Jessica Mehring of Horizon Peak Consulting focuses on marketing content and shares her wisdom and insight from working as a copywriter for small and medium businesses and enterprise. She explains that relationship building upfront is an integral part of the profession. She talks about how it helps create a message that’s aligned with the brand and their goal and connects emotionally with the audience.
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Jessica Mehring CEO Horizon Peak Consulting, proprietary copywriting methodology helping IT, software and tech companies get measurable results from their marketing content.
We’re incredibly fortunate. We have Jessica Mehring. She’s the CEO and Senior Copywriter of Horizon Peak Consulting. Thanks so much for taking time. Jessica, thanks for coming on the show. Tell us a little bit about your business and who you serve.
Marketing content for IT, software and tech companies. I work with small and medium businesses and enterprise, which might seem like they have totally different needs, but they have very similar needs when it comes to marketing content and expressing their expertise in a way that aligns with the brand and still connects with the audience.
For folks that are going like, “I’m lost,” in an IT company, what would be a prototypical client of yours, without disclosing necessarily who they are? Who would be that customer?
I work with a lot of IT services companies, so they’re helping businesses with their IT setups and I write a lot of whitepapers for those folks. Blog posts, some e-books, infographics, guides, everything that helps them explain what they do to their customers in a way that makes sense and connects emotionally and helps them make sales too.
I think about the commentary about some of the folks in the tech space. They’re good at what they do, but not necessarily that good communicating. For you, let’s say that I’m in the IT space. I have an app or software as a service and when I reach out to you, what’s the process that you go through to try to help understand and craft the message?
We talk. We have very in-depth conversations upfront to make sure we’re aligned on the goals for the company and their goals for the project. A lot of copywriters have set packages and they have spitball rates that they’ll throw at people. I try to have deeper conversations initially to make sure we’re 100% in alignment before a proposal even happens.
Why is that?
There’s this huge disconnect between these brilliant technicians, these brilliant engineers, developers, founders and their audience. I’m trying to help bridge that gap. There are too many copywriters out there who want to put words on a page and not bridge that gap while they’re at it. If you are not bridging that gap, you’re not helping the company. The company’s wasting money with a copywriter and the copywriters are wasting their time with a customer who’s probably not going to recommend them or be a good case study. I try to have a lot of that relationship building upfront to bridge that gap right away.
When you have a client show up and a lot of engineers are, “We have this great solution and we’re trying to take our solution to somebody’s pain point and create a sale.” For you, between the engineer, their product and their potential customer, what does that process look like to you as you’re trying to go through discovery?
In discovery, I’m discovering two things. I’m discovering the company and I’m discovering the customer. In discovering the company, I can become a better partner and I can help them meet their business goals because I understand what their business goals are, but most importantly I want to get to know their customers because that’s who we’re speaking to. That’s my main focus, and that’s why I have to build such a great relationship with a company upfront because every company does this. They want their messaging upfront. They want their voice upfront. I don’t want to say it’s an ego thing, but it is an ego thing. Whereas if you want to connect with your audience, you have to speak the audience’s language. I want to get to know the customer, I want to get to know who they are, what they need and what language they’re speaking, so when I’m writing for the company, I’m writing in the customer’s voice in a way that aligns with the company and gets them toward their goal.
For a case, let’s say I’m the ABC Software guy. I wrote a piece of software and I go, “I think it’s going to serve this particular customer base.” How do you talk to their potential customer base to hear their voice?
I talk to their customers. Often companies already have a lot of customer feedback. They’ve been interviewing happy customers, they’ve been surveying, they may be doing some user testing and so I’ll have that feedback to mind for insights and to mind for language. If they don’t have that, then I want to go get it. I’m going to interview their customers. I’m going to help the company craft surveys to gather customer insight, but I want to get real customer words for the project. That’s how we connect with the customer.
Why don’t you explain your journey to this point?
