In this episode, we meet Sharon Hurley Hall. Sharon is a freelance writer, focusing most of her time writing for the OptinMonster blog. A recent testimonial describes Sharon as "a tech nut who writes some of the best blog posts about topics the rest of us wouldn't touch with a barge pole". Sharon says she has a geeky side and loves making technical topics understandable. She holds DigitalMarketer certifications in content marketing, email marketing and optimization & testing..
Benjamin Dell: Welcome to the Master of Letters podcast where CEOs, marketers and consultants share their tactics and activities that are driving traffic to their sites and helping them engage with their audience. If you want to learn what's working for others right now, so that you can grow your own business then you've come to the right place. I'm your host, Benjamin Dell and here's today's episode.
Hello everyone – today we have Sharon Hurley Hall. Sharon is a freelance writer, focusing most of her time writing for the OptinMonster blog. A recent testimonial describes Sharon as a tech nut who writes some of the best blog posts about topics the rest of us wouldn't touch with a barge pole. Sharon says she has a geeky side, which I love, and loves making technical topics understandable. She holds digital marketer certifications in content marketing, email marketing, and optimization and testing. Sharon, pleasure to have you here. Thank you so much.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Thanks so much Ben, happy to be here.
Benjamin Dell: Perfect. I should start off by saying in disclosure that not only are you a Missinglettr customer, but you have also published a couple of guest posts for us on our blog. So we've known each other for a couple of years now albeit we've never seen each other. So it's an interesting meet for us as well. And it's lovely to put a face to the name.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Likewise!
Benjamin Dell: Should we just kick things off? And I've already mentioned that you're a freelance writer, you're a consultant in that sort of sense. Just tell us a bit about your business model. How do you make money? For those listening, they might just assume that as a freelance writer, you're just simply paid for words or characters and you're sort of going out there and being paid by the article. Maybe that is what you're doing but it'd be wonderful to hear how you're set up and what your revenue model is.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Well, it varies a bit because there are cases in which I get paid by the article or for a series of articles. And there have been other cases where I am on retainer because they might want me to do slightly different things. So for example, a couple of years ago, I worked for a big client in the tech space. I did case studies for them where I interviewed people and wrote them up. So they ended up with a written piece, a short written piece, a longer written piece, a video piece, you know, so it was a variety of stuff that wasn't just writing. And that was a retainer basis that lasted for more than a year. So I've done both things.
Benjamin Dell: If you could choose one? I mean, I guess the answer is that a retainer gives you that peace of mind I suppose.
Sharon Hurley Hall: It gives you peace of mind, doing it on retainer, you know, but it’s a balance. Actually I think as a freelancer, having lots of clients enables me to maintain my interests because like many writers have a polymath. I'm interested in a lot of things and therefore it's good to work for wide range of clients writing about different things, whoever you are. If you're tied down with too many retainers, then that limits your available time. So for me a good balance would be 50/50.
Benjamin Dell: Yeah. It's a really good point because as a creative you don't want to be, you know, focused on one subject matter or one industry or one corner of that industry and the wrong retainer that's too large or too many of them would put you in that position. So yes, it's an interesting balance that if the overall desire here is to write and enjoy the writing process, you definitely want to not be too strict with the retainers there. Interesting.
We were talking beforehand actually, and I was almost slapping myself on the wrist for asking this. It was on the question around, do you have any staff and do you have anyone that works with you? And I was thinking why would you if you're a pure writer. But actually you said you do from time to time, they're not on your full-time staff, but you have them available, which I think is really interesting. So tell us a bit more about that.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Yeah. Well, how that's come about really is that, you know, I'm a member of several writers groups. I know lots of writers, they're writers that I respect, whom I know can deliver the same quality of work. As you know, as a freelancer, you have ebbs and flows and every now and then you get to the point where you have slightly too much on your plate, but you know, I don't want to let down any clients and I'm very upfront about this. You know my contract, and any communications say that I will or one of my team will be handling the writing.
I know, and sometimes people know there's a trade-off between whether they want to have something quickly, in which case I might need to partly farm it out or whether they want to wait for me to do it for them, because usually I'm pretty booked up. So I have, I would say maybe three or four writers that I go to for different topics.
You know there are a couple of topics I get asked to write about that are not really in my wheelhouse. So for example, a few years ago, someone wanted me to do beauty tips, which is not really my thing. I mean nobody who knows me online knows me for that. Okay. But I said, I'm going to get someone I know someone who's an expert. I'm going to ask that person to write the article. I will vet it and make sure that it's SEO friendly and so on, but they'll write the content because they're the expert. And then I've got someone who is very good on WordPress, for example, which I am also comfortable writing about, but every now and then I've got too much on my plate. I'd say three or four trusted names that I've worked with over the years and anytime I've got slightly too much, I say, okay, can you do this? And everybody's happy.
