Emily Heck, Owner, and Founder, Evergreen Strategic Communications (Indianapolis, IN)
Emily Heck, Owner, and Founder at Evergreen Strategic Communications started her agency in the fall of 2019. With no career plans, she started meeting with people, chatting over coffee, and trying to figure out her next chapter. Emily picked up some freelance marketing projects from a former co-worker and networked more intensely. Her business, helping nonprofits and small businesses organize their marketing, establish processes and systems, and more efficiently engage their audiences, grew.
Although in-person networking dropped off during the pandemic, Emily is now finding contacts she did not see during the “isolation time” of Covid eager to meet and “catch up” and more interested in re-connecting face to face. Potential clients are responding to her cold-call invitations to explore partnership opportunities a lot more quickly and with a lot less requisite “relationship building” than before the pandemic.
In this interview, Emily talks about the importance of LinkedIn, “the place for silent scrollers,” for building connections. She says people may scroll through your feeds and read them, but do so with no likes, shares, or comments. Think nothing is happening? Emily says she often gets comments when she meets with people six months later, “I’ve really liked your content.” It‘s important to “keep posting.”
Emily says small business owners and nonprofits have the same marketing struggles and are “behind” the big companies on lead generation emails, getting conversions on emails and social media, and on figuring out how to “pump that up.” “Getting there” requires guiding clients to build marketing model proficiency and effectiveness and scaling larger company processes down to something that works to help “small” grow.
When Emily first started working with clients, she spent a lot of time figuring out their processes, the location of their social media account login information, and establishing what they were trying to achieve through their marketing. Client websites, often a “mess,” may fail to “tell their story well.” “You can’t really be effective in your marketing if you don’t have a good base of organization,” Emily explains. So, she cleans up client websites and SEO first, as a base to “push everyone back to” from emails and social media efforts.”
Email has changed a lot. Today, Emily says, “You’ve got to have some personality in your emails.” She recommends “changing the sender name from the organization name to a person’s name” to improve open rates.
Emily can be contacted on her agency’s website at: evergreenstrategic.org, or on LinkedIn as Emily Hack in Indianapolis.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Emily Heck, Owner and Founder at Evergreen Strategic Communications based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to the podcast, Emily.
EMILY: Thank you very much. I’m so excited to be here.
ROB: Good to have you here and talk some Indiana connections here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Evergreen, and what is your specialty?
EMILY: Evergreen started in the fall of 2019. I started my own business right before the pandemic; I’m not sure if that’s smart or adventurous or whatever word you want to fill in, but it is our origin story. We focus on nonprofits and small businesses, which may seem like two very different clients or types of clients, but they have the same marketing struggles. We help nonprofits and small businesses get their marketing organized, get processes in place, systems in place, and then work to help start engaging their audiences more efficiently.
ROB: Got it. Is that organization the common struggle of where they’re starting from?
EMILY: Oh yeah. That is 90% of what I see. It’s interesting; when I started my business, you’re so excited, there’s so much energy, and it’s like, “I’m going to do social media for small business” or “I’m going to do email and marketing for small business,” and I found I was spending a lot of time figuring out their processes, figuring out where the login information was for their social media accounts. I spent a great deal of time doing that because you can’t really be effective in your marketing if you don’t have a good base of organization.
ROB: I’ve certainly seen that. They may have worked with somebody; that person disappeared into the wilderness or just wasn’t very good or whatever, and they were the only person that knew the logins. Do you end up starting from scratch? Are you trying to figure out how to recover those logins sometimes? Even that part, what are you scrapping together?
EMILY: A lot of times I try to scrap it together, as you said, and find those logins. Just recently, last summer, I went through an appeal process with Facebook to get access to a client’s business suite. So I’ll go that route if I need to. A lot of times it’s just an email to an old coworker or something like that, trying to find those logins, but sometimes you have to get out the heavy-hitter techniques and tactics to get access to stuff.
