Content Intel—episode 11: writing content and building strategies that resonate
Shondell Varcianna, CEO & Founder of Varci Media, discusses how her business saves financial institutions time by writing content and building robust strategies. Listen in for more.
Laura Dolan (00:01):
Hi everyone, and welcome back to The Content Intel Podcast, brought to you by Optimizely. I am your host, Laura Dolan, and today I'd like to introduce a special guest who will be talking about building robust content strategies for your business. She's the CEO and founder of Varci Media, Shondell Varcianna. Welcome to the podcast, Shondell, how’s it going?
Shondell Varcianna (00:21):
Good. Thank you so much for having me.
Laura Dolan (00:24):
Absolutely. Thank you for taking the time to be here today. How has 2022 been treating you so far?
Shondell Varcianna (00:29):
So good, so far. It's cold here in Atlanta, but I'm from Canada so I'm used to it, even though I don't like it, but I am, I am. It snowed on Saturday so-
Laura Dolan (00:38):
Shondell Varcianna (00:39):
Laura Dolan (00:40):
Yeah. I see. It's cold here in Ohio too. It snowed here yesterday. We finally got our first dusting. Actually, it snowed about eight inches.
Shondell Varcianna (00:47):
Oh, wow. So you really got it.
Laura Dolan (00:49):
Yeah. Well, let's start out by you telling us a little bit about your business and how you got started.
Shondell Varcianna (00:55):
Yeah. We're a content writing company, specializing in blog posts, and we write for financial institutions. So, banks, credit unions and mortgage companies is really our focus. I got started, I paid off a couple of mortgages, but I paid off a property that I was living in and my rental property, this was back in 2011, and I started a blog just to give people advice on how to pay off their mortgages and buy rental properties and things like that. My blog got popular and then it started getting some media attention, and then that led to people asking me to start writing for them. Then really, we just grew from there. I was still working my full-time job at the time, and I couldn't handle all the work so I started hiring writers. Then here we are today. It's pretty much how the business started.
Laura Dolan (01:48):
That's fantastic. So, how was the word spread? Was it word of mouth or did you do a lot of social promoting?
Shondell Varcianna (01:55):
Yeah. So, when I started blogging, I became a part of the whole personal finance community, and just meeting other bloggers. Then over time, I started getting some attention from radios and magazines and Redbook Magazine contacted me, and I did a feature with them. Then I met a lady by the name of Gail Vaz-Oxlade. So, all of this started in Canada, I'm from Canada and then I brought the business to Atlanta. So, all of this started in Canada and Gail Vaz-Oxlade is the Susie Orman, but of Canada. So, just to put... Many people may not know who she is because she's big in Canada.
Laura Dolan (02:33):
Shondell Varcianna (02:34):
At the time she had three television shows and her own radio show. So, once I started working for her, that really opened, that really exposed me, and that's when companies started contacting me and she put me on her radio show. After that radio show, I started getting a flood of calls for people wanting to write for me. So, that's really how. I only had maybe one or two clients that I was writing for before I started working with Gail, and before I was featured in Redbook. But then once those... Those things happened pretty simultaneously. So, yeah. That's what really brought in more people to the business, was really just those outlets. Then I couldn't handle all the work that I was getting, so then I just started hiring. So, I wouldn't really say I was doing much, I was doing some social media, but not a lot. Things didn't really scale until I started getting recognized by Redbook and then Gail.
Laura Dolan (03:33):
That's fantastic. What a great way to propel your business.
Shondell Varcianna (03:36):
Yeah. It wasn't intentional. I didn't even know you can get paid for blogging until I started to meet more people in the community, and they were like, "Yeah. This is a thing." I was really just doing it to help people because my girlfriend suggested, I was young when I had paid off both mortgages and she was like, "You've got to help people do the same thing." I thought, okay. That really was my attitude. Like, sure, and I thought, yeah, why not? I mean, I don't have a problem helping people. I didn't know how to do that, how to help people. But once she said, "Yeah. Start blogging," I just did and taught myself how to do it. I didn't think it would turn into a business, but it did.
