How to Hire a Ghostwriter and Get a Great ROI: A Guide for Financial Advisors

09.12.19 | Natalia Autenrieth, CPA | 0 Market post img


Content marketing can be a powerful tool to connect financial advisors with their ideal prospects, build subject matter expert standing, and reach more people. Unfortunately, keeping up with content generation isn’t easy. There are too many demands on a financial advisor’s time, which pushes blog posts, white papers, and book ideas to the bottom of the list. The obvious answer is to outsource content writing and hire a ghostwriter… But that’s where financial advisors run into questions.

Where can they hire a ghostwriter? How can they be sure to pick the right person? What should they expect from the collaboration? And, finally, how much should they expect to pay? This article dives deep into common mistakes made by financial advisors when they hire a copywriter, followed by best practices to get the most out of working with a professional writer.

The Internet has changed the playing financial advice playing field by enabling clients to find best-fit financial advisors and planners directly. No need to go into an office, search through the Yellow Pages, or take the chances with a local bank branch. Just type a few words into a search engine, and you will find dozens of local advisor websites.

The Internet has also made it possible for advisors to begin building relationships with prospects before anyone picks up the phone or visits the office. The financial services industry ranks highest in website conversions compared to other industries, so having the right content on the website positions you to develop trust, communicate your value, alleviate early concerns, and nudge the prospect to take the next step.

What exactly is “right content”? The answer varies by advisory practice, but for most financial advisors and planners, “content” is some combination of website copy, blog posts, white papers, books, emails, newsletters, videos, and podcasts.

If that list just made you anxious, you are not alone. Most advisors don’t check all the boxes across content types — and there’s no requirement to do everything. So, if you want to start with just blogging (publishing a book, authoring a monthly column for the local newspaper, creating a lead magnet that your prospects can download in exchange for joining your email list), that could give you a solid foundation.

Unfortunately, for many advisors even a small commitment like blogging is difficult to maintain. Where will you find the topics to write about? How will you carve out the time to do it regularly? And what if writing isn’t your strong suit, and you would rather invest your efforts into serving clients than learning how to write compelling blog posts?

The obvious answer is: Hire a ghostwriter!

What is a ghostwriter? A ghostwriter is a professional writer who can create content that will be published with your byline (i.e. under your name), as if you wrote it yourself.

Even though that sounds like a cheat, it isn’t. In fact, you would be amazed to learn how many blogs, magazine articles, books, and white papers aren’t physically written by the person whose name is on the cover. Ghostwriters work in every imaginable industry, from health and fitness supplements to screenwriting, from sports to financial services. There’s a good chance that some of the content you read and enjoy on a regular basis has been ghost-written.

If ghostwriting is so common, then why don’t you know more about it?

Because the first rule of ghostwriting is that we don’t talk about ghostwriting. Most people who hire a ghostwriter don’t mention it to their readers or colleagues. Ghostwriters are often bound by non-disclosure agreements. I have worked as a financial copywriter for years, and only 5% of what I have written during that time has my name associated with it in the public space (because some of the professionals I worked with had chosen to give me credit).

This code of silence puts financial advisors in a bind. There’s no checklist of best practices for hiring a financial ghostwriter. There’s no guide for making sure you hire the right person. There are many ways to get burned, and nobody talks about the red flags that could save you thousands of dollars, months of time, and a mountain of frustration.

So, in the interest of sharing best practices, here is a financial advisor’s guide that will help you hire a ghostwriter, get a great ROI on your collaboration, and avoid common mistakes.

Where can financial advisors find a ghostwriter?

There are several good places to start in your search for a great copywriter.

I recommend that you begin by creating an employer profile on a freelance platform like UpWork. Your ultimate choice may or may not come from UpWork, but this is a good place to get familiar with the playing field. Explore different search terms (try “financial writing”, “article writing”, “book writing”, etc.) and see what you find. Don’t get frustrated with the high volume of profiles to sift through; you goal is to merely get a sense for people’s experience and billing rates. Notice that contractor profiles have published ratings which indicate how their past clients have liked working with them.

If you want to test-drive UpWork, you can open a project and see which copywriters are interested in helping you out. A basic UpWork plan is free, and you don’t have to pay anything until you select and hire a freelancer. Keep in mind that UpWork will charge you a fee of 3% on each amount paid as part of the “free” UpWork Basic plan. If you opt into the UpWork Plus account ($49.99/month), those fees are covered as part of your subscription as long as you abide by certain criteria.

You could also explore copywriting agencies. There are hundreds of agencies that have a stable of copywriters. Some of those agencies specialize in the financial services industry. Your mileage will depend on the quality of their writers and editors (which could be great or terrible). Agencies tend to charge monthly retainers and tend to be more expensive than dealing directly with a copywriter. However, they can save you the time and effort you would have to invest to choose and onboard a ghostwriter.