Benjamin Dell: That's interesting. I'm curious now. So is there an underlying strategy here? So when you pass it off and you manage that process, when you're over capacity and you pass it over to one of your writers, is that purely for necessity sake or is there actually a bigger ambition here to manage, to do that more frequently and actually have a team you write less and less and you manage that team and still have the editorial oversight and control. Or is that really not? You don't want that desk job. You still want to be sort of in the thick of it.
Sharon Hurley Hall: I've actually done that and realized that I prefer writing. I did several years, probably about three years into writing online I managed the team for about a year and I realized I didn't want to do that full time because I was doing less writing and more management; and I enjoyed the writing. From a business point of view it makes sense because I get a referral fee when I pass on work which is enough to cover the time that I spent in looking into it before sending onto my ultimate client. It also means that I get to retain a client as my client so that at another time when things are slower, I can do the work myself.
Benjamin Dell: And it's sustainable, I suppose which has a benefit.
Sharon Hurley Hall: It makes for a more stable business.
Benjamin Dell: But if it's not, if it's at loggerheads with what you actually get deriving enjoyment from a pure sort of work aspect then it's always going to be in conflict, I suppose. Interesting. Okay.
So what I usually like to do is talk numbers just to sort of help contextualize. We know a bit about the business now and how you're set up. And I generally then like to talk a bit about the numbers, either revenue or monthly traffic, and then what sort of conversion rates we're looking at. But in your world, you're producing the traffic somewhat for someone else through your writing. So I suspect you don't know what sort of traffic we're getting, maybe you do. What can you give you in terms of numbers? Anything you can throw at me?
Sharon Hurley Hall: I don't know a lot. I know that one of my recent clients said that within the space of a year of traffic had doubled as a result of the content that I was writing. I don't know where it started but suffice it to say it's a well-known blog. And I was pretty happy with that report. I've had clients report to me that a particular email subject line that was the title of one of my articles got the highest open rate they’ve ever had within a particular period. And of course there's sort of slightly vanity metrics like social shares and so on. As you know, my work has been shared thousands of times. I don't know what that really means in a practical sense other than that in some cases I've written content that people find useful and they continue to share it.
I do from the point of view of my own business, what I can say is that the content that I write for other people keeps clients coming to me. So people will see my work on a blog like OptinMonster, Crazy Egg, Search Engine People or Missinglettr and say, okay, can you write stuff like that for me?
Benjamin Dell: So this was going to lead me on to the next question around how you, your business, your business model itself, how you find business? Is it pure referral or do you actually create your own content on your own sites and then use that as sort of like a magnet as well?
Sharon Hurley Hall: I create some content on my own site because I practice what I preach every writer should have a blog, but I don't post as regularly as when I first started because I write for so many other people and my name is on the work so that's marketing me all the time. What I do is I use tools like Buffer and Missinglettr to share my work regularly. You know, if I've got work coming out there every day and people can see that I'm there, I'm published, then they find me.
Benjamin Dell: Yeah. That's nice. So although you do have a site or a blog and you write on there, though less frequently, you're actually proactively trying to maximize the effectiveness and engagement for each of those guest posts that you created.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Exactly!
Benjamin Dell: Yeah, that makes sense. Okay, cool. Let's just drill into the content mark or the blogging writing side of it specifically now. So it sounds like your blog focused in terms of the long form, or the medium that you write for your customers. Do you do anything else in terms of medium? Do you do blogs and eBooks or anything else?
Sharon Hurley Hall: I've done eBooks, you know, sort of short lead magnet eBooks and longer eBooks. I have done long form content. I did for OptinMonster a couple of months ago, I did an SEO guide which was about 8,000 words. I've done white papers on things like WordPress security and other things. I kind of get off on research.
Benjamin Dell: Wow. I like it. That's cool. We've actually got some research opportunities coming up, so we might have to chat offline after this. That's really interesting. Do you have a preferred medium, if you have to just work with one?
Sharon Hurley Hall: I don't want to be tied down to one, but I love blogging. I kind of fell in love with blogging when I first wrote a blog post about 12, 13 years ago. And you know I like the variety because blogging isn't just one thing, is it? Blogging can be a really short almost newsy piece. And it can be something really long and in depth. My background is in journalism, so I'm quite comfortable doing new stuff, style stuff, feature style stuff, or anything in between.
