these publications as you were starting your freelancing. First of all, how did you find your clients? And then a second question to that, is there a difference between finding clients that are publications versus finding clients who need content for blogs, case studies, that kind of thing? Do you pitch them differently? So anyway, two questions in one there.
Sue Bowness: Yeah, I guess the similarity in terms of pitching corporate clients, I call them corporate, even though I’m writing mostly for institutions and places that have publications, is that a magazine has a fairly strict format, right? You pitch a feature. If you’re pitching a feature for The New Yorker, it’s going to be a certain word length, it’s going to be certain topics that they cover and that kind of thing.
So there are those constraints there when you’re pitching for journalism as opposed to, there’s still I think constraints in corporate, like if they don’t have a blog they’re not likely to hire for a blog post, but they might be convinced to if you can convince them that it’s a good strategy. So I feel like whereas I’m pitching myself both when I’m pitching magazines or publications, I’m pitching myself and I’m pitching myself to corporate, as in my own experience and that kind of thing and my niche experience. I feel like there’s a lot more constraints with magazines. There’s a lot more, the pay rate is fairly set. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. With publications, they’re really focused on the story idea, right? So you’re trying to pitch a particular story, and you might be pitching it to a technology section, but you know that a certain kind of story is going to work. So you really focus on the story idea alongside yourself, whereas with pitching a client, you’re mostly pitching yourself, and your own expertise, and your past experience in the niche.
Kira Hug: So Sue, you shared your story, and not necessarily the timeline, but you’ve been in business as a writer for a couple decades, right? So I’m curious how you’ve had the lasting power, because a lot of the copywriters who we talk about in the show have been at it for a couple of years or maybe five years, but you’ve been able to do it and to maintain a living as a writer, which is such an aspiration. So what do you think that you’ve done over the last decade or two that has helped you create a lasting career as a writer?
Sue Bowness: I think tenacity. Trying to really be interested in making it work. So finding ways to shift and realizing that if I want to work in a certain way, I need to find the right niche, or work for the right clients or that kind of thing. I mean, it’s interesting because I tell my students there isn’t really a senior freelancer. There’s somebody with 20 years of experience, but one of my young students can leap over that with a great story idea, for example. So it’s both keeping it interesting for myself and then making sure that I am keeping it, I’m still being relevant to the audiences that I’m pitching. So it’s no longer, I would like to be writing 3000-word articles today, but that’s no longer what people are looking for. Or I’m interested in finding out what clients are looking for, what publications are looking for and paying attention to that.
I guess balancing between what I’m interested in writing and what the market is demanding kind of thing. I used to write book reviews quite a bit, and it’s not so much a big part of my business because it doesn’t pay all that well. So you have to accept that if you are wanting to write book reviews, it’s going to be for less or nothing these days and kind of adjust the way that you’re doing business to account for that. I think finding the balance of clients that allows you to do the kind of writing that you like to do is what has kept it interesting for me and to keep changing and trying new things. I started out in technology and then I got a little bored because I’d already written about all the tech stuff and could identify that there’s new markets.
For example, in 2002 when I was writing about technology, there were like three publications that I could write for. Even just locally, there was a big section in our national newspaper that just did technology case studies. That’s not the case anymore. In that newspaper, there isn’t a section called technology anymore. So I knew that I needed to find a new niche and just branch out my niches. I still take my old tech niche along with me because I still tend to be the writer who does the tech stories in whichever other niche I’m in, but just identifying like oh, a niche is closing, and then what other niches am I interested in? And then realizing which ones are helpful and where people need writing.
Kira Hug: I guess, how do you stay on top of those changes? I mean, part of it is just as a practitioner you’re witnessing those changes, but how do you recommend we get ahead of those changes so that as the landscape changes, we’re not surprised as a writer and like oh, I’m offering something that’s no longer relevant. How can we stay ahead of it?
Sue Bowness: I do a lot of reading of industry publications, and so I know what magazines are folding, and so therefore what might not be a great place to pitch or a direction to go in, that kind of thing. So I guess reading publications. I talk to people, I belong to a couple of professional associations in Canada and that helps to talk with other freelancers. Then I guess sometimes it’s hard to know what is the next thing. So I will experiment, for example, and try a niche and if it’s not working out, then realize that I’ll give myself some experiment time and say, let’s try this for six months, see if it works, and then pivot if it doesn’t work. There’s a niche that I really like writing in, which is careers, and there’s not that many publications about working, despite the fact that we’re all working for eight hours a day.
So I would love to be a full-time career journalist or freelancer, that kind of thing, but it’s not possible, right? So recognizing that I’ve written some on that, but I couldn’t make it my full-time job. So just I think rolling with it to understand what’s possible and then just keeping an eye on what kind of stuff is in demand and then deciding whether you want to be a part of that. I know social media is a lot in demand right now. I’ve decided actively that’s not something I’m offering as my frontline service. I’m focusing on content and long form. Even though I can do and do social media along with my articles for clients, it’s not something that I lead with. So just I think deciding both what works for you and then what is working in the marketplace.
Rob Marsh: So Sue, you love writing content. A lot of content writers, they get a few months under their belt, maybe a couple of years, and they start looking at the enticing field of sales copy and thinking, I’m done with blog posts, I’m done with case studies, I don’t want to write another ebook, I’m going to start writing sales pages or sales emails, but you haven’t done that. Help us understand why more of us should be writing blog posts or other content. What is the thing that has kept you doing that?
Sue Bowness: So that’s been one of my revelations of joining the Think Tank, is I’ve actually learned a lot about content, so I should say copywriting and conversion, all these new terms that I didn’t know before, funnel. I think it’s because I came from that journalism background where we were all concerned with the length of the story. So is it a 3000-word feature or is it a 100-word front-of-book thing? I totally understand how copywriters, because that form, writing emails, et cetera is close to sales, it’s a great way to make money while still being creative. But I think because where I’ve come from is content, I just really like finding the story and putting the words together in such a way that it makes something boring interesting. I’ve written about everything over the years and it’s fun to take something that people would imagine they would never read an article about and make it palatable for them to do that.