I fell into copywriting. I fell into it. I’m fresh out of college. I got a temp job at Compaq Computer Corporation. That’s how long I’ve been doing this. It was my second temp job at the company and I was supposed to be doing data entry for one of their new eCommerce stores. This is when eCommerce was still very new. It was their SMB eCommerce store. The team lead found out that I’m also a writer. I have been writing little articles and getting published in little magazines all through college and she said, “Would you consider writing the product copy for the products that we’re putting up on the website?” I said, “What’s copy?” I had to figure out what copy was and specifically what product copywriting was all about. I learned on the job and I found not only was it interesting to do, it is fascinating work. I loved it and there is a career path for it. I continued, I was always copywriting in some way or another through my initial years in the tech industry. Compaq got bought by Hewlett Packard so I was working for Hewlett Packard for a while. I was working as a consultant for Hewlett Packard for their creative agency, so I had various roles. I was a project manager, I was an account manager, I was a content manager, but I was always copywriting in one way or another. I was around a lot of techies. I was around a lot of developers and engineers and super smart people. Even though I’m not a technician myself, I’ve been around them my entire career. I picked up the language very quickly and I know how to converse with them. Technicians have a very certain personality sometimes and I find that it’s a fun personality for me to interact with, so it’s a natural progression.
You went from that world to starting your own firm. You’ve been doing this in your firm for how long?
I started the LLC in 2013, so it’s been five years that Horizon Peak has been in existence formally. I was freelancing. I’ve been freelancing since 2000, more and more over the years. We’re coming up on twenty years as me working on client projects, even on the side of my official tech employment.
I think about that timeframe and the decision to form your own company. What was that thought process like, “I want to take in and do this full time?”
It was such an easy decision. I loved doing what I did for Hewlett Packard, but enterprise technology has changed, the world has changed. I didn’t feel like I was the perfect fit for it anymore towards the end. I felt like I was naturally progressing out of the company to begin with. I was being presented with all these opportunities to work with other companies on various projects that excited me. I love these companies, I love these projects, but I could only do so much as a freelancer nights and weekends after my day job. The transition was a no-brainer for me. I had a lot of people that wanted to work with me and I was ready to work with them. I got laid off, and it worked out perfectly. My manager knew that I was interested in eventually leaving company, so it wasn’t a total surprise that I got laid off. It wasn’t like they packed up my box and sent me home. It was planned.
I think about the experience and mileage that you have now. If you could roll the clock back to where you could offer advice to you with all the experience you have now, when you first started your company, what advice would you offer to yourself?
I feel like the path that I took was the perfect path for me. I learned so much along the way and I built such amazing relationships along the way. I wouldn’t change anything that I did, but if I were to give myself advice earlier on, I’d say take my ego out of it earlier.
How does that manifest itself? What do you mean?
All writers suffer from a little bit of ego when it comes to the words that they put on the page. That’s natural in our industry, but we also have to be open to our client feedback. That can be a challenge, getting feedback on your words, but at the same time, to do our job properly, we need to be listening to the client. Most specifically though, we need to be listening to the customer. When I say take my ego out of it, I mean maybe be a little more aggressive about seeking feedback, not just from the client but from the customers. I measure everything now. You take a lot from the conversion copywriter world and how I measure the results of the content that I write for my clients, but I wasn’t always that way. Up until the last several years, if the client’s happy with the words, I’m happy with the words, but I wasn’t necessarily tracking the results of them. Maybe I was a little bit afraid of my words not working as well as I thought they did because I had that ego in there.To do our job properly, we need to be listening to the client. Click To Tweet
I was looking at your website and there are a couple of testimonials on your website where some people say, “We hired you, you did the following and our revenue was directly attributable to what you did.”
Because I measure it now; I took the ego out, I measure it, I adjust and I iterate.
From a frustrated person that advise advertising periodically, you say, “I’ve got a budget, I’m going to spend X, and I would expect a return on my investment.” For you, that seems to be a focal point for your website. What drove you to be that specific about return on investment?
I started hanging out with a lot of conversion copywriters and I got converted. Conversion copywriting is a very specific discipline. It started with Joanna Wiebe at Copy Hackers. She’s the inventor of this discipline, and it all starts with data. It’s a very data-driven way of writing copy. While I do write copy, and when I say copy, I mainly mean website copy and sales page copy, my main focus is marketing content. Those are the blog posts, whitepapers, eBooks, infographics, guides and the workbooks that are the relationship-building assets. That’s my main focus. There’s not a lot of talk about data and numbers and ROI in the content world. I got to know a lot of conversion copywriters, I got certified in conversion copywriting because it was such a fascinating discipline to me. I saw the benefits of measuring. I saw the benefits of using data to write copy, and I thought, “Why isn’t anybody doing this in content?” Businesses are spending money on content the same way they’re spending money on website copy, but very few people are measuring that or using data to create it in the first place. I brought that discipline into the content writing world, and that’s how I started this whole thing that I do.