You could track down financial copywriters directly by searching for websites and published articles. You get the side benefits of pre-screening each writer’s style and covered topics. The downside is that you will likely have to sift through lots of articles and websites.

Finally, you could ask around. Most financial professionals in your network may not volunteer that they are working with a ghostwriter… but they might share contact information if you ask a direct question. Great financial copywriters are often a best-kept secret, so initiate the conversation and ask for recommendations. This path can save you significant time and point you in the right direction.

5 Common mistakes made when choosing a financial ghostwriter

So, you’ve narrowed it down to a short list of potential copywriters. Now what?

Most financial advisors have never hired a ghostwriter before. As a result, the learning curve on the experience can be expensive and frustrating. Here are five common mistakes that I’ve seen financial advisors make as they hire a copywriter for their business.  

Mistake # 1: Not enough technical knowledge of the financial services industry

Many ghostwriters you will encounter will tell you that they are comfortable writing for a range of different industries.  And that may well be true. However, you will save time and effort if you choose a professional who is already familiar with the technicalities of the financial services industry.

Sure, you could hire an amazing writer and then teach him or her about the industry… But then you must prepare yourself for having to explain terminology, dynamics of the advisor-client relationship, intricacies of compliance-friendly phrasing, and much more. Choosing someone who understands the industry means that you can both focus on creating the perfect content – not building basic background knowledge.

Mistake # 2: No proven ability to create engaging content

Just because a writer understands the financial services industry doesn’t automatically make him or her a great writer. It’s comforting to see a CPA, CFP, or CFA after the writer’s name…. but technical certifications don’t guarantee an engaging read.

How can you test a prospective writer’s ability to create engaging content? Ask for samples. If you can’t follow the flow of their articles, or if you find yourself bored and re-reading the same paragraph for the third time, keep looking. You need someone who will capture your attention and pull you forward, paragraph by paragraph, no matter how technical or complex the subject.

Mistake # 3: No experience with compliance

The challenge for most financial advisors is that every piece of content must be approved by the compliance department before it is published. While broker-dealer compliance is guided by FINRA Rule 2210 and RIAs are covered by FINRA Rule 206(4)-1, applying those rules turns into a delicate dance. It requires knowledge of the boundaries, care with words, and an understanding of how your compliance office structures its workflow. An inexperienced writer can cost you weeks in compliance-related delays.  

Mistake # 4: No repeatable content-generation process

“I write when I am inspired” is an attitude that may work well for some freelancers. However, it won’t cut it in financial services. When you outsource content generation, the creation of that content cannot be left to chance or inspiration.

How do you know if the copywriter you are considering has a process? Ask the question. Professional copywriters are proud of their content generation process and have a way to manage everything from research to the editorial calendar. In my experience, copywriters with a repeatable and disciplined approach to writing tend to make better long-term collaborators.

Mistake # 5: No chemistry

Whether you are hiring a ghostwriter for a one-off project (write a book) or an ongoing collaboration (write weekly blog posts), you will have to interact with him or her. It helps if those interactions are enjoyable. Remember that a ghostwriter will have to “channel” your style and personality in writing, so choose someone you like on a personal level.

4 Steps financial advisors should take before they hire a ghostwriter

Step 1: Get clear on what matters to you

In working with a ghostwriter, what matters the most to you? In other words, how will you know that you have hired the right person?

Every financial advisor will answer that question differently. Some want to completely outsource everything related to writing, from article ideas to research and drafting. For them, a win is a weekly blog post that gets published with minimal input from the advisor.

Others will want more control over the process, perhaps setting up article topics, providing outlines, or supplying technical details that would be difficult for an outsider to research. A win for them is an article that’s created with their input, and a copywriter who will put the advisor’s wisdom on paper accurately.

Get clear on your answer before you move forward, because there is no one way to do ghostwriting. Knowing your preferences and goals ahead of time is the best way to ensure that whoever you hire will become a win for you and your practice.

Step 2: Take the interview seriously

Financial advisors live busy lives. Their days are filled with responding to requests from clients, managing their teams, handling administrative tasks, and dealing with the day-to-day fire drills of running an office. And so, it’s natural to wish for a button you could click to hire the perfect invisible ghostwriter to create content for you.

Unfortunately, there is no magic button. No matter how booked your schedule, there is no substitute for a direct conversation. Plan to have several interviews to assess personal fit.

Step 3: Start small

Delegating writing means giving up some of the control over your brand message to another human. That is a scary idea. Just as you would never allow an untrained intern to represent your firm at an important prospect meeting, you shouldn’t just hire a ghostwriter and set him or her loose.