So I think that’s what I get out of it. I like interviewing, I like to put people at the center of the story, and I find no matter who you’re interviewing, and I mean, granted I do get a lot of interesting people recommended to me when I’m doing profiles and that kind of thing. They’re usually people who have accomplished a lot, but these kinds of things, even if you think you’re interviewing somebody who might not be that interesting, there’s always a story in there, and that’s what I’ve always liked about it. Doing that journalistic style of writing where you’re finding the story in it, and that story comes from people and you’re basically the reporter, the observer telling that story rather than dreaming it all up, as a copywriter might do. So yeah, I really like that reporter angle and I’m glad to be able to do it in content writing.
Kira Hug: So as a follow-up, why should more writers be excited, in your opinion, to write blogs and to write content? What are we missing that we should really get behind?
Sue Bowness: That’s a big question.
I think we need this movement for more content.
Sue Bowness: Yeah, I want to survey all of the copywriters and find out, because I am always raising my hand to offer to take everybody’s blog posts that they don’t want to write. I am genuinely perplexed because I think it’s because the content is not as immediate, immediately important to an organization for the sale or for the win and the results, right? Because I mean, even I have a hard time, I can’t always guarantee that having a monthly blog post is going to boost your revenue by X, but I can guarantee that it’s going to boost your authority if the blog post is interviewed by me and written in your voice like ghostwritten, or I can suggest that you’re going to be after a few of those blog posts established as an expert in your niche.
So I definitely strongly believe in the power of content to do all those things, to build your brand, and build authority and that kind of thing and to tell your stories. So what I think people are, I don’t know why people don’t want to tell stories. I don’t think that’s it because I’ve read some good email sequences that do tell stories and have a lot of personality in it. I think it could be even that I just like doing words less from me and more making someone else’s words look good. I am kind of the builder behind the scenes of the story, writing content, bringing in those interviews, and quotes, and research and that kind of thing and creating something journalistic.
Rob Marsh: Can we talk about the money that we make as content writers? What is a typical project for you? I think content sometimes gets this bad rap that everybody’s paying 50 or $75 for a blog post, or there’s all this competition in places like Upwork that drive the value down, and that’s not always true. So what could a competent, experienced content writer expect to earn from the kinds of projects that you work on?
Sue Bowness: Yeah, I think that’s another challenge actually and another point in favor of copywriters, if we’re keeping score, is that they get to do the more regular work sometimes with emails twice a month kind of thing is a great thing for a business. Whereas content, again, as I mentioned, it’s harder to make that value add. So I end up doing a lot of content that’s like a one-off article in an alumni research magazine, and that totally raises the profile of the institution. I will write a blog post or a series of blog posts, but they kind of come along at times when they need that kind of profile raising. That might be just in my niche, and I know it is just in my niche, not particularly selling in institutions, although they are trying to get people to enroll there. So there is an element of publicizing, but I think it’s possible to do content regularly.
I mean, my own goal is to keep pitching people who are interested in getting regular content for the reasons I mention, of education and profile and stuff like that. So I mean, I charge between 400 to 600 for blog posts. Most of those involve interviews because I mostly write blog posts that are authority building and tell the news of the organization. So maybe I charge a little bit higher for that extra work, but I think that’s worthwhile. I think that a strong blog post that really communicates what the people within the organization are interested in and their viewpoint I think is a stronger piece. Journalism just can be stronger as a way to convey things with quotes, and research and that kind of thing. So I do think it’s possible. It is a little bit less frequent and harder to find those kinds of frequent email campaign type clients, but they’re out there and I like writing for them.
Rob Marsh: When you’re charging that much, five, $600 per blog post, how much time is that taking you? Can you do five of these a week where somebody might take a week to do a sales page? So maybe the work is kind of comparable if you’re stacking enough or is it taking a couple of days to do that kind of a thing?
Sue Bowness: Well, it depends on the blog post. So if I did a one interview blog post and the interview takes an hour, and writing it up takes a couple of hours, and then an edit process takes an hour, it’s about four or five hours work kind of thing for a blog post, that’s a simpler one. If I’m doing something that’s more in depth or complex where I have to talk to two or three people, then it’s more and I charge more based on the length of time, the length of the post, that kind of thing. Most of my posts are around 800 words or so, six to 800. Yeah.
So it’s in terms of the time factor, I think you can fit in quite a few blog posts in a week, and mine tend to come along with other assignments. I’m working on a website here. I’m working on two blog posts, two alumni magazine articles. I’m just looking at my whiteboard. So I kind of fit them in that way and I’ll have maybe seven or eight clients at a time working on something for them. I have a couple, two or three retainers, and so work for them regularly. But then a lot of the other is regular repeat clients that are just in flux as they come.
Kira Hug: How do you juggle the workload, because seven to eight clients at a time is a lot, and juggle that along with pitching and looking for the next project, since some of those are not retainers? How do you break that down week to week?
Sue Bowness: Week to week I have my whiteboard that I’m looking at again. Then I have just regular organizational tools, like making sure to write down all my deadlines, and look at my week at the beginning of the week, figure out what is the deadlines for this week and prioritize those, of course. I do try to fit in some regular pitch time, but I actually about four times a year I will reach out to all of my past clients just with an email and that usually seeds my quarterly term with clients. As I’m following up with them more will come in, or somebody who didn’t get back to me right away might get back to me in a few weeks with a project, that kind of thing. So I’ve got a little stream of them going and then I always am on the lookout for new clients. Just like I mentioned with my overall career, I’ve been adding niches and clients. Same thing, I’m always experimenting with new client areas. So since I’ve been working on higher ed universities and colleges, I’ve also been lately reaching out to independent schools, private schools.
So that has been a nice new source of clients, which I am confident to say I’m qualified for because I both teach and also write for their higher ed counterparts. So once I am feeling like let’s try a new niche, then I’ll go and look up and create myself a little spreadsheet of the contact information and reach out to that new client base. Again, as with cold or warm outreach, there’s a small percentage of success, but I find that small percentage of success, plus you repeat clients, plus your retainers, all of that adds up to a decent living. Then yeah, I am just forgetful so I do use all my organizational tools as much as I can.
Rob Marsh: So I’m curious, if I were just starting out as a writer and I’m thinking okay, I’d like to dip my toes into content. You mentioned storytelling as part of it, but what makes good content? What’s your process for making sure that what you deliver at the end is really going to engage audiences, and build authority and all of the things that good content does?