These people aren’t stupid but they’re ignorant. There’s a difference. Ignorant, they don’t know that they don’t know. When you’re working with a potential client and they’re used to content versus copy, what you do to try to educate them about the difference between one and the other?
I ask them how their existing content is performing, and normally that stops them in their tracks because they haven’t been measuring it. They realized that they’ve either been spending their personal time writing it or they’ve been spending their budget on a writer who’s been doing the job, but they have no idea if it made sales for them. They have no idea what their customers think of it, how their customers are reacting to it or connecting with it. As soon as I start talking about measuring, the conversation shifts.
The reason I brought it up is I’ve had a number of conversations with people about that and for a lot of the senior leadership, they don’t know that they don’t know. I don’t know if they even make the distinction between the two, because if you say, “I have an advertising budget,” and you go, “How’s that in relation to most sales?” I forget what company it was, they looked at some big advertising deal that they had out and it basically wasn’t converting at all. You think about that as a business owner. Business owners, how much touchy feely do you need before you make a sale? I applaud you for that. When you went through and got educated, when you completed that education, what was the first a-ha moment? How did you know that it was effective for you?
I started seeing amazing results for my clients. If you go to the testimonials page on my website, you’ll see those results for yourself; real numbers and real dollars associated with what I was putting on the page for them.
For folks that are going, “That’s what I’m looking for. How do I find you?” How do they find you on social media?
I’m a fan of what you do because it’s so fascinating. I think about whether it’s music, whether it’s a well-written book, there’s that certain something that makes you want to listen to the rest of the song or something that gets you enthralled with the book or something that makes you want to read the rest, and that’s a gift in my opinion to be able to do that well. We’re going to go through the part of the podcast where I get to quiz you to death. What’s the most recent book or the most influential book that has altered your perception on being a CEO and how you run your business and why?
A recent book that I loved that influenced me was Never Split the Difference. It was recommended to me by one of my clients. He loved it and we used what we learned from the book together for some of his blog posts and it spun up a lot of ideas for us. On the surface, it’s a book about negotiation, but when you read it, you realize it’s a book about empathy and connection. It has changed how I talk to my clients. It has changed how I have sales conversations because so much of the traditional sales negotiation training is about control and power dynamics and getting the upper hand, and this book flipped that on its head. It comes at the negotiation process and the sales conversation process from a point of empathy. You should read it, it will get your mind going and the stories in the book are amazing.
For you, maybe what would be helpful? You read the book, you were moved by the book, then you talk to either an existing client or a new client. What’s the chief thing that you did differently in your presentation to that client?
I feel like my listening skills have improved. I’ve always tried to listen while on phone calls with clients or prospects. I’ve tried to hone my listening skills, but I feel like I listen from a different place now. I listen from a more empathetic place. I try harder to put myself in my clients’ shoes.
Has that changed your copywriting?
I’m sure it has.
That’s the first time I’ve heard that book, so that’s a cool resource. What failure or at the time apparent failure has served you or your company best or set you up for future achievement and why?
I started a training company a couple years ago called The Content Lab. I get a lot of questions from copywriters and from business owners asking specifically how I do what I do. When I created this company, it was me trying to consolidate my resources, answer a lot of the questions that I commonly get, have a place to put new material that I’m writing about these topics all in one place. In the world of online marketing, if you’re in online marketing especially information marketing of any kind, there’s this idea of the product launch. It’s this whole process that we’re told to go through, from testing the market and beta testing the product. Even with an e-book, you’re beta testing. You’re getting feedback, you’re launching in increments and from that, you do the bigger launch and you have the sales sequence. You have the blog posts leading up to the opening of the cart. You have the webinars to get people intrigued. You do this whole big launch process and at the end, you open the cart and you sell the product and you make a million bucks. That’s what we’re told is how this whole thing is supposed to work.
