Former print journalist Donna Freedman has made a living as a writer for 30 years, the last eight of them online (for companies like MSN Money, Get Rich Slowly, Wise Bread, Money Talks News, H&R Block, Women & Co., Ally Bank and Experian). Recently she combined what she knows about the print and digital worlds to create an online course called Write A Blog People Will Read and to offer personal and professional blog coaching. Donna lives in a startling midlife romance in Anchorage, Alaska, and writes about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com.
What is an evergreen?
It’s the walking dead of story topics, i.e., one that you cannot escape and that will never, ever die. I spent 18 years as a newspaper reporter (Anchorage Daily News, Chicago Tribune) and certain articles had to be done every year – topics like holiday shopping, the Taste of Chicago, the Alaska State Fair, summer camps, the Fur Rendezvous, the beach scene along Lake Michigan, college applications, the king salmon run, “The Nutcracker” and the arrival of Permanent Fund Dividend checks.
How in the world do you make the state fair fresh? It’s the same damn giant cabbage every year! And – spoiler alert! – the Mouse King always gets vanquished. The only thing to be done was to find a new way to look at 100-pound crucifers or those cute kids in ballet shoes. Year after year, we did it.
Before the digital era, how did publishers use evergreens?
Certain topics needed annual coverage for three reasons:
- They reported what was going on – people splurging with the PFD checks, say, or the state department of fisheries shutting down a popular stream due to low salmon return.
- They brought in revenue, in the form of special sections for summer camp or holiday gift guides.
- They helped people who needed it. If you’re a working parent, the summer camp section gives you options for all-day child care. If this is your first time applying to college, here’s what you need to know. And so on.
What are some examples of financial blog evergreens?
Debt repayment, tax time, the best credit cards, retirement savings vehicles, student loans, affordable weddings, buying a car, health insurance…Any of these sound familiar?
How do evergreen articles fit into a blogger’s overall article mix?
Like it or not, these topics are interesting to readers even if they cause bloggers to feel a sense of dread that I call “Oh-Lord-not-again! Syndrome.” How do you write yet another article on income taxes, farmers’ markets, reducing utility costs or why you shouldn’t co-sign for your shiftless brother-in-law’s credit card? Is there anything new to be said about life insurance or slashing grocery bills?
It’s all been written before, so why should you bother with these oft-repeated topics? Because you change someone’s life by doing so, that’s why.
Sure, you get tired of covering certain topics year after year. Keep in mind, however that all of this is new to somebody. (Maybe a lot of somebodies.) Your article on saving for retirement might appear exactly when a reader decides he needs to get serious about planning. Young adults writing about student loans and starter jobs can provide tips for those who need help coping with less-than-ideal finances.
What are readers looking for when they read evergreens?
They’re looking for help. Preferably retroactive help! But seriously: They’re looking for actionable advice, either from someone who’s been there or from experts interviewed by the blogger.
How can writers make the evergreen writing process less of a chore?
Start by keeping in mind what I said earlier: You could be giving someone the tools with which to fix his/her life. That’s huge. When I get e-mails that say things like “I’m out of debt because of you” or “I’m back in school because of you,” I dance around the house in my freelancer-stereotypical sweatpants, yelping, “This is why I do what I do!”
If it’s all been written before, how do bloggers keep it fresh?
Two classic newspaper-y ways of doing this are:
Try it yourself. An obvious route that’s still effective if it’s done well. You could put your own money on a new budgeting software and report how it works. And if you discover to your horror that you’re spending 25 percent of your food budget? Write about that, too. Readers appreciate someone who’s (a) as fallible as they are and (b) honest enough to admit it.
So show us. Explain how you patched the drywall vs. calling a handyman. Post step-by-step instructions for creating a wallet-friendly birthday party. Give up your gym membership and resolve to exercise for free – and be sure to let us know how that went.
A frequent benefit of the “I tried it…” approach is that it keeps things real. When we realize how much fast food we eat or how hard it can be to exercise consistently, it makes us a little more compassionate to readers who write in for advice. It reminds us that they’re human. (And so are we.)
