Jennifer Bourn helps small businesses create systems to plan and create their content. She also helps other small-agency owners streamline and systematize their operations.
Jennifer and I talked about:
- the importance of systems and processes in both her business and personal lives
- her ability to identify and implement a systematic approach to any business activity – both hers and her clients
- the flow of content work in a typical client project
- the various interpretations of “content first” that she has encountered
- the importance of adapting your content plan to the needs and style of your client
- her system for guiding clients through the content-creation process
- the similarities that she sees across her client base
- her observation that while everyone thinks they are special and unique, in fact, most clients have very similar fundamental needs
- the importance of getting systems information out of your head and into actual working procedures
- how to delegate, automate, and otherwise streamline content (and other) operations
- the stages of her process: welcome, on-boarding, design, development, launch, exit
- how she sets the stage for her clients to begin thinking about crucial issues *before* she begins her discovery process
- how her process helps clients build content momentum by doing easier writing tasks first
- how her content checklist and associated document templates create a low-stress content-creation experience for her clients
- how her processes have worked for a range of project sizes – from $3,000 to $30,000
- the superiority of a systems approach to a bespoke approach to client work
- how systematizing and automating simple tasks can give you more time to focus on strategy and other more meaningful work
- how her systems reduced their workload by 50% shortly after they implemented them
- her approach to ongoing iterative improvement of her processes
- the importance of having – and following – a plan
- how to align your content with the services you offer or the products you sell
- the benefits of repurposing and reusing your content
With 20 years experience as a graphic designer, 14 years experience as a web designer, 13 years as a creative agency owner, and 10 years as a blogger, Jennifer Bourn has worked with hundreds of small-medium sized service-based businesses to build brands, establish profitable online platforms, and claim authority positioning in their niche. She is also a sought-after speaker and writer, earning rave reviews for her workshops, trainings, and valuable articles.
Through JenniferBourn.com, Jennifer focuses on providing the information, tools, and resources freelancers need to build thriving, successful businesses and delivering courses that help freelancers make more money. Through her agency, Bourn Creative, she offers a suite of services designed to maximize results and increase profits that include brand strategy, content strategy, and website strategy, as well as copywriting and content implementation.
Here’s the video version of our conversation:
Hi, everyone. Welcome to episode number 38 of the Content Strategy Insights podcast. I’m really happy today to have with us Jennifer Bourn. Jennifer is at jenniferbourn.com down in Sacramento, California. She does a lot of creative agency-type stuff down there. I’ll have Jennifer tell you a little bit more about herself.
Thanks for having me. I am a designer at heart. I got my bachelor’s degree in graphic design, so I’ve been a designer for 20 years, a web designer for 14, an agency owner for 13, a blogger for 10, and the last several years, I’ve been digging in more into copy writing and content strategy. Through Bourn Creative, I offer client services. Through jenniferbourn.com, I teach freelancers how to implement systems in their business to get more clients, be more profitable, and make more money.
Wow, I love this. Everybody I’ve had on this show has a similar but unique path into this. I love that we brought another designer around to the content side of things, so welcome to the club.
Yeah. One of the things that’s come up just as we talked … We’ve talked at a number of WordCamps over the years and, just as we were talking before we went on the air … is that I think when I … The reason I invited you on the show is that I perceive you as being a real process-oriented person. I think a lot of agency people become that way, but tell me about how that came to be such a focus for you.
Systems and processes have been part of my life for my entire life. I run my business, we run our business the same way that we run our personal life, so there are systems in my personal life designed to make every day easier for me. We implemented systems in our life when we had kids to make their lives easier, to set clear expectations, to know what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s allowed, what’s not allowed, what you can wear, what you can’t wear, what goes together, what doesn’t go together, all the things that empowered our kids to make their own decisions from a really early age but within a context of being able to make the right decisions.
In business, that was just kind of a natural thing. I’ve always been the person that looks at something and always sees an easier way to do it. It doesn’t always go over the best with other people, which is probably why it’s better that I work for myself, but I’ve always been somebody that can see a system in something complex or in something big. Whether it’s going out and generating leads and creating new business, or it’s working with clients, or it’s moving them through the website design process, or working through a content strategy, I see in that big picture all the little steps in the system along the way, and see how you can repeat it to not re-invent the wheel.
I’m of the opinion, any time I’m sitting behind my desk I should be as profitable as possible, because I don’t want to be sitting behind my desk all the time, right? So if I’m going to be working, I’m going to make it count, so that I can be working less. Systems are what allow me to do that.