Start slow and hire a ghostwriter for a small project first. Consider a blog post, a lead magnet, or a sample chapter for the book you are envisioning. This test-drive will tell you what it will be like to work with this professional.

Step 4: Set expectations

How will you communicate with your ghostwriter? What’s a “standard” response timeframe that you will expect? Do you want the copywriter to update you proactively — or just deliver the final product? What are the deadlines? What’s your supervision level preference: are you the type to just frame the task and get the article, or do you prefer to review outlines and early drafts for an opportunity to deliver feedback? What’s your quality standard for the draft? And, the question that’s often met with blank stares by most advisors, do you have a style sheet?

It’s difficult to verbalize expectations when you have no idea what to expect from the process. However, it’s helpful to reflect on your preferences — and let your ghostwriter know what those are. I have worked with professionals who love the Oxford comma — and others who hated it with a passion. If you have a strong opinion about style elements, communication methods, timelines, etc., share them with your writer. Your collaboration will be better for it.

Setting the foundation for a great ROI on working with a ghostwriter

An experienced ghostwriter will come into the interview and working sessions prepared with a list of questions. Here is a checklist of points to help you assure mutual understanding — and lay the groundwork for a productive collaboration.

Define your goals

What would you like to accomplish through this content project? Let’s say you would like to reach new prospects, boost the SEO on your website, or increase audience engagement. No matter what your goal looks like, begin with taking concrete measurements of the status quo (the number of unique website visitors per month, average visit duration, number of email list subscribers, number of leads that come in through the website over the course of a typical month, etc.) Before you can monitor progress, you must choose the metrics.   

Remember that blogging or book publishing is just one piece of your overall marketing strategy, so be sure to align you content efforts with your marketing efforts elsewhere. For example, if you are planning to host a seminar on Social Security, you may consider creating a short paper on Social Security strategies. Then, you can email that white paper to those who sign up — and turn it into a key component of your post-seminar follow up.

Think about your audience

Blogging can be remarkably effective for financial professionals that want to serve a specific client niche. By creating content that speaks directly to your prospects’ pain points, you can become the go-to resource and a trusted expert. The better-defined your audience, the greater are the chances that your ghostwriter will be able to use that guidance to craft high-value pieces for it.  

Choose the optimal frequency and mix of written content

When it comes to frequency and types of content, you have lots of options to choose from. Remember that there is no right or wrong answer. Think of it as building a content recipe that will speak to your audience, make financial sense for you, and support your marketing efforts throughout the year.

Here are some factors to consider:  

  • Long-form blog posts (1,000 words or more) have been shown to generate more viewers and higher engagement levels than shorter content pieces.
  • Short-form articles in “listicle” format (i.e. “Top 10” lists) can be effective at breaking a complex subject. Short, snappy article are also useful to reach the audience “on-the-go”, as well as those who don’t like to read the longer pieces.
  • White papers (usually 2,000-2,500 words or longer) are an effective vehicle for educating your audience. They can be a bit more formal than the conversational-style blog posts, although you will be the final authority on style. White papers work best when they are grounded in research, supported by statistics, and free from obvious sales messaging.
  • Ghostwritten books (10,000 words or longer) are bigger projects. Books are a great vehicle for an advisor who wants to share his or her mission, showcase expertise, and create a tangible and lasting “business card” as a leave-behind after seminars, workshops, and prospect meetings.  

Financial advisors are not limited to any one stream of content. For example, you might publish one long-form blog post per month, followed with a shorter-form “listicle” style post. That allows you to reach different types of readers. The two pieces would probably be reasonable enough for you to review and approve. Frequency of publishing, length of articles, technical complexity of the content — these variables can and should be tweaked to match the needs of your audience and your comfort level.

Think about distribution strategies and post-publication support

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The same could be said about a brand-new article posted on a financial advisor’s blog. Many financial advisors and planners have some level of organic following, but almost anyone could expand their reach with a proper content distribution strategy. Some ghostwriters offer strategy and post-publication support as a “wrap” service along with writing, so be sure to ask about this in the interview.

Define your optimal level of input

You may want to brainstorm with the ghostwriter and have a high level of control over the output. Or perhaps you have less time to invest in the process and want the ghostwriter to take a topic and run with it. Sometimes, financial advisors take a highly involved approach to the first couple of pieces, then release the reins as they settle into the collaboration and build trust with the copywriter. Professional copywriters can be quite flexible, so choose the style that will be comfortable and sustainable for you — and allow it to evolve over time.

Build an editorial calendar

An editorial calendar allows you to identify topics of interest, slot them into specific months or weeks for publication, and create a high degree of predictability in your content stream. Most professionals find that a three to six-month editorial calendar delivers the optimal mix of control and flexibility. This planning horizon can also give you the platform for creating multipart article to develop complex ideas or tackle larger topics. Your copywriter may be open to maintaining an editorial calendar for you; ask about it in the interview.