The first product that I sold on The Content Lab website was a program called Content Chemistry. It has iterated a few times since I initially launched it, but I went through the whole big process. It took immense amounts of resources from me, time and money getting this whole launch up, running and done. The product sold but it was exhausting. The product did not sell nearly as well as I wanted it to and subsequent launches didn’t do even that well. I don’t want to say it is full of failure. I’ve launched things since and they’ve been fine, but I realized that this whole idea of the launch didn’t work for me because when I shifted gears and I started working with these copywriters one-on-one and I started doing “coaching” even though I hate that word, everything changed for me. It was easier. My clients were getting better results working with me one-on-one than they were getting from these products that I was working them up to buy. I realized that even though I’m always going to have products for sale, my time and energy is best spent one-on-one.
One-on-one instead of one-to-many. It’s funny even for me in the podcasting space, I prefer face to face because I can see things that I can’t hear. Shifting from that, if you could put an ad on page one of the local papers sharing your company’s message or advise, what would it say and why?The authority that you have spent years building for yourself and your company is worth a lot more than you think it is. Click To Tweet
The authority that you have spent years building for yourself and your company is worth a lot more than you think it is. I feel like people become experts in what they do and they’re so entrenched in it that they don’t realize how impressive it is. They don’t realize how other people see them, how other people look to them as those experts and for advice. Especially when I’m working with founders, CEOs, business owners, they’re a little confused at first when I ask for their opinion on certain topics. They’re like, “Who cares what I think about it?” “The people who hire you or the people who pay for your products care because you’re an expert in this. I’m going to get a unique perspective from you that is probably going to be at least a little bit different than the perspective I’m going to get by doing a ton of research on this topic,” which I’m going to do anyway, but bringing their authority into the piece changes the dynamic.
In your case, you can identify your authority. What is your authority manifestation in your business?
Probably exactly my elevator pitch, which is marketing content for IT, software and tech. I happened to be very, very good at writing content that gets results for companies.
Do you think you discount what you know now that you know it?
I would if I didn’t also teach what I know, because of The Content Lab, because of the relationships I’ve built through training people in what I do. Also bringing on team members too, who I have to train in my methodologies. Having to talk about what I do, how I do it, why I do it, and the results that I intend to achieve by what I do, it forces the authority forward.
Do you think that has changed your skill sets by teaching?
I’m sure it has. It has certainly clarified my methodologies, which any creative profession, writing included, can be a very intuitive thing. We know what to do, we know what to write. If you’ve been doing this a long time and you have certain processes that you follow to get results, you’re building a methodology. It can be hard to see that in the day-to-day intuitive thing that we do. Having to train other people to do what I do, it brought the methodologies to the forefront. I’m like, “I have a system. I have step one, step two, and step three that I do. I could write it down and I can give instructions and I can teach other people how to do this.”
I don’t know if you’ve had the moment but many that are in the space, they’ll run into a block or they say, “It’s just not coming.” What do you do when it’s not coming for you?
When I have writer’s block, put something on the page. That blank page is what paralyzes people. That’s why everything I do starts with research. It used to be me doing the research and I’ve got a methodology for that, now I have research assistants that help with this as well. I have a methodology for the research, which is part of the broader methodology of content writing for me, but that research gives me something to put on the page even if I’m clipping copy from a blog post that’s intriguing or that has a stat that I want, I put it in a document as a resource. There are words on the page, opening up a fresh page and writing fresh words, but having words on the page, even having clips of research on the page, it gives your brain something to dig into and it gives you traction is what it does.
What is the best allocation either of time or initiative that has helped your company most and why?
I joined the first cohort of The Copywriter Mastermind with Joanna Wiebe at Copy Hackers. It was the first mastermind she ever launched. It was a huge investment of money and time for me at the time, but the community that I met, the people that I met, the connections that I made in that mastermind, they changed everything for me. In fact, I’d say 90% of us in that mastermind became so close that after the mastermind ended, we created our own little group, our own little mastermind, just to stay in touch. We have a Slack team that we use to keep in touch with each other and, and we’ve even grown closer over the years. That’s my Copywriter Mastermind today. I literally talk to them every single day. We send referrals to each other, we ask each other questions, we’d run copy by each other, we talk about our lives. They’re my tribe.
I think about the mastermind approach. Was it Think and Grow Rich that they were talking about the power of mastermind?