ROB: I’m sure, Emily, sometimes you start with a client and they want to do one specific thing; sometimes they want to do everything. How do you help them come to the conclusion of how to do what is the right thing, what is the right thing to do first, and what’s the right thing to do next?
EMILY: This is a tough conversation that I have quite a bit. I do have a lot of clients that come to me and say, “We want an email newsletter” or “We want a blog started.” It’s more about “Okay, but what are you trying to achieve with this?” I take a step back; let’s have that conversation, let’s talk about what you’re trying to engage with your audience. And a lot of times the business owner or the nonprofit executive director is right. They know their business and their organization better than I do at that point in time.
So, the project usually evolves from what they originally thought. Maybe they were thinking a traditional-style email newsletter, and I start to throw out some ideas – because email’s changed a lot. Even I would say just in the past two or three years, how you’re communicating on email has changed so much, and they may not be up-to-date on those new strategies and tactics. That’s probably the second most common conversation I’m having behind “Where are your logins and what are your processes?” [laughs]
ROB: How would you characterize some of that transition on the email side? Because there’s certainly this historic idea of “Let’s get a good template, let’s curate some content, let me dump something in there that I think makes sense, and maybe I’m going to try to close some business too.” How does that evolve into what works in 2022?
EMILY: What I’m experiencing with a lot of my clients and a lot of the emails I’m sending out is you’ve got to have some personality in your emails. Gone are the days of just throwing together some content, a blog preview or something like that. You’ve got to have some personality. I have several newsletters that I’m making come from a specific person within the organization – just as simple as changing the sender name from the organization name to a person’s name has helped open rates. It seems so simple, but when you’re flying through, trying to get that monthly email out, it’s easy to forget.
I’m always talking to my clients about “Let’s add some personality in this. What are things that you can really connect with your audiences through on your email?” People don’t want to see this endless scroll of boring content. [laughs]
ROB: Boring content, company names. When I think about getting a bunch of stuff in Gmail across a bunch of different accounts – and I have the tabs; I don’t know how many people have the different tabs set up for the updates and the transactions. I don’t remember what all the things are. But it’s almost like when you get to the tab where the newsletters tend to sit, when you get over to that updates tab, there’s a certain curiosity to a person, a human, versus a company there. It’s almost intriguing on its own versus organization name and “Here’s my receipt from this other thing.”
EMILY: Oh yeah, it’s a total marketing trick when you really think about it. We’re tricking you into opening it. [laughs] Which you could argue is marketing in general. But yeah, you are intrigued by it. I want to take it a step further that it’s not a trick of “This is the same old newsletter that we’ve been sending you for the past five years, just we put a different sender name on it.” Let’s also take the content and make it more appealing for the reader so it isn’t an endless scroll.
ROB: That certainly makes plenty of sense there. Emily, you walked us through part of the journey. You mentioned in the tail end of 2019, you started the firm. But what led up to that? What led you to take that particular plunge to say it was time to start your own business, and what led you into that?
EMILY: I was working for an organization, and I’d only been working there for about two years, so I wasn’t looking to leave when I departed in fall of ’19. But I got into a very toxic situation that was not good for my mental health, physical health. I was deteriorating as a professional because of it. I left without a job lined up. I just went in and resigned one day because I knew this wasn’t the future that I wanted.
I reached out to a colleague who had actually left a few months prior to myself and said, “Hey, do you have any projects?” I knew she was freelancing. And she did, and the rest is history. I started with a couple projects and then picked up a couple clients and really started to network within my communities. The snowball just kept getting bigger as it started rolling. An interesting ride. There’s a huge conversation right now on a societal level about the Great Resignation, and I feel like I was a couple years ahead of that. So, I totally identify with those individuals that are departing their jobs; that’s what I did two years ago.
ROB: Sure. Even then, it’s an interesting shift, because you mentioned networking. In late 2019, you had one form of networking for a few months, and then that changed. What did networking look like? Was there a pause in networking in early 2020, a regearing, or just a dramatic shift in what that needed to look like?