Laura Dolan (04:13):
No. It's extremely invaluable. Especially when it comes to finances and money. I mean, my husband and I just bought a house last year, so it's like, I would like to know how to pay off my mortgage in fewer than 30 years.
Shondell Varcianna (04:24):
Yeah. I think I paid it off in 11.
Laura Dolan (04:28):
How? I need to read up on how you do this. This is...
Shondell Varcianna (04:33):
Yeah. It wasn't easy, but really the main things we did was, well, I did, was I increased my payments. So, I did biweekly payments and I put additional money on my mortgage every single year.
Laura Dolan (04:45):
Shondell Varcianna (04:46):
From the beginning. That was probably the biggest thing. I did a lot of things just to make extra money, and everything I made, all my bonuses, I used to work for the federal government so we would get great bonuses every year, and they used to pay for like... They paid for my vehicle, but I bought a cheap vehicle so I would get the extra money. I put that on my mortgage, I put the bonuses on my mortgage, everything I threw on it. I was able to pay it off in a short period of time. Then you could refinance your mortgage just to lower the rate, which-
Laura Dolan (05:16):
Shondell Varcianna (05:16):
...more payment is going toward your principle versus your interest. So, those were really the only things that I did. It was really no secret. I was just very like, I have to get rid of this.
Laura Dolan (05:28):
Shondell Varcianna (05:29):
Yeah. Before you know it, it was gone. I was like, wow. What am I going to do? My payment was 1800 bucks. I remember, I met my husband at the time, and I was like, "What am I going to do with all this extra money?" Because it was like, yeah. It was like, I think it was 1800 biweekly. We were talking about getting married at that time when I had paid it off, but he didn't propose yet so I wasn't taking him too serious.
Laura Dolan (05:52):
Shondell Varcianna (05:54):
So, he said, I should save it because he's thinking, okay, I'm going to propose to her and we'll get married. Then he said, he's going to match me. So, he started saving the exact same thing.
Laura Dolan (06:02):
Shondell Varcianna (06:03):
Yeah. It was incredible. So, we ended up getting married cash free. We went on our honeymoon, we paid for our wedding cash. We went on our honeymoon cash because he was saving while I was saving.
Laura Dolan (06:13):
Shondell Varcianna (06:13):
We used that money and got married and then bought another house. Yeah. It worked out really, really well, but it was fun. It was fun because he was part of that journey.
Laura Dolan (06:21):
Shondell Varcianna (06:23):
[Crosstalk 00:06:23] going to attack it.
Laura Dolan (06:23):
Yeah. That's fantastic. I mean, I'm a huge believer in starting your marriage debt free.
Shondell Varcianna (06:28):
Laura Dolan (06:29):
If you're lucky enough to be able to save a little bit and save together, and put it towards your mutual funds once you get married and you combine all your finances, that's just the best way to do it.
Shondell Varcianna (06:40):
Absolutely. When he said he was going to match me and save it, I thought, wow. It was really good that he did that because, like I said, I'm from Canada so shortly after that we got married, we bought some rental properties and then we moved to Atlanta. So, it really helped us to save up enough money to move, and buy some properties before we left. It was such a great idea of his, when he said, "You should save it," because I'm thinking, why? We can go on vacation.
Laura Dolan (07:08):
Right, right. But you can't beat that investment. I mean it'll always come back to you every time, and I'm sure location is a huge factor as well.
Shondell Varcianna (07:16):
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely. It was a great idea that he had because I was just like, "I got rid of the mortgage, can I have some fun?" He's like, "No. Let's stay disciplined. Plan our future."
Laura Dolan (07:28):
Plan now, play later. You know how it goes.