It sounds like you both have internal systems that keep you productive and on track. I’m assuming that a part of the value you offer your clients is that you help them develop the same kind of thing.
I do. That’s one of the things that, with jenniferbourn.com, I just launched that site in 2017, late 2017. I have created all these systems in my business that have helped me be successful, and I was seeing all of these people that I know, that I think, “God, you’re so much more talented than I am, but you’re struggling in business, and I’m not. I don’t have a problem getting clients, or making great money, or doing whatever, but you do.” And I’m like, “You’re better at this than I am.”
I started realizing that I could potentially make a big impact in other people’s businesses or lives by sharing what I’ve been able to do in my business with them. That was why I decided to launch jenniferbourn.com, and then create some courses that way.
Got it. Then you’ve also become a publisher, a content creator and an online educator, now that this whole thing … I think it’s so interesting. A quick aside on that. I’ve been doing this stuff a long time, and people who set out to create something like that almost never do. The people who just do something, get good at it, and then decide to start teaching or sharing, almost always do way better. It sounds like you’re in that latter course.
That’s sort of a meta-development from your internal processes and how you do things. But tell me a little bit about how it helps your clients, how you impart that, especially as it relates to content. Can you tell me a little bit about the flow of content work in a typical client project?
Sure. Typically, you have agencies that approach content in different ways, right? You have the people that are like, “Content first. I’m never starting anything unless I have all your content up front.” And then you have people that are like, “Just give me content when design’s done.” And these people are saying, “That’s terrible. How can you design without content?” And these people are like, “My project would never start if I required the content up front.”
I think that there’s been this huge kind of misunderstanding and just terrible assumption of what content first means. There are Internet-famous designers that work with big clients with marketing teams and big budgets and all kinds of internal people that, when you say, “Content first,” they’re like, “No problem. We got a whole team to do this.” But if you talk to a mom and pop shop, and you’re like, “Content first,” they’re like, “What am I going to do, poop it out? I don’t even know what to say. I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what I need. Isn’t that what I hired you for?”
So I found that you have to have a content strategy that’s, one, appropriate for the clients that you are working with. And two, I’ve always taken the approach of whatever is easiest and best for the client. I can do my job a bunch of different ways, but whatever is easiest for them. And what I’ve found is, when you just leave things up in the air for the client, and you say, “I need your content by this date,” or, “Design’s done. Here are the mock-ups. I need your content in two weeks,” or you say, “I need your content up front,” when you leave the client to flounder and figure things out on their own, that’s when things don’t happen. That’s when clients don’t get their content done. That’s when it delays projects.
You look at all the people that run into content delays, that their project gets pushed out by weeks or months because they’re waiting on client content, it’s because you left the client to fend for themselves. Right? They don’t know what to do, so they just keep putting it off and procrastinating. And then they’re embarrassed that they’ve procrastinated, and then they don’t get back to you, and they stop returning your emails, because they don’t want to say, “I haven’t even started.” It’s just this snowballing thing of a mess.
What I’ve figured out is, if I created a system to support my clients from the minute they sign the contract to the minute they were done, and it got them information that they needed, and it got them training that they needed, and it held their hand through the process, and provided templates to fill in, kind of like Mad Libs, I got all my content on time. My projects didn’t have delays, and they wrapped up, and I made more money per project, because I wasn’t spending all this extra time babysitting the client and chasing down content, and doing all of these other things. So templates were a huge, huge game-changer for us.
Right. I want to stitch together a couple things that came up just now. That notion of templates and template-ized content, and template processes, and things like that. But you also talked about the … I jotted down pragmatic approach, because everybody’s different. Everybody has their own approach, their own way of thinking about things, their own … like the scope of their content.
Everybody thinks they’re unique, and they’re not. Everybody thinks, “My clients are different. It wouldn’t work for me. My clients are different. My process is different.” Bottom line, it’s almost the same across the board, right? You think, “My clients are different. A system wouldn’t work for all my clients. I’m hands-on. No, we’re boutique. We’re bespoke. We’re unique for every client.” BS. You still do the same thing for every client. You still walk them through the same process.
Now the content that they’re delivering is different. Maybe the specific pages they have to create are different. The site is going in, and the strategy is different. But at the bottom base of things, I think people use that, “My clients are different. That would never work for me,” as an excuse of why you don’t have systems implemented already.