Sue Bowness: I think what you just said in your question, think about the audience, right? Is it like who am I writing this for? And sometimes you’ll be able to know if you’re writing for a magazine, you can have clues as to who the audience is. So really dig down into reading all the past stories that have been written in this section or area that you’re writing about. Really thinking about the audience and then taking a look at, even if you’re writing for a corporate client, what are all their blog posts, past blog posts about structure, that kind of thing. So getting a sense of the rhythm. I also like to look at competitors and see what kinds of topics and approaches they’re taking and that kind of thing. So really understand a new client’s content landscape and then to think about new and interesting ways of covering that content.
So usually as I mentioned, I do like to think about how I can find a subject matter expert. So often that’s provided by the client that I’m working for. So if there’s somebody that I can interview, I’d much rather put the information and content in their mouths. So I’ll try to find somebody that I can interview on the topic. I find that makes for a much richer piece because there’s so much out there that’s recycled these days. If you look at any medical website, you’ll see the same copy over and over, and I feel like who is adding to the new content out there? Like creating this podcast right now, you’re adding to new content.
So I’m always trying to find the new source of content to add into my piece and then using that too. I do the usual outline structure, trying to think of what’s a great lead, all of the pieces of journalism. Trying to think of what’s an evocative opening that will pull the reader in. What kind of information do I need to include in order that the reader is on the same page and can understand the content fully? What are any new insights that my reader would be interested in and what are any kind of takeaways? Basically how can this piece of content make my reader’s life better? So whether it’s learning something, or a new viewpoint or that kind of thing to make a content piece that will stick out in their mind.
Kira Hug: So where do you go, where do you recommend we go to find those new sources of content?
Sue Bowness: In terms of what kinds of blogs should people look at or…
Kira Hug: Just like what can we do to enrich our content so that we know we’re pulling in new sources rather than just recycling and repurposing everything on the internet?
Sue Bowness: I just do a lot of reading pretty widely. So I look at a variety of magazines and newspapers. I subscribe old school to a good handful of magazines. And so I guess I’m constantly reading to look for new approaches, new ways of doing things. Yeah, so just keep reading and keep looking for inspiration and then look at crossover inspiration. I might read something in a trade magazine that would make a neat opening or lead for a general interest magazine or vice versa. I might see something on Instagram. I’m not on there as much as some people, but might see something on there that would inspire me as a way, as an approach to something. So I feel like there’s a lot of value in crossing over genres and getting inspiration from all sources.
Rob Marsh: All right, James, so let’s break in here. I’m curious, as you’ve been listening to the first half of this episode, what has stood out to you the most?
James Turner: Well, the very first thing that grabbed my attention was when she talked about how unfortunately her magazine folded and we lost all our jobs. And it sounds like she entered freelancing the same way I did.
Rob Marsh: And me too, by the way.
James Turner: Oh yeah. Nice.
Rob Marsh: Yeah.
James Turner: So I liked that, and it’s something that I’ve always kind of told people or brought up when people get worried about the security of what we’re doing. I really think that in so many ways, freelancing is more secure than putting all your eggs in one basket like that.
Rob Marsh: Yeah. Talk about that for a second. Why is it more secure?
James Turner: Well, I mean, assuming you don’t just have one client, although even if you do the odds of all of your clients firing you at once is probably, it’s very unlikely. Even if you do lose your only one client, the de facto position is I’m a person who finds clients and gets work. It’s not the same as being unemployed somehow. You’re employed in your business, you just don’t have clients right now. That’s a legitimate posture to be in versus saying you’re between jobs, which is really just code for oh geez, please give me a job.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, I like that reframing of it because it does often feel like while we are between clients it’s different from being unemployed or being without a job. It’s just I’m not quite successful yet and finding that next client or that next project. I think that observation goes along with just that whole idea that Sue was talking about of stretching out this thing that we do into a career, and making it last for decades, and doing it by staying on top of the changes that come to the industry that you work in or the trends that you see going on in marketing. As Sue was talking about that, it just kind of got me thinking about how do we do that. Do we follow people like trendhunter.com in order to see trends that are just overall general? How we focus oftentimes in our niches, and I think even as category experts, when we get to know a niche or even a client really, really well, we start to see things sometimes before our clients see them coming. If we’re doing our jobs right, we can help prepare them for changes, we can help suggest things that might help them get ahead of the curve. So I think looking at this as I’m not just here for a little while, but I am really here to become a subject matter expert, really serves our clients well.
James Turner: I totally agree. I really wish I could give you the proper attribution for this, but I just recently read the concept that becoming a marketer, or sorry, following down a niche specifically is becoming a master at answering one question, thinking of your niche as you are mastering. I know how to answer this question better than anyone else.
Rob Marsh: I think that’s really interesting because especially if you’re focused on a specific problem in your niche, it’s like hey, I fix retention, or I am the person who’s really good at onboarding sequences, or sales pages or whatever. The better you get at that thing, yeah, the more you can actually bring to the table for your clients. So I like the way you said that. I wish I knew who said it, actually.
James Turner: Yeah, me too. Sorry, it wasn’t me.
Rob Marsh: Whoever said it first, if they’re listening, they should let us know.
James Turner: That’s right.
Rob Marsh: Yeah. So Sue also talked a lot about the value of content. It’s kind of interesting because, and I know we’ve talked on the podcast a little bit recently about the salary survey that we’ve done a few years in a row, and there’s a recurring theme every year, content writers make less money than copywriters. I think there’s all kinds of reasons that that happens. The biggest one may be that it’s really oftentimes a challenge to tie revenue back to content. If it’s a case study or a white paper that somebody picks up and then they start engaging with a company and eventually they buy, sometimes without automated software like a HubSpot, or Marketo or something like that, it’s really difficult to sometimes tie that back. But that doesn’t mean that that content isn’t valuable, and it doesn’t mean that sometimes that content is the thing that sells people on you.
So as copywriters, we need to get better at drawing those lines for our clients, whether it’s by using automations and technology that helps establish those connections, or even just making some assumptions about sales funnels, numbers, who sees what and how many of those end up closing. We need to be asking our clients more about those numbers in order to be able to draw those lines really tightly in order, again, to charge more and to charge for the value that as content writers we create for our clients.