Shondell Varcianna (07:29):
Yes. You know when you've worked so hard for something and when you finally get it, you just want to have fun? He was like, "Okay, our fun will be, we'll get married." We went to Italy, Spain and France-
Laura Dolan (07:42):
Shondell Varcianna (07:43):
...we'll splurge a little and then we're getting back to business. We're not going to splurge the entire savings. We're not doing that.
Laura Dolan (07:50):
Right. I mean, you don't want it to be all business. You want a little bit of leeway as well. Plus, gosh, honeymoon in Europe, how can you beat that?
Shondell Varcianna (08:00):
Yeah. But it was great, but that's pretty much how the business got started in a nutshell.
Laura Dolan (08:05):
That's fantastic. So, how did you go about finding writers? Was it required that they had to have that background in finance, and coming from a financial institution? Or were you lucky enough to find writers that just learned as they went?
Shondell Varcianna (08:19):
No. When we actually started the business, we were not writing for financial institutions, we were writing for everybody.
Laura Dolan (08:26):
Shondell Varcianna (08:27):
Writing for everybody, I realized that doesn't work. So, right around the time when I was starting to make some money where I could hire... It made sense to just hire people because I couldn't do the work all by myself. So, this was our honeymoon, I would say, and I was reading The Four Hour Work Week. I took The Four Hour Work Week on our honeymoon, and I read the entire book, and that just completely changed how I thought about business, because he's all about outsourcing, and it was just such a pivotal moment when I read that book and when I was just getting started. So, after reading that book was when I pretty much restructured the entire business to only hire when we make money. So, I hired writers that were contractors, and they only got paid when we get business.
Laura Dolan (09:13):
Shondell Varcianna (09:13):
So, if we don't have a client to write for, then there's no need to have a writer.
Laura Dolan (09:16):
Shondell Varcianna (09:17):
So, that's how I structured the business. At the time I was using Upwork, it wasn't called Upwork then, I can't remember what it was called. I started hiring writers from there to write, because we wrote for a bunch of different niches. It wasn't until we moved to Atlanta, we moved here 2014, that's when I started to realize, okay. Writing for everybody is not going to work because it was just very difficult to find writers for so many different niches, that can write extremely well.
Laura Dolan (09:47):
Shondell Varcianna (09:48):
So, that was the problem. One writer was writing for the medical industry, the spa industry. We had pool companies we wrote for, I mean there was just a whole gamut of industries that we were writing for. I found it was just difficult to provide the best quality when we're focused on so many different industries.
Laura Dolan (10:05):
Shondell Varcianna (10:05):
So, one of my mentors suggested that I niche down and I just had to think about what made sense, what industry made sense to work with. Financial institutions just made sense, just because I had been in that world for so long. So, that's when we started to focus on financial institutions. Now, when I was a part of the personal finance community, I had met a lot of financial writers and I was a part of a lot of finance communities. So, I leaned back there to find writers, and it worked extremely well because that's... I still am a part of some of those communities. I still get writers from there today, because I had known quite a bit of finance writers from just when I was blogging and I kept in touch with them and stuff.
Shondell Varcianna (10:47):
So, we've hired mainly from the community, is where I get a lot of the writers today, because now that we write for financial institutions, I've got to find writers who... Like a lot of our writers today they've worked for credit unions, they worked for banks, so that makes it a lot easier to write good quality content because they've worked inside of an institution, because that's just the main thing, is just finding someone that's well experienced in mortgage products and things like that.
Laura Dolan (11:16):
Absolutely. It's so good to know you have that resource in your back pocket, that you always have that person to rely on whenever you need to fill that gap in your blog cadence, I'm sure.
Shondell Varcianna (11:28):
Yeah. That just worked out, honestly. I didn't even think about it until I started looking for finance writers. I thought, hey. I've still got this community here. Why not just reach in there and see if we can find some writers? It all came together, which I thank God for.
Laura Dolan (11:44):
Yeah, absolutely. It sounds like you're able to narrow it down. I know what it's like to be spread way too thin. I have written for so many different genres and industries. It's just, once you find that thing you can write about so well and know you could provide that help for people, it's actually really rewarding.