EMILY: Oh yeah. It’s funny; probably about a month ago, I had coffee with the person that I had coffee with in March of 2020. He was the last person that I had coffee with right before everything shut down. It was kind of crazy – this was in December of 2021. We had gone two years without seeing each other.
When I quit my job and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I was setting up coffee appointments and networking with people. It was interesting. It was a little bit of a slower process because you go and just chit-chat and have coffee, whatever. And now I’m experiencing where I’m emailing people, I’m reaching out to them, total cold calling, or cold emailing if you will, and I’m getting responses back quicker. So, I think there’s definitely been this shift in networking for sure.
ROB: Is that for connecting in person now, or is that connecting digitally? Is the coffee meeting back, in your view? How is it spinning?
EMILY: I’m picking up more coffee dates. I’m reaching out to people. Indiana just went through a little bit of a surge – a pretty significant surge – so everything’s been virtual lately. But yeah, some people want to do virtual coffee chats, some people want to do in-person. I’ve actually experienced more of just emailing someone or sending a LinkedIn message and saying, “Hey, this is what I offer. I think there could be a partnership here,” and they want to chat – which would never happen before. You had to work on building that relationship. So, it’s definitely shifted.
ROB: Yeah, there seems to be, kind of like your newsletters, a human connection desire that’s going on. It’s been a discipline that we started since the beginning of the year. Every week, I’m contacting five people I haven’t seen in a while and saying, “Let’s do coffee, let’s do lunch, let’s do whatever.” The hit rate is tremendous because all of the meetings and recurring events we used to go to, none of the organizations feel confident having them. I was kind of a chicken – not chicken. My level of caution was I met people for outside lunch during COVID. Until I got my shot and my booster, I was an outside lunch, outside coffee – I was that person. Now I’ll meet anybody anywhere. Some people won’t. I respect what anybody wants to choose to do, because it’s a hard time to know what to do. But the hit rate on in-person meetings has really been amazing to me.
EMILY: Yeah. Do you find people are just wanting to chit-chat and catch up? Or is it more business-related? Because a lot of mine have been catching up because I haven’t seen these people for two-plus years.
ROB: That’s right. I think those people probably might’ve seen on – the other secret weapon to me is LinkedIn. It’s a real secret if we’re talking about it on the podcast, right? [laughs]
EMILY: Right. [laughs]
ROB: But, basically, every once in a while, saying something about what we’re doing. I’ll see people in person – I saw people at football games in the fall and they’re like, “Oh, I’ve been following everything you’ve been doing for the past two years.” I’m like, we haven’t talked. I posted on LinkedIn and you never ‘liked’ it. I don’t say this to them, but they never engaged with it at all. But they’ve been reading my biography through LinkedIn.
The people that I meet, most of the time it’s chit-chatty, but I will also say that it tends to echo. Somebody I had lunch with a month ago last week says, “Hey, here’s this person you really should talk to.” So it comes back around in that very open-handed, low expectation kind of way. That’s what I’m seeing, I think.
EMILY: Yeah, that’s what I’ve experienced. It’s funny that you bring up LinkedIn because just recently I came across – it may’ve been on Instagram or something that said, “LinkedIn is the place for silent scrollers.” You will have so many people who will scroll right past your stuff, read it, but not engage with it. They’re not liking it, they’re not sharing it or commenting or whatever. But then you will hear six months later, “Oh, I’ve really liked your content lately.” The purpose was to keep posting, even if you’re not getting engagement. So, it’s funny that you bring that up too, because that’s the second time I’ve heard that recently.
ROB: I don’t have the discipline on LinkedIn that I do on my in-person meetings, so I wish I could tell you I found something worthwhile to publish every week, but I have to work on my personal content calendar there.
EMILY: Yeah, it is definitely tough.
ROB: Emily, as you’ve looked at how you’ve built things so far over the past couple years, what are some lessons that you have learned? If you could rewind two years, what would you tell yourself?
