Getting started with blogging as a financial advisor can be a challenging task. While there's a lot of appeal in a blogging-and-social-media-based marketing strategy - including the fact that it's very inexpensive marketing, and can be an especially good way for a small firm to differentiate itself - most advisors aren't exactly sitting around with a lot of spare time in their day to take up a new marketing initiative.
In this guest post, Investment Writing blogger Susan Weiner - author of the newly released "Financial Blogging" book for advisors - shares some insights about how advisors can leverage the services of a virtual assistant, at a low cost, to help get started with a new blogging effort. As someone who uses a virtual assistant (VA) to help with some of her own blogging, Susan has excellent perspective "from the trenches" about what does and doesn't work in hiring a VA.
So if you're an advisor who's been thinking about trying to start blogging but realizing you'll need some help - or perhaps an advisor who's already making the effort but would like some inspiration about how to more effectively leverage your time - today's guest post should be helpful for you with some tips and guidance about how to go down the virtual assistant road yourself. Who knows, you might even find that virtual assistant can help you with some other parts of your busy work life, too?
My virtual assistant (VA) makes my life as a blogger much easier. Inspired by her help, I’m suggesting ways a VA—an assistant who operates remotely, rather than working in your office—can help you. I also share my ideas about how to find and work with a VA.
Blog-related tasks your VA can perform
Idea generation and writing are my biggest contributions to my blog. I lack special skills in other areas of producing and distributing blog posts. Whenever possible, I delegate those tasks to Correna, my VA. You can follow my example or choose tasks that shore up your weaknesses. Either way, there's an incredible sense of relief that can come from farming out tasks that are hard or time-consuming for you.
1. Type into WordPress
I like to write posts in longhand when I’m unplugged, as I said in “No batteries required: My favorite blogging technique.” Once I'm back in my office, I scan my drafts and email them to Correna to input my blog with the proper formatting.
2. Provide special formatting
Sometimes I type posts myself, but WordPress frustrates my attempts to format them. This happens when I have a special spacing need or I'm trying to insert something like a video. That’s when I turn my post over to Correna to find a solution. I'm sure I could figure it out eventually, but it's not a good use of my time.
3. Do keyword research
I'd rather write than work on search engine optimization (SEO). I’m happy to have my VA do the research to suggest keywords for my blog posts.
4. Do research for posts
Need just a few more statistics to make your blog post shine? You can suggest some likely sources to your VA and set her or him on the track of the information you need. This could make the difference between publishing your blog post this month instead of never.
5. Compile posts
I sometimes create blog posts that are compilations of comments people have posted in response to questions I’ve posted on other social media. I can point my VA to those comments or email them to her so she can drop them into a blog post draft. After that, it’s easy for me to write my commentary and schedule the post.
Link posts are another type of blog that your VA can compile for you. Your VA can draft a collection of your posts on a specific topic or suggest candidates for a round-up of other people's posts on that topic.
6. Find or create images
It takes time to find or create images to illustrate blog posts. I really ought to delegate this more often. When I recently needed a scissors image, it was so nice to narrow my selection to those suggested by my VA. There are plenty of free or low-cost photo sites that you and your VA can use. Wordle images are another illustration that you can delegate, as in “Ideal quarterly investment letters: Meaningful, specific, and short.“ I tried to create that image myself, but couldn’t get Wordle to work on my computer.
7. Create newsletters
Creating e-newsletters from my blog posts is the one constant of my VA’s duties. After I send her a document listing the order in which posts should appear, Correna pulls together my monthly newsletter. She also feeds old blog posts into my Weekly Tips newsletter and drafts other notices for me.
8. Create e-books
I have been putting out an annual Investment Writing Top Tips mini e-book since 2009. After I identify the posts to include, my VA groups them by topic and formats them as a .PDF file. I offer these e-books as a free report to my e-newsletter's subscribers. We also experimented with formatting my 2012 edition for the Kindle and Nook e-readers.
9. Write, edit, or proofread
While I do most of my own writing, editing, and proofreading, these are tasks that you could farm out to a qualified VA. Proofreading your own work is difficult. It's much more easily done by someone who brings fresh eyes.
How to find a VA
Before you look for a VA, figure out what you'd like that person to do. Create a job description to help you screen and interview applicants.
Below is the task list from my job description from several years ago. It's dated, focuses on e newsletters rather than blogs, and is organized in the format required by a specific service for hiring freelance help. However, it will give you an idea of what you might include:
Marketing-oriented VA wanted to prepare newsletters, blog posts, and social media links for a writer. Must take deadlines and accuracy seriously. Fast learner desirable.
1. At the beginning of each month, create Word document listing the blog posts from the prior month (in html format).
2. On the 20th of each month, email Susan for editorial calendar. The editorial calendar is used to create Susan’s newsletter in Constant Contact.