It’s very powerful but not every mastermind is going to be perfect. I’ve done several but that one is the one that had the biggest impact on me.
What is your most unusual habit or what others may consider out of the ordinary that has helped you or your company most and why?
I track my time down to the minute. I track all of my work time. I use a tool called Toggl. I don’t bill by the hour, I bill out a project rate, so it might sound a little weird that I keep track of every minute of my workday. It’s been life changing because I’m seeing for real how much time I’m spending on projects with clients in my inbox and in social media. It gives me a crystal clear view of what’s taking up my time. You might think, “I didn’t spend that much time trolling through Facebook today,” and then if you’re tracking your time, you look at the time you spent and realize, “That’s an hour of my day I was playing around on Facebook that I could’ve gotten that client project done.” It’s the same thing with looking at how I’m spending my time with clients. I see which clients are taking up the most of my time, which clients have gotten into a groove with and so I’m able to be much more efficient with my time working on their projects, and it gives you a big dose of reality.
With that knowledge, what was the biggest change in your behavior that you put in place after knowing what you were doing with your time?
Not spending time on social media was a huge one for me. I took Facebook off my phone because I realized that even though I told myself I was in there on business and I was in different groups interacting, that wasn’t the truth. When I tracked my time, that was not the truth. There is very little to no ROI for me in social media. That’s not how I make my sales, that’s not how I build relationships, so that was an eye opener for me. I took Facebook off my phone, it’s been amazing. I never want to put it back on my phone again. Also, how much time I was spending in my inbox, especially responding to leads and prospects, people who have not paid me a dime yet. Seeing how much time I was spending on them gave me an insight into my sales process and insight to places where I might be able to be more efficient.
Over the past three years, what belief or protocol have you established in your company that has most impacted you or your company success and why?
Communicate early and often. In the service provider world, there is this terrible and well-earned reputation for service providers taking your money and then dropping off the face of the planet, and I’ve been on the receiving end of that. I’ve hired service providers to do work for me and my company and they’ve taken my money and dropped off the face of the planet and it’s the worst feeling in the world. I’ve always been a good communicator. I’ve always been very organized, very good with time management. I’ve made communication one of the top values in my company because of this.
There are too many service providers out there who don’t communicate well. One of the things that my clients mentioned to me most often is how well I communicate. I let them know where I’m at with the project. I don’t just say, “I’ll have the whitepaper written for you in a month,” and then weeks go by and they don’t hear from me. I’m checking in once a week at least saying, “Here’s where I’m at,” and asking questions if I need to ask questions and setting new expectations and saying, “I’m still on target for the deadline or it looks like I might get this to you early.” I never miss a deadline. That’s another huge value of mine. That communication puts the client’s minds at ease.
Where you always that way?
I’ve always been that way. I always thought it was funny that people mentioned it to me like it was some strange thing. Having hired people myself now, I see it is a strange thing.
What advice would you offer to a new CEO that is assuming the role of CEO for the first time and why?
We’re going to come back to ego here. When you become a CEO, it’s not all about you anymore. You have to put your customers and your employees first. In marketing, that can be a challenge because your website and your marketing content might start to sound less like you. Your voice might not be so prominent anymore. When you’re the CEO of the company and you want your company to be successful and you want to make sales, it’s a good thing. It’s a good transition to start sounding a little more like your customers and a little less like you in your marketing content. I’m not saying take your authority out at all, but I’m saying take your ego out and put your customers and your employees first in everything you do, especially when it comes to your marketing content.
What are the most common misconceptions about you or your role as CEO?
As a CEO who is also still an individual contributor, there are probably two misconceptions. One that I’m still doing all of the writing, and the other is that I’m doing none of the writing. Neither of which is true. Every asset that my company produces is a team effort. I’ve cherry picked the best of the best researchers, editors and writers to come alongside me and collaborate with me to create the best of the best content for my company.
It’s hard to be the best at everything.
It absolutely is. Even when you do think you’re the best at everything, getting that outside perspective is still extremely valuable. My team finds things and sees things and writes things that I might not have especially in the research. That’s been the most eye opening. I thought I was good at research, and I’m good at research, but having research assistants now, I realize that it almost makes the research three dimensional. They find things, they see things and they make connections that I might not have and it’s exciting.