Set up the ghostwriting workflow

Just like the workflows you use inside your practice to service your clients, ghostwriting workflows can alleviate worries and create clarity on what to expect. In the beginning, I recommend breaking the deliverables down into outline, followed by a first draft, second draft, and the final version of the article. This workflow allows for multiple rounds of feedback and course-correction. It also ensures that you are 100% satisfied with the content that will ultimately represent your brand.

After working with a ghostwriter for a few months, some financial advisors might skip the outline portion of the process, especially if they are confident that the ghostwriter’s vision of the topic matches their own. Pro tip: Be clear on the number of revisions included in the price to avoid any misunderstandings.

Address housekeeping issues: Non-disclosure and ghostwriting contract

A typical ghostwriting arrangement means that the financial advisor or planner who hires the ghostwriter owns the copyright and the final work product. Whether it’s a book, a blog article, a submission to a professional journal, or a white paper, the ghostwriter’s name does not appear anywhere on it. The work is typically protected by a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) which prevents the ghostwriter from disclosing that the content wasn’t created by the attributed author (i.e. financial advisor whose name is on the cover).

Calculate your budget

How much should financial copywriting cost?

From scanning UpWork contractor profiles to looking at professional copywriter websites, you will quickly learn that fees can vary dramatically. You could hire someone to write a 1,000-word blog post for $50 — or you could get a $1,500 quote for the same piece. Of course quality will vary, and price is often a litmus test… but I have seen below-average writers quote astronomical fees. Just because someone says they are worth $3/word doesn’t automatically make it true.

So, I recommend that you begin by figuring out what ghostwriting can do for you and your professional practice. There are many ways to look at value; here are three examples.

  • The simplest way to estimate the value of ghostwriting is by taking your annual income and dividing it by 2,000 (40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year). If a financial planner makes $200,000 a year, his or her time at work is paid for, on average, at $100/hr. A long-form blog post of average complexity with some research required can take anywhere between 2 and 6 hours to write. By delegating the writing, this financial planner would be effectively freeing up between $200 and $600 worth of time per article. If that math works right, then paying anything under $600 per article would probably make financial sense.  
  • A financial planner might use his or her billing rate (anywhere between $150 and $300 or more an hour) as a benchmark for what productive client-facing time is worth to the practice.
  • Another way to quantify the value of ghostwriting services is by considering how much a new prospective client is worth to your practice. If consistent blogging, effective post-seminar follow-up reinforced with a white paper, or a book can improve your prospect conversion rate by 10%, what level of financial boost would that deliver to your bottom line?

Budgets are often a sensitive topic. Finding the right balance between quality and value is a personal choice for every financial advisor (and the ghostwriters who work with them). As with most professional services, you get what you pay for, so be wary of ghostwriters that sell their services at a cutting rate.

A few closing words on working with a financial ghostwriter

As with any other relationship (professional or personal), expectations can set the tone for a successful long-term collaboration – or pave the way for disappointment. From having worked with dozens of financial advisors and planners across the U.S., Canada, and Australia, I can report the following.

  • A brief onboarding period is normal. Professional ghostwriters learn the skill of mimicking the advisor’s tone and style. However, the first assignment or two will typically have the highest volume of edits and revisions. This learning curve can be shortened if you have a formal writing style guide for your practice to define your style preferences. Samples of writing you like and don’t like (along with reasons why) can help, too.
  • Content marketing is a long game. Your phone might start ringing after the first post goes live, or it may be six months before you see any traction. It’s best to come into the process with a long-term goal in mind. Content generation should be just one part of your overarching marketing strategy. Those who expect immediate results will, most likely, walk away disappointed.
  • Always insist on original content, technical accuracy, and great writing. Your blog posts, published columns, and books will represent your brand to the world. Don’t compromise on quality.

In the end, ghostwriting should feel liberating. Beyond the initial onboarding period, your ghostwriter should be making your life better. You should never feel like you are forced to “babysit” another professional and monitor an extra set of deadlines on their behalf. An excellent ghostwriter is a natural extension of your professional team — and a powerful secret weapon that can boost your marketing efforts and free up your valuable time.

Have you ever tried to hire a ghostwriter? What happened? Any tips for the community? Share in the comments.  

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Natalia Autenrieth, CPA

Natalia Autenrieth, CPA has audited Fortune 500 clients as part of a Big 4 team, built an accounting department as a controller of a large hospital, and served as a consultant to municipalities. Today, Natalia combines her technical chops with a passion for story, psychology, and writing in her role as the Director of Content Strategy at Brewer Consulting. Natalia loves food — and will drive 150 miles to eat at a random restaurant she has dug up on Yelp. You can connect with Natalia on her LinkedIn page and on Facebook.