3. Create mailing labels as requested (merge Excel spreadsheets to Avery #5160 label size).
4. Draft monthly e-newsletter using Constant Contact based on editorial calendar received from Susan.
5. Internet research on investment firm contacts.
6. Post messages received from Susan to LinkedIn Groups as noted by Susan.
7. Check Susan’s voicemail while out of town and prepare document with all messages and actions taken.
8. Format Word, PowerPoint and Excel files as requested.
By the way, if you're posting your VA job online, take advantage of the tip that one of my VA-savvy friends gave me. She suggested including very specific instructions to see if applicants would follow them. That's why my instructions to applicants said, "Please indicate in the first line of your response if you've actually created a newsletter from scratch using Constant Contact." Anyone who couldn't follow instructions dropped to the bottom of my pile.
I feel very anxious about trusting complete strangers with anything related to my business, so I prefer to find VAs using word of mouth. However, I did try oDesk, a service for matching employers and freelancers. I found one person who was technically competent and responsive, but I decided to hire someone with different skills.
If I were to seek a VA from among strangers today, I'd probably check websites such as VA Networking or Virtual Assistantville, both of which I learned about from my friend Michelle Rafter's "The Help: How I Work with a Virtual Assistant." If your VA duties have a heavy editorial rather than administrative tilt, you might consider hiring a writer who can edit and post your content to your blog. I'm a member of two organizations that might be good sources. The American Society of Writers and Authors offers a Freelance Writer Search service. Freelance Success has a searchable database of writers.
I asked around to find my other two VAs. As a financial advisor, you may find it helpful to ask for referrals from other advisors with similar needs. In case you were wondering, my VA can't currently take on new clients.
When you interview potential VAs, follow the usual best practices for job interviews. I suggest getting a sense of what your VA loves to do. Why? Because a mismatch may eventually lead to your parting ways. If you hire someone for HTML coding and technical research, but her or his first love is writing, the odds are high that eventually your VA will leave to pursue that dream. However, a mismatch isn't a deal-killer. You might get several great years of service from a mismatched VA. I've seen that happen.
Two more key questions: What’ s the VA’s availability? VAs that work part-time or have other clients may not always be accessible. Also, what are their turnaround times for responding to requests?
Working with your VA
Start your VA with a small project. For me, that has always meant compiling my monthly e newsletter in Constant Contact. A discrete project will let you test how you work together. If the VA messes up, the impact of that mistake will be limited. It's likely that your project will go fine, but you'll learn some things about your communication styles. There are probably things that you assume, but your VA will need to be told. And vice versa.
Speaking of communication styles, it helps to know what style works best for you and whether your VA can accommodate it. I like to put things in writing. I have spoken once with Correna since I hired her more than two years ago. Luckily she can figure out my emailed instructions. If you're a talker, make sure your VA is willing to listen.
I generally dedicate one email per task with an informative subject line. I believe that makes it easier for my VA to track my projects. At my end, if a project is particularly important, I may create a Task in Microsoft Outlook to remind me to check on its completion. It might pay to ask how your VA tracks her projects for you. I get the sense that Correna uses reminders on her phone, but she’s reliable, so tracking hasn’t been an issue. I trust her.
Trust may be an issue when giving your VA access to your blog or social media accounts. WordPress, one of the most popular blogging platforms, allows you to set up your VA as an administrator or a user with more limited capabilities. Some social media platforms, such as Facebook, also allow you to limit access. Another way around this is to limit your VA’s social media access to what’s available through a social media management service, such as HootSuite. When your VA leaves, you can disable her or his access to your accounts.
Why use a VA instead of onsite help
You may wonder whether you should hire a VA rather than work with an individual onsite. Sometimes it's easier to explain things face to face. Plus, an onsite person can take advantage of resources available only in your office (for example, a high-end scanner or software that's too expensive for them to buy on their own). However, a VA's advantages include that you, as Michael Kitces pointed out in our email exchange:
• Can hire for a very specific set of skills from a pool that's much broader geographically than the area near your office
• Pay only for hours you need (although some VAs may require you to commit to a minimum number of hours per week or per month)
• May incur lower costs overall, in terms of pay and overhead, because you don't need to provide office space, equipment, or benefits
I continue to use some onsite help, which gives me some perspective on its pros and cons. Personally, I like that I get to know my onsite assistants a bit better than my VA. Also, there are some tasks that can’t be done virtually or would require me to change my ways.
On the other hand, onsite assistants typically appear on a set schedule and must gain access to your office, equipment, and maybe even your attention when they’re onsite. Timing that seems ideal when you book them a month, or even a week, in advance, can be a disaster when there’s an urgent client deadline. Plus, in my small office, I’m not as productive when I share that space with someone.
If you’ve found other ways to use a VA to boost your blogging productivity, please share them in the comments below!
(Editor's Note: For those financial advisors who are interested in doing more blogging - whether using a virtual assistant, or not - I would strongly encourage you to check out Susan Weiner's new "Financial Blogging" book, written specifically for financial advisors.)