The health and fitness vertical is one of the most robust and multi-faceted categories in lifestyle content. There’s a never-ending thirst for information, amongst consumers at every level and in every age. As medical findings continue to evolve, there are always more news and trends angles to cover. The space has always been open to new great content/product startups. It seems like there’s room for digital magazines, blogs, influencers, subscription services, and fitness videos delivered via every possible platform.
While not every new venture succeeds, consumers never seem to reach saturation point for compelling new information on how to take care of their bodies and minds. And the branded content boom means that every product retailer is considering whether they, too, should launch a publication.
Many freelancers do some work in this space, but quite a few are dedicated to it. For this installment of Niche Freelancer, we’re chatting with Abby Lerner, a former staff editor at a legacy publication, who went freelance after moving away from New York City. Just one year after bidding farewell to her last staff job, Abby is enjoying the variety and flexibility that freelancing offers, while putting to rest early fears about “falling off the face of the earth.”
Q&A with Abbey Lerner, fitness editor who went full-time freelance
What was your title/wheelhouse in the editorial space, and what is it now?
Most recently I was the executive digital editor at Shape for nearly 4 years and then went on to join Greatist, a young startup at the time, as editorial director and eventually head of content strategy for 2.5 years. So broadly my wheelhouse is digital content strategy, but I’ve always been in the health and fitness world.
Did you have any specialized training when you entered your niche?
My niche has always been part of my life: I was a ballerina all through high school and into college, and grew up with parents who were doctors. I was always very interested in health, which motivated me to start college as a pre-med student. About a year in, I realized that I was more interested in breaking down complicated health topics and writing about them/teaching people what they need to know — so, talking to the doctors rather than being one myself.
I switched paths to journalism and had an internship with Men’s Health during my senior year. I’d say that experience was really my “training,” as it led to my first full-time role as an assistant editor at MH. But in terms of fitness certifications or advanced degrees, no. I often think about getting them now, but more just because I’m interested. I don’t feel it’s necessary.
Who is your audience now?
I work with a few different brands now, but all their audiences are people interested in health and fitness and becoming better versions of themselves, whether that means just starting to exercise or cook healthy food or learning what “self-care” actually means. I do a lot of editorial work for SilverSneakers, and that audience is primarily men and woman ages 65 and older. That’s been really interesting.
Has the Internet decreased or increased opportunities for you and your colleagues specifically in this niche?
I’ve always been on the digital side of things (I actually created the Men’s Health Twitter account many years ago). So it’s hard to say how the Internet has impacted my opportunities. But in general, I think the Internet has created a lot of platforms for content that otherwise wouldn’t exist, so as a result, there are many opportunities for content creators. And more are popping up every day! That’s not always a good thing in this niche — more info doesn’t necessarily mean better info — so it’s especially important that we have good writers/reporters to drown out the noise.
You told me that you don’t write much anymore, that you stick with editing and content strategy. What would a pure strategy, non-writing project look like?
A lot of times brands know they want to do something new, try content, and/or improve their existing content, but they’re not sure: 1) if that actually makes sense given their goals or 2) what type of content they should create.
I have a lot of experience growing audiences, at both young startups and big medial brands. So I draw on that to create a strategy that makes sense for them. It starts with a lot of information gathering (company info + data and analytics + audience feedback) and then using that info to decide, for example, what content buckets will exist and the types of stories to create under each: Short videos optimized for FB engagement? Long-form in-depth features based on SEO? Both?
That’s the very concise description, but it’s usually a really fun process — kind of like putting together a puzzle. I love writing and am grateful for my experience, but the bigger picture/strategy stuff gets me more excited.
How did you move away from writing?
It wasn’t exactly a conscious choice. As I grew as an editor, I just had less time to be able to write. And for me, I found that I could make a bigger impact as an editor and eventually a manager. I love creating systems and processes for editorial teams and being the person who helps make writers jobs easier (hopefully).
Also, I’m not an especially quick writer. I tend to get very deep in my research and reporting. So with the way things are now, I don’t think I’d be able to keep up with the demand. I’m always so impressed with the amount of content writers can turn around each day/week. I’m better at supporting those people than doing it myself.
What is your ideal project?
Oh gosh, this is a tough one! The honest answer is kinda corny, but here goes: After nearly 12 years in digital media, I’ve gotten a little jaded by some of it (ahem, clickbait). So in part because of that, my ideal project is helping grow a brand/audience that’s doing something that matters, that actually helps people.
Luckily, there are a lot of them in the health and fitness space, but there’s also a lot of junk out there trying to sell miracles. So if I could use my experience to help people discover or learn about something that will actually improve their life or even just make them smile or relate to another person (through content), then I can prove that the Internet is actually a tool for good, not evil.
Do you do content/strategy for social channels as well?
Yes! When I say “content” I’m referring to content across all platforms. So whether it’s on a website, via email, on social, or even printed materials, those are things I consider when coming up with the right strategy. While I do believe that truly great content will do well on most platforms, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Knowing where the content will be shared is crucial for optimizing it.
As a freelancer forced to switch from full-time because of a move, what did you find most frightening thing about the first year?
I moved from NYC to the heart of the Midwest, so I definitely had a complex about “falling off the face of the earth” in the media world. It was really scary to move away from a city with SO many opportunities, but I’ve been so pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to transition. The Internet makes distance irrelevant.
And of course the whole taxes thing petrifies me. I’m still collecting paperwork from some clients, so have yet to do my taxes from my first full year as a freelancer, but hopefully it only gets easier after the first time. And a great accountant can help!
How do you keep yourself up to speed on new products and areas of interest?
I get a couple really great weekly emails that curate stories and products worth knowing about. Those definitely make it easier! Otherwise I try to be very selective about who I follow on social platforms so I’m seeing relevant stuff. That’s getting harder and harder, but I find it’s worth the filtering effort.
I’m also very aware that it’s a giant privilege for my niche to be something I’m genuinely interested in. I love learning about the latest research and trends in health and fitness so it doesn’t feel like a chore. #nerdalert.