Great. I love that, because that’s … I wonder. A quick aside on that. I wonder how many of those people actually do have systems, but they’re just in their head, and they kind of do it … They haven’t been as articulate-
But here’s the problem. Here’s the problem with having systems in your head. I used to have systems in my head, but my business was growing like crazy. I had some really high-profile key clients in the Internet marketing and coaching space. So because I was working with them, everybody that followed them wanted me to do their work, too, so my business was growing like crazy. My systems were only in my head, but when you’re working like a dog, and you’re working 16, 17, 18-hour days, seven days a week, and it’s all in your head, and you’re tired and you’re exhausted, things start slipping through the cracks.
Even though you intend on giving every client an extraordinary experience, and even though you intend to do your absolute best for every client, when everything is in your head, things slip through the cracks. You forget things; things get delayed. There’s just all kinds of issues. I went to a big dinner at a conference one time, with two of my big, high-profile clients. They were going to introduce me to a bunch of their high-level, mastermind people, and say, “You should work with Jennifer.” I was so excited.
I walked in, and I sat down, and the woman across from me said, “You know, I really wanted to work with you. I reached out a year ago, like three times, and I never got a response, and that was terrible. So I moved on and hired somebody else.” And then I felt horrible, because I try to respond to everybody within a certain amount of time. But when you’re busy, and you’re so busy that your business is running you because you don’t have documented systems, you don’t have automations in place, you aren’t delegating things, and it’s all in your head, again, you don’t do a good job following up with people. Sometimes you forget to follow up with people, or things, again, slip through the cracks. Or you think you sent something to a client, and you didn’t.
I think there’s too much margin for error. When you have documented systems that you can delegate or automate, or have checklists that you can follow, you can consistently ensure that you deliver an extraordinary experience for every client.
Nice. Yeah. Have you ever read that book by Atul Gawande? I think what it’s called, it’s about checklists, and the origins of checklists, and how they … It’s a really good book. But anyhow, a lot of it comes out of aviation and medicine and places like that. But everything you said, I think you’d appreciate that. Anyhow, I’ll maybe put a note in the show notes. [The Checklist Manifesto]
I love that you have, and I assume this is all documented in a way that you can hand off to the client. I’m just trying to picture, again, just thinking about from the content perspective, the flow from the start of a project to the end. Can you kind of walk us through how you discover … I assume you have some kind of discovery process, and then the strategy formulation and all that. Can you walk me through, kind of just cherry-picking the content parts of your process?
Of course. Our process for website projects, my process is broken up into different phases. There’s the welcome, onboarding, design, development, launch, and then exit. From the very first email of onboarding, we’re setting expectations that we’re going to need you to do work. You’re going to have to write content. You’re going to have to provide content. We know you’re not a copywriter. That’s okay; we’re going to provide help. So we’re setting that expectation up front.
During onboarding, the discovery questionnaire that we use to gather the information we need from clients is the very last thing that they get, so they don’t get the discovery questionnaire for a week. But before that, we’re emailing them and sending them information like, “It’s time to start thinking about your website a little differently. Here are some strategies. Here’s how we want you to start thinking about your content. Here’s how we want you to start thinking about your website. Here’s how we want you to start thinking about conversion.” The idea is, if we get them thinking about those things before they fill out the discovery questionnaire, one, they fill it out better. We get better information, and we can move forward faster. But they feel more confident in answering our questions, and they feel more comfortable during the process.
So then during design, in the design phase we’re giving them tips on how to get their content done, how to write an About page, how to write a good Home page, how to talk about your services and recap, talk about what you’re selling in a powerful way. We’re giving them these information. I give them a PDF that’s 100 Things Your Website Needs to Answer, but it’s broken down by page. On the About page, you need to answer these questions. Who are you? What’s your full name, first and last? The amount of people that don’t have their full name on their website just blows my mind. These are the questions this page should answer.
During design, while we’re working on their design, they’re working on getting their content done while we’re helping them, right? We’ve talked about content strategy in the design call. We have a design strategy call where we talk about design, we talk about flow, how people are going to move through the site. We talk about all the things we need to do the design. And we part ways after that call, and say, “We are going to be working on the design. You are going to be working on your content.”