Shondell Varcianna (12:00):
It is. It is. It's very rewarding and you can, I feel like, we can serve our client at the highest level because we're only focused on a particular industry.
Laura Dolan (12:10):
Shondell Varcianna (12:11):
It also makes it easier to create systems and processes, because we're writing for a particular clientele. So, it just makes it easier to really niche down and get to know who they are, and write the best possible content for them because we know them, we know the industry so well. Then you're considered an expert in that industry as well when you niche down, and you can charge higher rates too. It just made a lot of sense, but it took a long time for me to get there, because I was thinking, well, why not just write for multiple? It's just better. But no. They say the riches are in the niches and that's so correct.
Laura Dolan (12:46):
For sure. So, what are some of the robust content strategies that you suggest to some of your clients?
Shondell Varcianna (12:53):
So, depending on... The very first one is getting to know who your audience is, if you don't know who they are, because I find that some clients, they just want to write what they think is important or what's trendy. None of that matters. All that matters is what your ideal client wants to know, what problems are they having? What questions do they have? What misconceptions do they have? What is it that they want to know? That's the only thing we should be writing about. That's it.
Laura Dolan (13:20):
Shondell Varcianna (13:21):
Give them what they want. I'm always advocating, it doesn't matter what you like, it's all about what they like and what they want. That's the only thing we should be writing about. What are they Googling? What are they talking about? What are they paying attention to? So, that's number one. Number two, if you don't know what your target audience wants, then you've got to show up where they are consistently, and be a part of the conversation that they're having. Like for example, our clientele, they push mortgages a lot, mortgage products, and no one wakes up and says, I'm going to buy a house today.
Laura Dolan (13:55):
Shondell Varcianna (13:56):
Yeah, no one does that. They've-
Laura Dolan (13:59):
A little bit of planning goes into that.
Shondell Varcianna (14:00):
Exactly, exactly. You just bought, so you know exactly. You were probably on realtor.com all the time, on zillow.com-
Laura Dolan (14:07):
Oh, Zillow was our go-to.
Shondell Varcianna (14:10):
Exactly. You're talking to friends and family, you're driving around different neighborhoods. You're having conversations with people, maybe a real estate agent. So, I always tell our clients, you need to be a part of that conversation that they're having with the agent. If they're checking out forums, if they're in Facebook groups, Facebook groups are huge for first time home buyers. I always tell them, "You need to be in these Facebook groups and be a fly on the wall, and listen to what your ideal customer is saying. Then answer questions if you can, provide that value to them." So, really it's just hanging out where they are and being a part of that conversation, because it's very rare somebody's buying a house cash. Most of us need to get a mortgage.
Laura Dolan (14:46):
Shondell Varcianna (14:47):
Yeah. So, they will eventually come to you if you're always in front of them, answering questions, providing value to them. Eventually they'll raise their hand and say, "You know what? I've been thinking about buying a home. What can you do for me? Can you help me? This is my situation." So, that's really the big takeaway, and then you write content based on the conversations that they're having. Then you can get more holistic with it, in terms of search engine optimization, and tying that into the conversations that they're having. Now you want to look for what they're searching for on Google and tie that into the content that you're writing. So, it's really a holistic approach, but that is where I would start, is go where they are and pay attention to what they're talking about, and look for ways to create content based on what they're talking about.
Laura Dolan (15:29):
Right. So, it's all about getting ahead of their pain points and trying to remedy the situation, making the process way easier for them.
Shondell Varcianna (15:36):
Yeah. Just be valuable to them. Right. It's never about us, it's always about them. That's for any industry. It's always about the customer, it's never about us and what we want and what we think is important. No one cares about us. I mean, I know that sounds harsh, but really the reality is-
Laura Dolan (15:53):
But it's true. They just want their problem solved. As long as we provide that value or your business provides that value, that's all they care about.