Looking back over the past three years, what would or should you have said no to and why?
There are definitely some clients I should have said no to. I’m very particular about who I work with. I have to be excited about the company. I have to be excited about the client. I have to feel good, there has to be an emotional connection there for me, and I’m good at spotting red flags. In the initial conversations especially, getting this feeling like, “This is going to go sideways,” but there had been a couple of occasions where my soft heart got the better of me and I said yes to projects I probably shouldn’t have, and it was not fun.
What would be a red flag for you?
There are a lot of red flags. I don’t want to get too specific because I don’t want clients listening in to this and thinking, “I did that,” or, “I said that.” I can spot a misalignment pretty quickly in goals and in process. One of the biggest red flags for me that comes up a lot, and I can say this because I would never work with a client who did this to me, I do have a methodology. It’s very robust and it is data-centric. If somebody says to me on the phone, “I don’t need all that research done. I just need website copy or I just need a blog post, or just put words on a page,” red flag. I’m not interested in putting words on a page that doesn’t do anything for your company and that doesn’t do anything for my company. I want to make sure that whatever I do for you is moving the needle towards your business goals. That will be a huge red flag for me where they don’t have any respect for the process, the data and the measurement especially.
In the day-to-day operation of your company as CEO, what is your personal habit or self-talk dialogue that keeps you and your company focused?
I talk to my team about this a lot. It’s focus on the mastery and take your ego out of it. The better you get at what you do, the more you build your skills, the more you learn from the projects you’ve worked on so you can iterate for future projects and future clients, the better you can serve your clients. Focus on the mastery, get better at what you do, ignore what everybody else is doing, take your ego out of it, and just master the craft.Focus on the mastery, get better at what you do, ignore what everybody else is doing. Just master the craft. Click To Tweet
Along with the craft, these people change. If colleagues were asked what you’re best at, what would they say and how do you utilize this super power strength on a day-to-day basis? What are you best at?
My team would probably say organization and processes, especially because what we do comes across as such a creative thing. It’s not. There’s a little bit of creativity involved, but there’s a lot of process, there’s a lot of research and structuring, and step one, step two, step three, making sure we hit these milestones to get to the end goal. One of the ladies who works with me a lot, she’s blown away that I can tell her exactly what to expect on her plate for the next month because I’ve got everything nailed down. I know what clients we’re working with, what projects we’re working on, how those projects are going to play out, what steps we need to take to produce that assets, and what exactly I’m going to need from all my team members in order to do this. She’d never worked like that before. It was always a client saying, “I need a blog post. Can you get it to me next week?” “Okay.” That’s not how I work at all. We have a path we follow, we have structures.
It’s been a lot of fun. It feels like on the questions that I have a particular agenda and I don’t. What I’m looking for is wisdom that you’ve earned in a very hard way and spent a lot of money and a lot of time and effort to get there. The idea behind the questions are to try to take and share that wisdom and record that wisdom, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time.
This has been a great interview for me. I love talking about this stuff.
It’s very apparent. I like process and systems because it’s something that you can lean into. I can see the future, I’m organized, and the team likes it too. Thank you, Jessica, for taking your time.
This is great. Thanks so much.
About Jessica Mehring
In my 15+ years as a copywriter, I have written authoritative content for the most innovative startups, global technology corporations, and thought-leading executives. Today I am the CEO of Horizon Peak Consulting, creator of The Content Lab, and an Amazon Kindle best-selling author.
At Horizon peak, our proprietary marketing content production methodology predictably and measurably helps IT, software and tech companies move the needle on their business goals. No matter if we’re writing a white paper, an e-book, a blog post, or an email series — we keep your content locked on target while ensuring it sounds like the best, most confident, trustworthy and intelligent version of you.
At The Content Lab, I help business owners and freelance copywriters gain the confidence, skills and clarity so they can create marketing content that creates results.
I am laser-focused on multiplying the results my clients see from the work we do together. I bring my core values of integrity, communication, determination and perpetual improvement to everything I do. My archetype in The Fascinate System is “The Scholar.”
Email me at jessica at horizonpeakconsulting dot com to request a link to my portfolio.
Jessica Mehring / horizonpeakconsulting.com
Twitter / @HorizonPeak