James Turner: Yeah, that’s a really good point. That connects back to that being the master of the answer to a question too. You know how to answer it, you know what to think about when you’re thinking about that question. I mean, I’m sure this has happened to you too, but I’ve often had times where I start out with a sort of discovery call and we realize that they’re not ready to start yet because they haven’t dug into those numbers or things aren’t set up to answer the questions in a way that would make what we do useful.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, agreed. What else stood out to you, James?
James Turner: It was kind of on the subject of content as opposed to copy. I thought it was interesting because I thought a lot of her perspectives on copy from the perspective of a content writer were similar to my perspectives on content from the perspective of a copywriter. I think they’re more alike than we think, I guess is what I’m saying. She made a mention instead of dreaming it all up like a copywriter might do, and I thought, “No, that’s not what copywriters do.” And she talked about how she likes to interview people and put people at the center of the story. And I’m like, “That’s what I do.” I try to interview customers, I try to use their words. It’s a person, it’s a reader, not the interviewee who’s at the center of this story, but it’s the same human based story centric mentality. So I thought that was interesting that she thought that that was something that was why she liked writing content.
Rob Marsh: It’s interesting too, and I know I’ve said this a few other times, either on the podcast, in our Facebook group, I think I might have had not really an argument, but a discussion with Sarah Greesonbach about this at one of our recent IRLs where we were talking about the difference between copy and content, and honestly, I don’t think there’s a difference. I think copywriting includes content writing and that content writers can write copy. I mean, I can see why some employers like to differentiate maybe because what we were talking about earlier, they can charge less for content or they can pay less for content than they do for copy. But when I started out my career in an ad agency, we didn’t have content writers and copywriters, we had copywriters and the copywriters wrote the packaging, and they wrote the website, and they wrote the brochures, and they wrote the end cap at the grocery store, and they wrote the menu, the paper menu at the restaurant. If it had copy on it, the copywriters wrote it.
Some of that copy was content, as we would define it today. Some of that copy was sales oriented, but to me it’s all copy. I think if you went back to some of the great copywriters of the past, the Ogilvys of the world, they would probably laugh at that division because ultimately content sells. It’s moving that relationship with the client forward in some way, it’s helping the brand establish itself. All of those things that content does are part of the sales funnel. It’s just like we were saying earlier, it’s just not as easy to draw that line to revenue.
James Turner: On that note, another thing that she said that I thought was interesting was she saw copy as the more regular work versus content. Whereas I’ve always thought, you write your website once and then you hire someone to write blogs for you regularly type-of-thing.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, I noticed the same thing. To me, content feels like there’s more ongoing opportunities. A sales page ought to work, once you dial it in, it could work for three, five years, or a sales sequence going out, as long as you’re sending it to new people, could easily work again for three or five years. Whereas to me it feels like content ages faster as well. Now, of course, case studies, white papers, those could also last for years. They’re definitely content that lasts, but yeah, I noticed the same thing. So maybe it’s just a case of the grass is always greener, whatever work you’re not doing. So one other thing that I want to touch base on is just that idea around good content. How do we create good content? And I think Sue shared a couple of really good ideas like trying to find an original take, trying to find the things that are new and interesting.
In addition to that, I think that writers can go deeper than what they see out there. So much of the content that appears in Google searches or whatever, it’s really light, it’s very surface level and it doesn’t go deep. Oftentimes the how isn’t explained, and oftentimes that’s because they’re trying to sell the how or the thing that does the how. But I think there’s so many opportunities for copywriters and content writers to create content that is new and interesting, or different or deeper than the typical five ways to write headline stuff that is just so old and just not even click-able anymore, if click-onable is even a word.
James Turner: It is now.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, it is now. So James, is there anything, when you’re writing, and you do some content as part of your work, what do you do to try to find the stuff that’s new and interesting?
James Turner: Well, I mean, going back to that interviewing thing, I think a lot of the best ideas for me come from following little things that someone said in an interview. You try and triangulate, try and find all the things that people have in common when you’re writing copy. But if I was here to write content, I think that’s where you’d look for the things that people had different from each other where you can see these little different perspectives on what problem led a person to do a thing, or what benefits they had to their life. I feel like that’s where you end up with a larger sort of set of ideas that you can play around with. And it’s kind of like spinoffs, right? You can write a spinoff for any character in the story if you want to. You just need to give them the focus time. So I think that’s kind of how I think about it. What are the sort of second tier set of bullet points that didn’t make it to the final, the podium, as it were? And all of those, any of those are rife, or posts, or blog posts, or social media posts or…
Rob Marsh: I like that. I feel like there’s a golden nugget in there that when writing for sales copy, you’re looking for all the commonalities. So you’re hitting the broadest market, but when you start looking at content, you’re looking for the differences. That’s probably an idea that should be a piece of content somewhere online.
James Turner: I’ll have to ask Sue to write it.
Rob Marsh: That’s right.
James Turner: Let’s get back into the interview with Sue and hear how she went from writing for tech to writing for higher ed.
Rob Marsh: You mentioned that you started out writing for tech and then kind of got bored with that and have moved into other niches. How have you decided on the niches that you’ve worked in? What was the thought process that led you to where you are today writing in higher ed?
Sue Bowness: Yeah, I think it’s always got to be something that I feel passion for and that also is practical. So that describes my personality in a nutshell. I will be really interested in something, but at the same time I’m realistic about what this world is like. I know that if I want to keep continuing with my first love, which is writing independently, then I can’t pick a niche. I always joke to my students, like crafting. I’m sure there’s somebody who’s in the crafting niche or in some tiny little niche who is doing amazing at it because that’s their passion. And yes, follow your passion. If it were up to me, I probably would be reviewing books all the time. That’s not how I can make a living. So for me it’s been identifying, I truly am interested in tech and knew a little bit more about it when I started out, because I had started out actually creating, as another part of my business, websites for other writers.
So I taught myself HTML and Notepad and then was working in Dreamweaver, like a web platform. As I was doing that, that made me interested. I’ve always been curious about how to figure things out. So that was sparking my interest there, and I identified in 2002 there were a lot of tech publications. So I thought, yeah, could I do this? Yes. And this is an area where I would be able to make money and then at the same time I wouldn’t be bored by writing these stories every day. With the careers niche, I thought it was interesting. I think I got my first gig at a magazine about careers, and I thought, “This is really interesting to write about this and explore it.” And so I was writing about careers for a couple of markets for a while and looking for other corporate clients, that kind of thing.
