Back in the pre-Internet days, banks and insurance companies maintained a constant cycle of direct mail, cold calls, local onsite promotions and other constant-contact new business outreach. Some of it was welcome (sugary snacks and free appliances at local banks), and some was despised (the 6 p.m. telemarketing call), but it was all necessary for providers to stay top-of-mind. Then, around two decades back, the Internet began to shift how these industries reached their massive, disparate customer segments. Major banks and insurers experimented with every form of marketing available in the new channel: pop-up ads, homepage takeovers, influencer campaigns and online promotions.
However, branded content is a marketing arena where both personal finance and insurance companies can really shine. By disseminating vital, professionally researched information in a fun digestible format, service providers can provide value to readers on a day-to-day basis. The mass audiences will read it, because they need it. The only question is: Who will write it? Enter some of the same writers who formerly staffed big publications or highly respected trades, and were compelled to diversify due to the downfall of print.
In this installment of The Niche Freelancer, we chat with Anna Davies, former staff editor at Cosmopolitan and staff writer at the New York Post. Anna now balances her career between writing features for lifestyle publications like Glamour, and dishing the dos and don’ts of financial responsibility for major corporations like Citibank.
Describe your expertise and what clients typically call upon you to write.
I’m a features reporter and editor, and have been for over a decade. I’ve gradually shifted into writing about personal finance and career strategy, and it’s one of my specialities. As a reporter and editor, I’ve worked at The New York Post, Cosmo, Redbook, and Refinery29 as a staffer, and have written and edited a lot of consumer-facing financial articles. Because of the expertise, contacts, and ability to write for a mainstream audience, I’ve gradually shifted into writing branded content for different banks and businesses.
Did you have any specialized training in the subject matter?
No, which I think is an advantage. I’ve learned a lot, but I definitely approach assignments and content as a reader. I think because of that, I’m able to ask questions a reader wants to know, and don’t get too caught up in the technical weeds. When I interview a source, I always ask them to talk to me like I’m 8 years old. I think having curiosity, a desire to learn, and knowing what I don’t know has been a huge advantage.
Who is your audience?
It really depends. I definitely write for consumers, not technical pieces for industry, but the people I write for vary in age and background. I love working with different clients and tweaking my language and approach based on what they need. For instance, Refinery29 has an incredibly passionate, educated, smart readership, but a lot of readers are in college or their early twenties, so a lot of that personal finance content is geared toward people just starting out. On the flip side, I’ve begun writing more complicated pieces on life insurance and estate planning for banks, and those articles are still for the consumer, but assuming the consumer may have more experience and capital than my R29 audience.
Did this niche exist before the Internet?
Yes! I think it’s a golden age of information, because people realize that they want information that’s smart, savvy, well-written, informative and entertaining. A bot can’t do that. I think a brand is smart to have a robust content strategy.
Do you write for social channels as well, or just for digital?
Yes, I write across the content spectrum, and with clients, part of my services are thinking of a social strategy, including FB posts, Instagram and Twitter, all of which have slightly different tones and methods of communication.
What other specialty areas of writing are often confused, or often overlap, with insurance/consumer banking writing?
I think people assume that a consumer banking writer has the skills to do a technical job, when that’s not the case. While I’m sure there are CPAs who are consumer banking writers, I do wonder if it might work as a disadvantage — again, because when you’re so steeped in one topic, it’s tough to figure out what the average reader needs to know.
What are the hottest topics in this niche — at this moment?
I think that the health care repeal and the tax overhaul trickle down into financial concerns across the spectrum: People want to know how these moves affect their money. I also think the Equifax data-breach made a lot of consumers very aware of just how safe their info is (or isn’t), so I think financial privacy and hacking is also a huge topic.
As a freelancer, how do you gauge whether your skills are a match for the project?
I do a gut check. Honestly, if the clients understand and appreciate good content, I’m happy to work with them. I’m very upfront that I’m not a technical writer, and that I’m approaching these topics as a journalist first. If I don’t know things, I’ll ask questions, but my goal is to translate information easily to readers.
How did you start out in this kind of writing?
I gravitated toward writing about personal finance when I worked in magazines, and I always found the subject fascinating. After all, it’s money. What could be more interesting than that?
What is the biggest challenge in this type of writing?
I think the biggest challenge is coming up with new ways to approach the same topic, that also have the same SEO (search engine optimization) value. There are a million articles on the best credit card for you (for example), so how do you make your shine while also making it easily searchable for Google? I also think it can be tough to make this information both informative and entertaining — you want your writing to be lively but not at the expense of the info.
How do you keep yourself up-to-speed on new products and areas of interest?
I read a lot, and now I’m on a lot of PR lists. But I’ve always found it most helpful when pitching to think about what I’m worried about, and what my friends and family are talking about. In journalism, three’s a trend, so if you hear the same questions, concerns, or topics over and over, chances are it’s one worth exploring.
What qualities are clients looking for in a consumer finance/insurance writer?
Someone who can translate money into something that reads well. I think people are looking for professionalism and accuracy, but also a readability that actually makes content interesting and engaging. More and more, I think it’s also important that writers have at least a bare bones understanding of SEO and Google Analytics. It’s not that they’re checking these for a client (although they could!), but naturally being able to write in a SEO-friendly style is pretty invaluable.
Why do you think you have been successful in this area?
I think my background in consumer magazines is a huge plus, and I also think that it’s helpful that I can write for a mainstream audience. I also am polite (at least I hope I am!) and return work on time — basically, my goal is to make your job easier.
What is your ideal project in this area?
Again, anything that truly values content, not as something just to check off a to-do list, but a project that sees content as one arm of a larger digital strategy.