Benjamin Dell: So you've obviously written a lot of content for a number of customers, some of them high profile. Crazy Egg, I know from a content marketing standpoint that they've always been at the top of their game there. So you must have seen a lot of what works and what doesn't. Just tell me something about what you've seen works really, really well. Just give me a sense as to a style of writing or a type of title or length of posts, something that you can just sort of throw to our audience and say, hey I've seen this work really well.
Sharon Hurley Hall: I've seen things change over the last several years. It started out that articles used to be really short. Now they tend to be a bit longer, but you still have to almost incorporate a shorter piece into the longer piece. So for the people that don't read very much, you have to really get that stuff that you know, right there in the beginning; they need to know what the payoff is in the title, in your introduction. What I've also seen is that telling a story and relating it to people's everyday experience really helps draw people into the piece. Again, I don't think that is new, you know, I mean, people have been doing that since the base of Chaucer. I mean, it's not new, it's just that we're thinking about it more intentionally now.
Benjamin Dell: Yeah. And in times where a market is arguably saturated and crowded, you know, 91% of businesses blog these days, it forces you in a way to actually come back to the basics, I think because if you're not, you're just going to get lost in the sea. Get the basics right, don’t have click baity titles, research things properly, get a bit of personality into there as you say, and make it a bit more sort of a social thing.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Yes, because your personality is the thing that separates you from the rest, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of bloggers out there, but I'm not you and you're not me. So when we tell a story, even if we had the same experience and we told the story about it, we tell it differently. And that's what I think people relate to.
Benjamin Dell: I don't know why this just jumped in my head. What's the strangest thing that you've been asked to do when writing a post in terms of what you should be trying to get the reader to do as a result of it; for example, encouraging them somehow to subscribe to a newsletter or some sort of call to action. Have you ever had specific sort of requirements like that?
Sharon Hurley Hall: Yes. When you blog for business, people often want you to include a call to action either to a point to a feature page or to some sort of resource they're giving away. I don't know that any of them particularly strange, just that you have to keep that business focus in mind. So in a sense as a freelancer, as a writer, as a blogger, you're balancing a number of priorities, both in terms of giving readers what they want, but also in terms of making sure there's a potential payoff for the businesses that are publishing that post.
Benjamin Dell: So you've never felt compromised? I mean, cause I'm just thinking I'm not a natural writer. I don't think I'm bad at it but I have to sit down and really, you know, block out the room and really sort of focus on it. And it's hard. It's hard enough when I know what I'm trying to write so I just imagine that if you're given a topic, but then you're also sort of told that you must make sure it does these things, it's this sort of length, it mentions these key words at least three times and it encourages you to click this link. It must from time to time, but it just adds that extra dimension I suspect, but maybe you’re too seasoned a professional to even be flinched by these challenges.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Writing is a discipline and I write practically every day. So what I found is every time you do something new, it takes you a little while to get into it. I'm actually really happy that these days it's not use the P word 20 times. That used to be quite difficult. Now it's a question of okay get it in the title, get it in the first paragraph, mention variations throughout so you can actually write naturally, which is what I prefer doing. So when you go back and edit you might say ‘Oh shoot, I forgot to put this in’ and you go back and you've tweaked something slightly. But I prefer to write it naturally so it has that flow, while keeping in mind where I'm supposed to be going with it, but not letting it straight jacket me.
Benjamin Dell: Interesting. So you write yourself and you write for other businesses as well. What sort of frequency are you talking about here? How often are you having to write? I mean, obviously you're writing every day, as you say, it's part of the discipline. Presumably you've got content that spans over multiple days as you're researching and writing. And so on a typical week or month, how often are you publishing content for various people?
Sharon Hurley Hall: Well I'm probably submitting content three to five times a week for different publications. There have been weeks where there's more depending on the length of content. There have been weeks where I might spend an entire week working on an in-depth white paper, for example. So there's a variety. I can't say there's an average, it depends on who I'm writing for. So over the course of a typical month, I might do say three posts for the OptinMonster blog, I might do a post for the Search Engine People and I might submit a post to Contently you know, I'll do something for my blog. Then I'll work on something that's in more depth. So last in the last two weeks I have done one, two, three, four, five, six articles, I think.
Benjamin Dell: Okay. That's healthy. And how often do you get creative block?