I try to identify a niche where there’s enough players in it to both write for publications and then also to write for corporate. In the case of the higher ed, I just really thought maybe at the point of finishing a PhD, my expertise and deep knowledge of the academic system, everything from teaching and pedagogy, to writing grants for myself made me understand what the academic process is like because I’d been immersed in that world for four years. So sort of pitched myself that way, but also because there was the opportunity for stories. Who else has a bunch of magazines that you can write for than academia, right? Where they’re trying to keep in touch with their alumni and share their research and stuff like that. So I saw it as an interesting niche to pursue for those reasons.
Kira Hug: Okay, so let’s say I just want to get started and I want to make money. Passion and interest is less important right now because I’m a new copywriter, new content writer. So out of the place, the spaces that you’ve worked in, what would you recommend today that’s more viable and just easier to jump into as a newer writer?
Sue Bowness: One niche that I think is really interesting and up and coming is gaming and esports. There never used to be reviews and sections on gaming in the newspaper, and now there is. Esports has really become an interesting big place to write about. So now there are places to write for in that space where there never was before. I think in the environment, I would say 10 years ago or even five years ago, there’s not that many environmental publications, now there are. So if that is something that you’re interested in writing about, whereas 10 years ago I would’ve said good luck with that. Now I think there are places to write for and there are even, so it fits both my criteria of are there publications, which to me suggests that there are people interested in reading about that topic. Publications being more online these days, but online or print. Then the other criteria being is there a corporate marketplace for it?
So in the case of climate change and environment, I think there is a lot of interest in businesses in becoming more sustainable and that kind of thing. So I think sustainability is a really interesting place if I were starting out as a writer today and I think topics that the right person can get behind. I know some students who are gamers and whereas 10 years ago I would’ve said good luck with that, today I’m like, yeah, get in there because I feel like it’s a niche that I see up and coming. I feel like even tech has, there’s a certain few more publications than there used to be five years ago working on tech, at least in Canada. So I think if you were the one who said, “You know what? I’m going to be the gaming person and I’m going to contact….” Make a list, like I do, make a spreadsheet of all of the gaming companies across Canada or across the States and just start reaching out to them. I think there’d be a career there.
Rob Marsh: Are there any bad niches or bad topics that you would want to avoid?
Sue Bowness: I feel like no. I think the bigger ones, the ones that come to us naturally, right? Like finance I think is, you can see there’s a lot of banks out there and they need to communicate on a regular basis. That’s always been an amazing niche to me. Healthcare has always been an amazing niche because there’s a ton of, again, organizations, not as much a ton of magazines, but a ton of organizations that serve that niche. So somebody who’s a healthcare or finance writer, I think they have a good diverse niche to work in. I always say jokingly that there’s nothing, there’s not a niche in handicrafts, or book reviews, or theater reviews are almost even worse. But at the same time, I feel like there’s that one person. I tell my students that I’m trying to not be a dream killer, and so if it is your absolute dream to work for and do theater writing all your whole life, there is one person in Canada who is a theater reviewer. There’s one person at the national newspaper. If you want to be that guy, then go be that guy, but just understand it’s going to be hard, right?
So I don’t think there are any bad niches if you’re determined enough, but I think you also have to be open minded enough. If I was totally determined to be a theater writer, and I might be at some point, I really like that niche. I really like going to the theater. I would look up all of the theaters across Canada and open my mind to not just writing theater reviews for newspapers, because I think that’s not a way to make a living, but maybe working on theater blogs for cool little theaters across Canada that could use more attention, or applying for an arts funding grant that will allow you to help a theater develop a communications plan. I think there’s lots of ways of doing that. You just have to be open-minded about how to move into these different niches. But yeah, if you want to make your life a little bit easier, choose a niche that is big and has a lot of client potential.
Kira Hug: So since we started working with you in the Think Tank, we’ve seen you really focus on your business development and just making so many improvements to your business. I’m just curious, how you approached it and what you prioritized? Because listeners might be able to think through kind of the same process, especially if they’ve been in business for a while.
Sue Bowness: Yeah. So I joined Think Tank because I was feeling stuck, and I am an overthinker and I can go round and around myself about the kinds of decisions and what to move ahead with next. So I thought it would be really helpful to finally talk to a coach after 20 years and get some perspective but be able to bounce my decisions off, and instead of bouncing off to the same few colleagues that I do who are basically having the same issues and that kind of thing. I know that you, Rob and Kira, have heard so many things and seen so many businesses, so benefiting from your experience of seeing what works and that kind of thing as well as your own experience as writers. I think that was what tipped me over the edge to join. Then I really liked when I joined the group, but just the high level ambition that I’ve seen in the group. Everybody being on the same interest of growing a business. Hey, if you’re at a 100K, why not grow to 200K? I love that ambition and that drive.
Then I think, in terms of my business, it’s helped me to get unstuck about some things. I’ve always been somebody who moves ahead and tries new things, but at the same time it’s just deciding which things to move ahead with and try out. One of the things that I moved ahead with was launching my feisty freelancer website, which is my teaching business. I have been a college teacher for 15 years and that’s been great, but I’d like to find out ways that I could possibly do it myself. So I started this exploration and experimentation of offering my own courses as a freelancer, and then I’m at the beginning of this exploration, so who knows what form it will take. I’d love to teach students who are newcomers to freelancing, and I’ve launched a course, the Feisty Freelancer Intensive to help students figure out this world of freelancing that I’ve been doing for 20 years and write their first assignment. So that’s one course that I’ve moved ahead with.
I’m open to exploring other opportunities, teaching people in corporate organizations how to be better content writers, that kind of thing. So it’s something that I had started off writing an ebook for my students in a course called the Feisty Freelancer, and I thought, what if I could do more with this brand? And so being in the Think Tank has helped me to move ahead with that and get some advice on how to launch a course and figure all that out. So I’m in the middle of it. It’s interesting to keep the experiment going.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, I love the brand Feisty Freelancer. I think it’s a great name and a lot of us could use more feisty, but tell us a little bit about what you teach in the course. Well, I mean, you’ve been teaching for a long time, so maybe it’s also what do you teach your college students, but what kinds of things do you cover when you’re talking about being that Feisty Freelancer?