Follow someone. I did a lot of that as a features reporter. Staying up all night with the evening magistrate. Watching the pothole crew in action. Driving a dogsled. I spent six months traipsing around with an engaged couple as they selected china patterns, picked out flowers, got fitted for formal wear and did all those other pre-wedding things; I even attended her bachelorette party (embarrassing!) and his bachelor party at a strip club (really embarrassing!).
Maybe a blogger could hang out with friends who constantly price-compare the online deals from Black Friday through Cyber Monday. Or perhaps you could do a day-in-the-life post on someone who’s trying to cut expenses to the bone or who’s working two or three jobs to achieve a personal goal.
Most bloggers aren’t journalists. Got any other ways to reduce evergreen agony?
Challenge yourself. In public. Suppose you’re determined to pay off consumer debt. Readers love success stories, and the need to keep them updated will keep you on task. It doesn’t matter if your goal is totally unique or totally ordinary; the journey to (whatever) matters as much as the destination. Maybe more.
Bonus: Challenges create a great sense of community. Readers will not only leave encouraging comments, they’ll either ask for advice or offer tips about how they did what you’re currently doing. Other readers will appreciate the help.
Don’t worry if you backslide or encounter an emergency. Plenty of readers can identify with someone who despite his best efforts gives in to temptation or who is surprised by a car repair bill or a pet’s illness. Stuff happens. Make your posts about how you react, not about how naughty/unprepared you are. This emphasizes the fact that this blogger lives in the real world. The reader’s world. And speaking of readers…
- Challenge them. For example, you might ask readers to go on a no-spend week with you and then revisit the topic the following Monday. Be honest about your own reactions (“Really wanted to catch opening day but I had to say ‘no’” and I’ll admit, I was pissed”). Ask them to post their experiences in the comments.Bonus: If you get great feedback about the no-spend week, you can turn that into a separate post: “Want to trim spending? My very smart readers tell you how.”
<p?The topic can be whatever you want. The live-on-one-income challenge, the make-quinoa-palatable challenge, the bathroom-remodel-on-a-budget challenge, the stop-smoking challenge. Each is a chance not only to meet a personal goal but also to help readers meet theirs.
- Start with results, not advice. Describe your current setup, e.g., “I built my blog up enough to quit my job and write full-time.” Then explain how you did it.
- Run the numbers. Take apart your mortgage loan and define what each line means. Explain the opportunity cost of a seven-year auto loan for some hot wheels vs. a less-expensive car and a faster repayment. Decipher a typical cell-phone bill.
- Run numbers we can understand. An article about a proposed $1.5 million library bond put it this way: The measure would add $5.70 to the taxes on a $300,000 home. The article further clarified it as “the cost of two lattes spread out over 12 months.” (There’s those damned lattes again!) The point is, a reader who might go numb when seeing “one and a half million dollars” can have things put into perspective by the translation of “a one-time addition of $5.70 to my property taxes.”
- Run the numbers in a fun way. Suppose you see a press release about how many NSF fees are being paid by millennials. Turn that amount into small or large luxuries, from cupcakes to Netflix subscriptions to airline tickets.
- Run the numbers in a depressing way. Translate the average student loan payment into terms such as “a year’s worth of payments into a Roth IRA with three grand left over – and you’re in this for another 10 years.” Or run the monthly payment through an investment calculator and see what that money could have become by retirement – if only it had been available to invest. Although it may be too late for your current readers to do things differently, perhaps they can help younger siblings choose a more affordable education. Or maybe your reader is the parent of a teen who’s looking at ways to pay for school.
What if we just plain hate annual topics? Can’t we just skip ’em?
It’s your blog – you can do whatever you want. I agree that it’s hard to cover and re-cover and re-re-cover the same sorts of topics. However, I urge bloggers to look at evergreens with respect rather than resignation. These subjects are important to readers.
Do you have to write about every single evergreen every single year? Of course not. But remember the difference you can make in people’s lives by doing so.
Thanks for sharing, Donna!