We give them those resources to help them get it done, and then here’s the kicker. At the end of design, when they have approved design, we give them a Content Checklist. In this Content Checklist, in this PDF are screenshots of all the mock-ups that they approved with every piece of content that we need to fill in numbered. Next to that number is a description of what we need, and how many words it should be, and what the goal is, and what they should say. So all they have to do is look at that and go, “Do-do-do-do,” that chunk. But the other best part is, when they get that Content Checklist, they also get a collection of Microsoft Word content templates to fill in, and all the things that they need to give us are numbered in those templates as well.
They open up the Microsoft Word document, and they’re starting to provide us content. They get to something they’re not sure of, they can look at the number, and they can open up the Content Checklist and find that number, and it’ll tell them what we need, how we need it, what it’s for, what the thinking is behind that. So they’re never left on their own to figure something out. They’re guided and hand-held through that, so the process is one that doesn’t create lots of stress, and doesn’t make them want to procrastinate and put it off, and put it off. But instead they can sit down in between things going on in their own business, they can chunk out little bits at a time until they’re all done. We get our content on time. We get our content in the templates we provided, so I’m just copy and pasting into the theme that I’ve built, because the content matches the design.
That was not the case before I had these templates. You get content back, and you’re like, “This doesn’t even match what we designed.” Like, “What crack were you on when you wrote this?” It enabled us to get through the process with less speed bumps, and the client had a better experience, which meant we were getting better testimonials, and we were getting more referrals.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Hey, I want to go back to the … I’m curious about the kind of clients you serve. Because a lot of this template-ized stuff, I know there’s … You work mostly with smaller local businesses? Or you mentioned earlier that you had some pretty high-profile clients. Do these materials and your approach vary depending on the market that the client serves in? Like an e-commerce merchant versus a service provider versus a marketing site?
That is a great question. For many years, Bourn Creative focused solely on service-based businesses. My systems were created for service-based businesses of all sizes. I always hear people, the pushback I get when they’re looking at enrolling in Profitable Project Plan is, “But systems won’t work; my clients are too big.” Or, “Systems won’t work, because my clients are too savvy. The content you’re giving them is beneath them.”
But here’s the deal. I’ve used this exact same process on projects from $3,000 up to $20- or $30,000. And all the clients say, “That was amazing.” And I think I’ve said, “I won’t send you this stuff. You’re probably way too advanced for this.” And they’re like, “No, I want it.” And they come back, and they say, “This was a really great reminder of the basics that I’d kind of forgotten.” Or, “Wow. I haven’t thought about my business in this way in a long time. This was really good to go through.” Or they say, “Wow, I knew these things. This was awesome to give to my assistant,” or my employee, or the person I just hired to build my website. So the more advanced people are going through the same exact system, appreciative of the fact that I don’t make them think, I make it super easy, and they’re getting good reminders. And then the less tech-savvy people are stoked, because they’re getting educated all along the way.
I will say, I basically use the same content and the same process when we work on more complex sites, like membership or LMS [learning management system] or e-commerce, or larger long-term retainer projects, but I just use it in a different way. So instead of sending automated email sequences, I manually manage those projects, and I will manually kind of send them the things that they need instead of sending them an automated email responder, because they paid for a premium experience.
Got it. Right. And that kind of gets, I was just thinking of asking about … and this came up earlier. The approach you have, there’s this sort of balance between the unique needs of each client and the need to just do things in a consistent way so it actually gets done. I’ve talked to people all across the spectrum, and it depends on, there’s so many variables in this. But how do you balance that? It sounds like you’ve had success, just-
I’ve been doing this since 2011. This isn’t anything new.
So defaulting back to your processes seems to work. And you kind of alluded to folks who do everything bespoke maybe not being as efficient.
They don’t make as much money as they wish they would, because they’re doing everything bespoke. Here’s the deal with systems, and why the pushback doesn’t need to be there. When you implement systems and automations to support your clients, you’re not doing it to replace you. You’re not doing it to replace the important strategic work that they’re hiring you for, the most meaningful work. You’re doing it to replace and handle all the administrative tasks. Your job as a designer is not best spent chasing down the right email address for your client’s Gravatar. Put that in an automated email sequence that’s going to go out, and have it handled for you, so you don’t have to do it.
There’s certain things, all those little administrative tasks. When you can roll those into automations, or you can roll those into systems, what it does is, it frees up your time to focus on the most meaningful work with the client. So if you estimate out a project, and you estimate the project’s going to take you 40 hours, do you want to spend those hours chasing down Gravatars and content, and begging for content, and doing all the little admin things that are sucking up your time, and then rushing through design and development to somewhat save your hourly rate? Or do you want to have systems in place that take care of all those little things, so you can take those 40 hours, and you can spend almost all of it on strategy, on design and development, so the client gets the absolute best result, because the time you spent working is on the most meaningful, important work, and you have more chunks of dedicated, uninterrupted time?