Sue Bowness: Yeah, so in the Feisty Freelancer course I teach how to get you started with your business. Basically all the things that my students ask me when I’m teaching the course where I teach a freelance unit. So they all want to know how do I be a freelancer, how do I start out my business, how do I send a pitch? They are newcomers to this world and don’t know the world of magazines. They don’t know how to even pitch a client, don’t know how to figure out what the client needs and that kind of thing. So I review all that kind of business development, business startup kind of thing. How do I register a business? Do I need to charge any tax and that kind of thing? So all the basics of the business, and then also usually a writer needs to get some confidence through practicing that.
So in that freelancer course I have them develop an assignment, usually an article, and just start out from beginning to end. We go through everything from how do you create a great article, to how to work on your writing process, work on your time management, how to get things done through writing exercises and that kind of thing. So by the end of the course they have their first sample to pitch and then they also have some greater confidence and knowledge of that realm. It’s drawing on a lot of the skills that I’ve taught over the years, I’ve been teaching everything from writing different forms, from blogs to reports to… I used to teach a course on workplace writing, which is how to write good emails for interoffice emails, and which I think is a learned skill because it’s not natural. I learned a lot when I was learning to teach that course about how to write an email that’s clear and concise and that kind of thing.
So yeah, workplace writing, I think everybody could stand to be a better writer of just general workplace stuff like emails and reports and that kind of thing. So all that experience has been helpful to me as a writer. And then also trying to pass it along, especially the freelance stuff, to people who want to do what I do because I like doing it.
Kira Hug: Okay, so as a workplace writer, let’s say I have to send a memo to Rob. How can I communicate better with Rob as my coworker? Because I don’t think I’m always a great communicator. So what advice or tips would you give me?
Rob Marsh: This is going to be a really, really good answer, I think.
Sue Bowness: That surprises me, Kira, because I know you’re the email queen, but I think just clarity and organizing the information. The things that I learned was just to make a very specific subject line and one that would be opened. To use bullets, and white space and make your message very direct and clear. So I find I no longer write two paragraphs, I call it a wall of text emails. I write emails with a lot more spacing and a lot more line breaks and bullets where possible. I think you want to make… It’s the same thing as any kind of writing. If you’re writing marketing stuff, you want to make the call to action clear. What’s the call to action in your email? What’s the one thing you want the person to do? Maybe bold that and then they’ll actually pay attention to it.
Rob Marsh: So I imagine somebody listening might be thinking okay Sue, you’ve had success as this, but you’ve got a master’s degree and a PhD. What advice would you give to somebody who wants to do this, who maybe doesn’t have those advantages, maybe doesn’t even have a regular college degree, but still wants to succeed as a content writer? Is that educational credential even necessary?
Sue Bowness: I would say no. I started freelancing without any of those and I have done my business in tandem with getting my degrees. I would say those are not necessary for developing a career as a freelance writer, but some of the things do cross over. I would say actually it’s the soft skills, like the tenacity to get a PhD done. There’s a lot of effort and time at the desk there and I put the same effort and time at the desk into my business. So I think if you have the determination to keep going on something, I think it’s actually what made me a successful PhD, is I got through the degree in four years, which is unusual because that degree can sometimes expand and expand, and it’s because I was used to freelancing. I mean, I was running my business at a slightly scaled back capacity at the time, but my workday is nine-to-five and I’m at my desk by nine o’clock. That’s one of my almost always things that I do.
So when some of my fellow PhDs were struggling with those wide open days of creating the dissertation, I’m like, “What? We’re at work. We’re at nine-to-five and we’re working on our dissertations.” And then I produced a 300 page document and that’s how you can do it in two years kind-of-thing. But I think the skills that cross over are being able to make a plan, stay organized, and do the work to come up with that viable niche and then do the work to reach out to the clients that you want as your clients, as your dream and ideal clients. I think if you do that, and you’re persistent, and you have a little bit of a work ethic, and then that includes being willing to develop your writing, then that’s the way to create a writing business without any education at all.
Kira Hug: So you are a professor. You’ve been a professor for how many years?
Sue Bowness: 15.
Kira Hug: 15 years as a professor. So I just pretend to be a professor on the internet, but you are an actual professor. So what can you teach us, especially for anyone who’s in a teaching role, or a mentoring role, or a coaching role, what has helped you really improve your teaching skills over the years that we could pull from?
Sue Bowness: Well, I guess my biggest personal development has been to learn better public speaking. So I actually took Toastmasters even before I started teaching because I was and am a nervous public speaker. So improving and working on that, that has come over time in practice. I think that has helped me to be a better communicator in the classroom. One of the things I like about teaching is how creative it is. So it’s one thing to write a blog post, but how do you tell somebody how to write a blog post, right? So thinking about how to do it creatively, but also how to do it with… Have them do it, basically. So I use, to use some teaching jargon, the flip classroom approach where you’re trying to give them the reading first and then mostly in class you’re practicing the stuff. I find I try to never give an assignment that is not useful somewhere else.
So if I’m giving them an assignment, students assignment for practice, it’ll always be something that they could use, maybe put in their portfolio, maybe develop into an assignment kind of thing. I’m never going to create busy work for them. Had students come to class and say, “Oh, I got an opportunity to cover something outside of class as a journalist.” I’m like, “Go, what are you doing in my class? You should go and do that.” So I always try to make the stuff that they’re working on in class relevant, portfolio building, and then the skills development to create something that will be productive for them. Then I also think developing that sense of community where it can, in the classroom or online or that kind of thing, can be really helpful to people’s learning, being able to practice things themselves and then work on it in community and have that kind of support to share and show everybody what they can do.
Rob Marsh: So Sue, if you were able to go back 20 years to when you were just starting out as the writer or whatever, and could give yourself some advice, something to do differently, something to do better, what would you say to yourself?
Sue Bowness: Probably to even identify sooner what my ideal niches are and take even more writing courses. I’ve done a lot of DIY learning over the years, which has served me pretty well. I taught myself HTML. I’ve taken workshops on how to learn specific skills, but I think taking a class on social media development when it came, I think would be helpful. I think something I did right is finding ways to differentiate myself. So I used my HTML skills to get my first internship, that kind of thing. I try to continue to do that. If I find an area that is new to develop, try to figure out how I can get in there. But nowadays I do it more only if it suits me.