Shondell Varcianna (16:00):
Exactly. Exactly. People laugh when I say that, but it's the truth. We think about ourselves. If you can help somebody get from A to B, especially buying a house, that's the largest purchase people make. It's a dream for many of us. I mean a lot of people, it's the first time they're buying a house. It's the first time they're getting ready to start their family. They got married. It's a big deal.
Laura Dolan (16:22):
It is. It's the most important investment you'll ever make.
Shondell Varcianna (16:26):
Absolutely. Absolutely. And the largest purchase, and it's just a big deal. I try to express that to our clients, like you're really changing a life when you're helping somebody buy a house.
Laura Dolan (16:39):
Shondell Varcianna (16:40):
Many people never thought they would ever own a house, and you help them cross that bridge. I mean, that's just, wow. That could change a family tree. So, it's just being valuable to people is really the big thing here. Yeah.
Laura Dolan (16:54):
What are some of the SEO strategies that you employ? I'm just curious.
Shondell Varcianna (16:58):
Yeah. We don't do SEO at all. We just mainly focus on the blog post. So, a lot of our clients will either have SEO agencies that they work for, or they do internal optimization, and then they'll just give us the keywords and we will organically add them into the content that we write. Some of our clients have already really established their brand, so they're not so much into the SEO, but some of them are, and will provide us with keywords. I mean, SEO is much bigger than just adding keywords. There's so much other stuff that's involved.
Laura Dolan (17:34):
Oh, trust me. I know.
Shondell Varcianna (17:35):
Yeah. We're only the content portion of their-
Laura Dolan (17:40):
Shondell Varcianna (17:41):
...team, in terms of... Well, I shouldn't even say content, I should say blog post portion, because content could be video, audio, we're doing content right now.
Laura Dolan (17:49):
Shondell Varcianna (17:49):
So, we're the blog post component of their marketing. They provide us with any keywords that they have and we'll organically add them. There are times where we are specifically focused on keywords that they're trying to target, and we typically come up with topics for our clients. So, we'll come up with topics based on the keywords that they're trying to target, and then we'll add the keywords in and then their SEO people, whether internally or externally, will do their magic.
Laura Dolan (18:17):
So, at this point, are you planning on expanding beyond a blog? Do you think you will incorporate some videos or any other type of visual content?
Shondell Varcianna (18:26):
We've been asked to do social media posts, and we've got people that do that, because... We just haven't decided yet. I feel like we need to flesh out the blogging a little bit more before we expand. I'm not really quick to expand into other products until I feel like we can do it justice.
Laura Dolan (18:48):
Shondell Varcianna (18:48):
It is definitely something that we're thinking about. Video, I have not thought of doing video yet simply because we would have to... I don't know enough about optimizing video and enough about it to really sell it as a service, which is pretty much the main reason. I could be on the block for that. But I don't know enough. I'm just being fully honest. I don't know enough-
Laura Dolan (19:09):
Absolutely. I appreciate that.
Shondell Varcianna (19:09):
I don't know enough about video to offer it as a service yet. We've been asked for that, we've been asked to do video and we've also been asked to do social media posts. Search engine optimization we've been asked to do too, but that's a hard no right now. There's just too much involved.
Laura Dolan (19:29):
Shondell Varcianna (19:30):
We used to be in that space.
Laura Dolan (19:32):
Yeah. It's good to pace yourself, I think.
Shondell Varcianna (19:34):
Yeah. We used to be in that space and there's agencies that just do SEO, that's all they do. They don't even do content. They usually... Because we used to be the agency that they would hire to do the content, and they just do search engine optimization and then we would do the content. We would do the writing for them. It's just so much involved in SEO that that's just not something we want to take on. But it is a consideration to consider social media posts, because we help our current clients right now on how to create social media posts with the blogs that we write.
Laura Dolan (20:07):
Shondell Varcianna (20:07):
So, we give them strategies to do that, and we write some of our content so that it's easy for them to pull out social media posts. So, that might be a natural transition, to add that in the future, just because we're doing that now. We just don't actually do the post, but we tell them exactly what to do and how to post and all that kind of stuff. So, that's something that we may consider. It's just not something we offer right now.