Right. I want to go back, because I’m just curious. Now you’ve got me wondering about the path of your business over the last 10 years. I’m going to guess, based on everything you’ve said, that as you learn this, everything gets better, you’re making more money, you’re certainly making more clients happier. I don’t want you to spill your whole business plan, but is that true? And what would be the kind of … Have you improved, are you twice as efficient? Are you four times as efficient? How would you measure the impact on your business of implementing all these systems?
When we implemented these systems the first time, by the end of the first year that we were using that, we found out that this system reduced administrative time on projects by 50%, which meant we were getting back 50% of the time we were spending on our projects. Now most people are like, “Sweet. That means I have more free time. I can get more clients.” And we were like, “Sweet. We can make the exact same amount of money and work less hours? This is awesome.” And then we just put a reminder in our calendar. Every year, we typically take the last two weeks of the year off. So every year at the end of the year we would re-evaluate and review all the systems we have in place for the business. I would go through and look at, where does this need to be updated? Where did we run into some snags with clients this year? Where could we make this easier?
Every year we go back and improve those systems. But the key thing, too, is when I created it the first time, I got a focus group together. Six people ranging from, “I barely know how to use my computer,” to being super tech-savvy, and all different business industries. I had them go through all my systems as if they were clients to say, one, “Find any typos.” Two, “Tell me any word that you don’t know what it means. Tell me anything that got you confused, anything that tripped you up. I want to know, so I can fix it.”
I dialed it in really, really good the first time, and then every single year continued to iterate on it. It wasn’t until I started sharing this process with people at WordCamps that they were like, “Can I buy this?” I’m like, “No, this is my secret sauce. I spent hundreds of hours creating this thing. There’s no way I’m giving it to you or selling it to you.” But over time, my business did change. It did grow the number of projects that we were doing. Went way down as the budgets went way up, and we moved from a lot of one-off projects to more long-term, retainer-style projects.
Like I told you, I started seeing all these really talented people struggling in their business, and I thought, “Okay, now it’s time. I’m going to package up all my systems, and I’m going to teach it.” That’s how Profitable Project Plan came about, was to pass that on.
Got it. I guess that’s the ultimate outcome that you could hope for, of being so diligent to process. Hey, Jennifer, I just noticed. This always goes so fast; we’re coming up on time. But I always like to give-
Oh, my gosh.
Yes. But I always like to give my guests a last opportunity. If there’s anything last, anything we haven’t talked about, that I haven’t brought up, that’s on your mind about content or content strategy or agency work these days, that you want to share with our folks?
I think the biggest thing when it comes to content is people who, you know you need to blog, you know you need to create content, whether it’s for content marketing, it’s for your website, it’s for your blog, whatever it is. You know, needing to be creating content. But don’t just create it all willy-nilly. Don’t just make it up on the fly. Put together a plan, and follow that plan. The easiest way to do that, the easiest way to make your content turn into cash is to align the content that you’re creating with the services that you offer, or the products that you’re selling.
If you’re listening to this, and you have a website design or development agency, if you offer website services, if you offer website design and development services, if you offer support services, if you offer, let’s say, copywriting, content services, then your blog categories should represent design and development, ongoing website maintenance and care, support, troubleshooting, whatever that might be, and then content strategy. When you can do that, when you can align your content with the ways that you are bringing in money, you can tailor your opt-in offers and your content upgrades specifically to support and drive people to that service. Right?
Then you’re going to start seeing better results from the content you’re creating, and you’re going to start seeing more bang for your buck from the effort that you’re putting out there. I would also say, look at how you can repurpose and reuse any content that you’re creating. Think of, if I’m going to put forth the effort to create this content, I need there to be at least three ways that I can use it. Maybe one is going on my blog, one is delivering it as a presentation at a WordCamp, one might be turning it into a podcast interview, or an e-book, or a content upgrade for a different blog post. But think about how you can repurpose and reuse. Any piece of content, how can you use it three times?
Got it. We could do a whole episode on repurposing. . .
Exactly, yeah. Well thank you so much, Jennifer. This has been a blast. It’s good catching up with you. Yeah, thanks. I really would like to hold out the option of having you back later.
That would be awesome.
All right. Thanks.