So social media has come up and other people are taking care of that, so I don’t always have to. So to be a little bit more focused, I think that’s one of my challenges, is always to figure out what is the thing that fits for me, and I don’t always have to do all the things. I think part of being in the Think Tank has made me think more about “content is my thing”. So now when somebody throws away the blog post, I’m like, “I’ll do the blog post.” And really embrace that.
Kira Hug: So as you’re moving forward in your business, you’re doing all these great things that you’ve shared with us. What are you most excited about at this point in your business?
Sue Bowness: I’m excited about leaning into content. I’d like to do more content strategy and help people figure out ways that content can help to improve their business. I just like moving ahead with the storytelling elements. I’d like to move ahead with figuring out how to make the Feisty Freelancer work and educate the next generation about that. I like writing long form to the point where I like writing books, like I did in my thesis. I did a ghost book a few years ago. I’d love to do another one of them. I’d like to figure out other ways to do long form content and just keep moving ahead with that. Finding new client pools that work for me and allow me to still do that kind of storytelling.
Kira Hug: Sue, are you ready for lightning round?
Sue Bowness: Oh, maybe.
Kira Hug: Okay. I want your best advice that you’d give to maybe some of your students to help them lean into the life of a writer so that they’re productive, so that they’re consistent, so they’re tenacious like you. Are there any best practices that you’ve learned over the years that could help us?
Sue Bowness: Nine-to-five. Get yourself a schedule. It doesn’t have to be nine-to-five, but whatever it is, try to check in at the same time every day. I’m pretty rigorous about my break schedule as well. I always take a lunch hour, half-hour I should say, and I always watch some TV during it so that I have a full breakaway and my mind is fresh when I come back at the end of the day, at the end of the break.
Kira Hug: An hour break, lunch break. That’s brilliant. Okay. I’m thinking of another lightning round. I just had a good one. You can tell it’s the end of the day because my mind is running wild at this point. Rob, other lightning round question. What is something fast? All my questions I think are going to be lengthy.
Rob Marsh: So what do you like to sit down with? You’ve got your cuppa at the end of the day, you’re relaxing. What are you turning on Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or what are you watching?
Kira Hug: I thought you said what are you drinking?
Rob Marsh: Yeah, no, not what are you drinking. I want to know what you’re watching.
Sue Bowness: Oh, I am a 35 year Coronation Street watcher. So that’s my daily dose. If it’s not that, it’s something on Netflix.
Kira Hug: Okay. All right. Last question for lightning round that you’ve been such a good sport about. What does the future of copywriting and content writing look like? Or if you just want to lean into content writing, that’s fine, but what does the future of writing look like for all of us?
Sue Bowness: Wow, that’s a big lightning-round question. I hope it’s great. I mean, I always tell my students, yeah, I’m sad that maybe magazines and newspapers aren’t doing that well these days, but our use of text has exploded, right? The written word is everywhere now, and thanks to text and thanks to email and that, thanks to newsletters. I’m excited to see what’s coming next. I think I see all these things rising and I’m always cheering for new types of content, new ways of creating and that kind of thing. So I think it’s pretty bright that way, and cheers to the experimenters and I hope to experiment myself with new ways and try to get in on them if I can.
Rob Marsh: I like it. So Sue, if somebody wants to connect with you, get to know you, hop on your list, check out Feisty Freelancer, any of those things, where should they go?
Sue Bowness: Great. Yes. My business is CodeWord Communications. I’m online at codeword.ca. That’s ca for Canada. That’s where I am. And my Feisty Freelancer is feistyfreelancer.com. If you want to go and check those out, I would be happy to hear from you.
Kira Hug: And you are definitely one of the more tenacious writers I know. When I think of tenacious, I definitely think of you, just evolving in your business, experimenting, testing, and continuing to challenge yourself to grow in your career. I think it’s really inspiring. So thank you Sue for being a part of this podcast and giving us your time today.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, thanks Sue. That’s the end of our interview with Sue Bowness. So one thing that stood out to me, James, as I was listening back through the second half of this interview, was that first her example, Esports and gaming and how that has become this opportunity. As I was listening to that, I’m like, I can’t think of anything I want to write about less than esports and gaming. So I guess it’s good that there’s an opportunity out there for other people who love that stuff. I mean, it’s not that I don’t even love gaming or whatever, but it’s so off my radar, but it shows there’s this massive opportunity of niches and things to write about out there in the world that, I mean, there’s so much work out there and so much opportunity to succeed. If you can succeed as a content writer about Esports, it feels like you can succeed as a writer about anything.
James Turner: Yeah, that’s fair. I think it’s also nice for everyone listening to know that there’s a niche where you don’t have to go toe to toe with Rob Marsh.
Rob Marsh: That’s right, yeah, or I guess James Turner
James Turner: No, certainly not for me either.
Rob Marsh: Yeah.
James Turner: We’re too old, Rob. We’re just too old.
Rob Marsh: Yeah. But it is gratifying to know that if that’s your thing, there’s so much stuff out there. I know I’m kind of harping a little bit on esports and gaming, but I would feel the same thing about aeronautics or automotive-type writing, that’s not for me either. So just leaning into the things that you’re interested in, the problems that you can solve for clients. There’s just a million opportunities out there, so anybody listening should go after the one they want.
James Turner: Absolutely. I really liked how she talked about choosing a niche. So Sue writes in her niche of, well, specifically academia, which she’s a member of, she’s in that world. So write-what-you-know kind of idea. But I liked how she talked about choosing a niche that you were passionate about, but that was also practical. I think that Venn diagram, things I care about and things that people might hire me to do. I also really liked that she did give the shout-out to the fact that if you want to be the one person who dominates the crafting scene or the theater review, get that one job being the theater reviewer, then go for it, but just know that it’ll be harder.
Rob Marsh: That’s smart. I mean, somebody has to be the theater reviewer, right? But there’s only one body, at least for a specific period of time. So I asked Sue about credentials and do you need to go, kind of knowing that the answer is no, but I think I really want to emphasize this. There are people who are succeeding as copywriters who didn’t graduate from high school and who are doing incredibly well. The credentials that you need aren’t courses, even though we sell some courses, they’re not masterminds, even though we have a mastermind and it can help, but it’s the ability to solve a problem. Sue does a really good job solving this content problem that her higher ed clients have, communicating what’s going on at the universities with the various audiences that they have in order to increase donations, and bring back students and all of the things that they do. She’s really good at that, but we as copywriters, content writers, the more dialed in we can, like you were saying earlier, that one question, that one problem that you solve makes all the difference. That’s the credential you need.