Sharon Hurley Hall: I don't allow it to take over; deadlines are sacrosanct. And as I was saying, this is where the discipline part comes in. You know, there are times every creative person knows that there are times when you're really in the flow. And there are times when you're not. But the discipline is that, you know, you sit down and you write something anyway. And sometimes I write something I say, okay, I know I'm going to have to rewrite this tomorrow, but at least I've got something on the paper to work with.
Benjamin Dell: Editing a draft is far easier than starting from scratch again.
Sharon Hurley Hall: There are very few days when I can't write at all.
Benjamin Dell: We really do need to talk again. Actually we have some spaces. Cool. Okay. Let's wrap up now with a quick fire round, short answers, if you can. So if there was just one social network that you had to use to promote your work, which one would it be? Which one works best for you?
Sharon Hurley Hall: LinkedIn.
Benjamin Dell: We've had a few people say that. It's one of those quiet giants and that I haven't fully personally embraced, but it's working for a lot of people, which is really, really interesting.
Sharon Hurley Hall: Because it's for business and you're blogging for business.
Benjamin Dell: That's a good place to share your work. Very true. Okay. And what's your favourite online tool to help you with your work, your writing, your business, whatever it might be?
Sharon Hurley Hall: Online, Missinglettr is great for drip feeding my content out there, which helps me get work. Offline, I use a tool called Scrivener for keeping track of all my writing and keeping it all in one place.
Benjamin Dell: Is that a writing tool or a planning tool? I've got a feeling it's more planning?
Sharon Hurley Hall: It's a novel planning and writing tool originally, but you know, bloggers use it now, right? Because I have folders for each client and I have documents within that for each piece of work, I can track research. I can keep everything in one space. So I have a new project for each year in which I keep all my work. It makes it easy to find things as well when you've written about them before.
Benjamin Dell: Yeah, I suppose that must be an important aspect sort of nipping into carefully selected snippets from previous articles must be part of what you do I suspect.
And for someone already in business, but who is only just getting into content marketing now, what's the number one tip or piece of advice you would offer them?
Sharon Hurley Hall: Ooh, that's a tough one. Number one piece of advice.
Benjamin Dell: It could on the flip side also be what they shouldn't be doing if that's easier, it depends whether you have a glass half full..
Sharon Hurley Hall: Definitely glass half full. You need to market. You know you're getting into content marketing. You need to figure out where your clients are and make sure that your work gets shared there. Otherwise they're not going to find you.
Benjamin Dell: Yeah, no point shouting with a megaphone into a room when customers just simply aren't there. Absolutely. Is there a CEO or marketer that you're following right now or a writer?
Sharon Hurley Hall: Gosh, I follow so many, right. My favorite blogs are Crazy Egg and OptinMonster of course, the Content Marketing Institute, many of the search engine marketing and search engine blogs. Missinglettr I like also, because I like reading what other bloggers are doing and that's where I'm getting some different perspectives and all freelance writing and about freelance writing have been my go-to sources on all things for the writing business for years.
Benjamin Dell: Well, I just realized there's a key question, given what you do that I haven't asked. And that's given that you do like those deep dives and some of those more technical pieces, presumably you're constantly trying to balance the writing with consuming contents as well, and reading as much as you can.
Sharon Hurley Hall: You definitely have to consume content in order to be effective as a writer. My go-to tool for that is Feedly, I'm always adding new sources to it. So I can skim. Weirdly some of the sources that I follow are not necessarily about content marketing, email marketing and so I like Life Hacker, Mashable, those things keep you in touch with what's going on generally. And then you have anecdotes and hooks that you can use to bring your other content to life.
Benjamin Dell: Are you one of those pro readers? You mentioned skimming then - I was just reminded of Hetin Shah, who just consumed so much content. And I think he's mentioned many times where he's just incredibly effective at churning through a long piece of content in a really rapid way without necessarily taking in every single word, but to the point where he understands what it's talking about. And he can go back in later on if he needs to. Are you in that sort of category? Are you a super reader?
Sharon Hurley Hall: Yeah. I'm a fast reader. I'm the person that reads down the middle of the page.
Benjamin Dell: Love it. Well, there you have it. That was Sharon Hurley Hall, a self-professed geek, which again, I love. I'm one myself, I should say. She currently writes for OptinMonster previously, Crazy Egg and a number of other popular publications. She writes a whole multitude of mediums, eBooks, blog posts, and she also likes the deeper dive white papers, publishing on average three to five times a week, depending on the length. Her favorite social network is LinkedIn and she use Scrivener, if you want to check it out, to help her plan her writing. Her tip there is figure where your clients are before you do anything else and then make sure you're marketing to that channel. Sharon, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to hear and understand your line of work and where you come from. Thanks so much.