Laura Dolan (20:31):
So, for now the blog lives on your site, do you do anything to promote the blog? Do you have a weekly newsletter or something that you put those links in?
Shondell Varcianna (20:39):
Yeah. We do. We don't promote their content. We're really just strictly a blog writing company. Oftentimes the banks and stuff, they're already promoting content before we even come into the picture. It's very rare... We've never had a client where they're just started with content and then we're coming in. They already have a marketing system or plan in place. They may not have blogged before, but they have newsletters going out, or they're doing some type of marketing. It may just not be blogging.
Laura Dolan (21:11):
How do your clients go about distributing their content? How do you assist them with that?
Shondell Varcianna (21:16):
So, when we write the blog posts, like our average blog post is about 750 words. So, they'll always put it on their website. Then I'll often tell them to take snippets of the blog post and create social media posts, and then post that on their social media platforms. Whether that's Facebook, LinkedIn. Wherever their target audience hangs out the most, is where they should be posting it. So, I tell them to take snippets from what we've written, and post on their social media with a link back to their website, so that people will subscribe. We always add internal links to their blog posts as well, so if someone finds something that's a little bit catchy, they may link to another post where there's also an opportunity to subscribe as well. So, that's typically how we tell them to distribute the content we write for them, is on their social media post. Then of course, always putting it on their website.
Laura Dolan (22:12):
Perfect. Is there anything else that we didn't cover that you'd like our audience to take away, as far as content building or strategies going forward?
Shondell Varcianna (22:21):
Yeah. Just mainly, I guess, the big takeaway is just to get to know your ideal audience, and if you don't know them, really just find out where they congregate and show up there, and be that fly on the wall to look for... What you're really looking for, whether that's forums or Facebook groups or wherever they're hanging out, is patterns. What are a lot of people complaining about, or what are some similar questions that people have? Then figure out a way to create content based on that, is really the biggest takeaway. Create content based on what your ideal customer wants to know. That's really the only kind of content I suggest you should be creating, is really what they want to know. You'll never run out of ideas if you're constantly... Or if you're consistently where they are, because they're going to tell you what to write about, because they're going to be talking about it. So, that's a question I often get too. What if you get writer's block? Usually if you get writer's block it's because you're not where your ideal customer is consistently, because they'll tell you what they want to know.
Laura Dolan (23:20):
Shondell Varcianna (23:21):
Laura Dolan (23:22):
Brilliant. Can you tell our audience how they could find you?
Shondell Varcianna (23:25):
Yeah. My handle is Shondell Varcianna. I'm mainly on LinkedIn because that's where my ideal customer is. So, I'm on LinkedIn every day. But it's Shondell Varcianna. I'm not on Twitter often at all actually, but I'm on Facebook as well, but LinkedIn, I'm on LinkedIn daily. So, Shondell Varcianna, and I can send you my links so you can add them to the show notes.
Laura Dolan (23:46):
Perfect. Absolutely. Yes. I was just about to say, I will definitely be hyperlinking all that information so that our audience can find you, connect with you, expand their network on LinkedIn. You're definitely a fantastic resource for them, Shondell, so I appreciate you coming on here today, telling us about your business and how you can help clients get to where they need to be, as far as owning their homes and being financially responsible. So, all this has been very valuable, so thank you very much.
Shondell Varcianna (24:12):
Oh, you're so welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
Laura Dolan (24:14):
Thank you. Thank you all so much for tuning into this episode of Content Intel. I'm Laura Dolan, and I will see you next time.
Laura Dolan (24:22):
Thank you for listening to this episode of Content Intel. If you'd like to check out more episodes or learn more about how we can take your business to the next level by using our content, commerce, or optimization tools, please visit our website at optimizely.com, or you can contact us directly using the link at the bottom of this podcast blog to hear more about how our products will help you unlock your digital potential.