Having said that, she also talked about getting input from when we were talking a little bit about the Think Tank and getting input from somebody who can see your business differently. That’s a little bit different from courses, masterminds, that kind of thing. But there comes a time when yeah, you know how to solve the problem, you know how to run a practical business, but somebody else can come in and help you identify places where you can improve, things you can do differently, things that you can do better, and that’s always or almost always a good thing to be looking for in your business. Sometimes you have to pay for that, sometimes it comes from a friendship, or a contact or whatever, but having somebody who can give you that aid from time to time, it’s a complete difference maker in a business.
James Turner: Totally agree. I made that note as well, just join a group. Joining a group where she talked about being in a group of people with high level ambition, and that’s so it. I remember my time in the Think Tank being just wowed by some of the people around me and being like, “Okay, that’s what’s possible.” There’s nothing stopping me from pursuing something as big and audacious as what that person on the other side of the room is doing, because they’re just like me. They’re just here in this group.
Rob Marsh: I mean, you and I met in a group like that.
James Turner: We did.
Rob Marsh: I mean, in some ways we’re not all together, but there are a few people who reach out and talk and chat occasionally. I pop in there occasionally, but again, it’s a game changer to see other people’s businesses or to get that kind of feedback from a coach. When we were together with Joanna, it was the same exact kind of thing, where they say, “You know, what you need to be doing differently is this, or here’s three things that you might try if you’re not succeeding at that.” Yeah, again, it’s a game changer.
James Turner: Definitely. There was one other thing that I thought was really important and I think it needs surfacing, is the idea of having more than one income stream, which is separate from being a freelancer I think, which we talked about before. But I think it’s worth noticing that she’s also a professor, right? For 15 years of the 20 years that she’s also been a freelancer and she’s got a course. So I think it’s something that I’ve noticed that benefits me is just having… I co-run SNAP Copy with Lianna, and then I have Turner Creative on my own, and it’s nice having more than one place where your livelihood comes from and smart. I think that’s something to think about. How can you diversify your income?
Rob Marsh: Yeah, and I mean, I know a lot of people, they get into copywriting and within a couple of years they’re like, “How do I stop working with clients?” To me, that feels a little shortsighted. I mean, sure, there are bad clients out there, but if you move all of your business into something like courses or some kind of a product, if the demand for that trails off, you’ve given up this other potential income source, which is client work, and you kind of have to rebuild that pipeline. So even if people are thinking, “Okay, I want to do less client work.” I think like you’re suggesting, having a couple of different income streams, different clients for sure, but maybe you have some kind of a product that you sell, maybe you have a position teaching. I know there are a lot of online professorships that are out there. I actually did that for a couple of years at one point and wasn’t a massive boost to my income, but it was a great experience and it was another income stream that was bringing some money into my business.
Of course, there are all kinds of non-copywriting, non-marketing things that you can do as well, owning property and investments, that kind of thing. But something that most copywriters ought to be doing more of and not completely banking on a single source of income and support for your business. So Kira asked about improvements. What improvements that Sue had made, and that got me thinking, James, what is the biggest change that you’ve made in your business that delivered the biggest impact? And oh, Sue shared what she thought. I’m curious about the biggest change in your business.
James Turner: The biggest change in my business was moving into retainers and trying to make that the way you work with me as opposed to projects. I’ve had the same great retainer client or anchor client, sometimes people refer to them as anchor clients, for I can’t remember if it’s four or five years, but it’s one of those two. We started off with a couple of projects and then a need arose and I was the guy to take it and have been the guy ever since. So I write a lot of their email campaigns when they come up, and if they have a webinar I do all the copy around that, and I’m involved in the strategy side, and I’ll end up reviewing content stuff and it’s really cool because we’re just developing this relationship and I’m becoming a subject matter expert of their company and having stable income. Knowing what I’m going to make as a minimum each month is just great.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, having that baseline I think can be freeing in a lot of ways. You lose a lot of the stress of okay, am I going to land three clients this month? We’re going to have to have you come back and talk about that because a five-year client, four, five-year client, whichever one it is, like that’s something else. Maybe at some point, James, we can have you talk about retainers, how you make them work, and of course what’s changed in your business since the last time we chatted, which was a long time ago.
James Turner: Long time ago, yeah.
Rob Marsh: Before we wrap, I do want to just point at one other thing. I loved Sue’s rigor around time, the time she works and the breaks that she takes. I am so undisciplined when it comes to this kind of stuff, and usually, it’s driven by like oh, there’s a podcast, or there’s another meeting at noon or whatever. So I end up eating lunch for over 15 or 20 minutes at two o’clock in the afternoon or working past five just because nobody else is home yet. I admire what she’s doing. I totally get how that can benefit us and it’s a good reminder to me to maybe be a little bit more disciplined about that. We don’t take smoke breaks much anymore, the 10:15 or 3:15, whatever, but maybe building in some of that time to just walk around the yard or up the street or whatever would be helpful. So I’m thinking more about doing some of that.
James Turner: I recommend it.
Rob Marsh: Yeah. I mean, you live in the country where walking to the end of the road is a bit of a hike, so.
James Turner: Yeah, well it’s not quite like that, but it’s a nice walk.
Rob Marsh: We want to thank Sue Bowness for joining us on the podcast today. If you want to connect with Sue, you can find her at www.codeword.ca, which we’ll also link to in the show notes. And you can learn more about her Feisty Freelancer course at feistyfreelancer.com. Like I said in the interview, I love that name. I think it’s a fun name.
If you want to listen to another episode where we dive into content writing, check out episode number 244 with Sarah Greesonbach. I mentioned my disagreement with her earlier, or episode number 227 with Jacob McMillen. Both of those interviews share a lot about how to make a really good living of writing content. Of course, check out the episode featuring my co-host today, James Turner. That was episode number 79, and that was quite a long time ago, James, so we’re definitely going to have to bring you back.
James Turner: I’d love to be back. And that’s the end of this episode of The Copywriter Club podcast. The intro music was composed by copywriter and songwriter Addison Rice. The outro music was composed by copywriter and songwriter David Muntner. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard, please visit Apple Podcast to leave your review of the show. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.