EMILY: I’d probably tell myself to slow down. This is really hard – whether you’re going out on your own in marketing or whatever your field is, your first thing is “I have to start figuring out how to make money. I’ve got to get money in the door. I’ve got to get clients. I’ve got to get work.” I wish I would’ve told myself to slow down a little bit because that would come – and set things up the right way.
I’m in Year 2 of business, and I’m going back and having to re-set up some structures within my business that I probably should’ve been doing 18 months ago. That’s been the biggest thing for me. It’s hard. I started a business, and however many months later, a pandemic hit – and at the same time, I was also pregnant with my first child, so I went on maternity leave during that first year of business. I really wish I would’ve slowed down and not been in such a hurry.
Even now, a couple years in, I’m like, okay, slow down. If I get a “no” from a client proposal or whatever, it’s not the end of the world. Slow down. Be really purposeful. Be really mindful in what you’re doing.
ROB: I can’t imagine trying to plan parental leave into that early moment of a business. How did you think about doing right by your clients but also giving yourself that time to enjoy a season of life that is unique and needs to be embraced?
EMILY: I mentioned earlier my colleague that was also a freelancer. She and I work together a lot. I always tell people who are going out on their own, find a partner. You don’t have to go into business together, but find someone to partner with on client projects, because business ownership is a lonely world, and it’s good when you have someone you can collaborate with. So, I had someone that was picking up some of the work I was doing.
The other thing was it was a weird time. My daughter was born in July of 2020. In 2022, July 2020 still seems like early COVID days. I was actually itching to get back to work because I was tired of sitting in the house. [laughs] It’ll be interesting, as our family grows, what my approach to leave is next time, because I’m actually already thinking about it. How can I put structures in place now that I can have a full leave next time? But yeah, it was a weird year. Baby, new business, pandemic. I don’t tell anyone, “Use this as an example of how to start a business.” [laughs]
ROB: No, it rarely turns out that way, especially on this podcast. Many, many accidental entrepreneurs in different ways.
As you think about the clients you work with, the small businesses, the nonprofits, we’ve talked a little bit about email and how that is changing; when people have to make the choice of what to activate first, what are some of the other things you see them needing to activate first that might not be what they expected in terms of how they need to be marketing?
EMILY: Website is a really big thing. A lot of times people are thinking social media, email, website in that order, but I like to focus on the website first because that’s your homebase. That’s where you can push everyone back to from your emails, from your social media. We need to get that cleaned up and really telling your story well. Some people, their website’s a mess because – kind of like I was a couple years ago – you’re just trying to throw something together so that you can get out there and get your name out there. So, it’s about going back and really looking at it.
The other reason that I really want to look at websites is for SEO purposes. I think SEO was really big there in the early 2010s or so, and everyone was talking about SEO. Then it died off a little bit and no one was talking about it, and it seems to be a real buzzy word right now, about how to get your organic content situated correctly so that you can be ranking high on Google and you’re providing good content. That’s what I tell my small business owners especially: making sure your content is optimized appropriately and written appropriately is free. You’re not having to create paid ads for it. That’s probably the other thing. Social media is actually the last thing I look at.
ROB: And then organic and paid social, those are two different conversations as well, right?
EMILY: Oh yeah. With these clients especially, organic is where we’ve got to start, and then we work up to paid. It’s so hard. Every social media channel is so full, so it takes time, but we can get there.
ROB: Some people would also, I think, feel the same way about content they put on their website. How do you help someone think about putting out content that is actually meaningfully different and doesn’t feel like it’s the same as anyone else? If there’s a context of maybe a specific small business client that helps tell the story, maybe that’s a lens we can look through here.
EMILY: I have a client here in Indianapolis that is a small plumbing company. They’re very unique in that they’ve been around for 100 years, they’re family-owned. When we’re creating content for them, first of all, plumbing content is not necessarily always the most interesting thing in your newsfeed, and it doesn’t change. Pipes freezing – you have the same five tips about how to avoid pipes freezing.
For them, it’s “Let’s just get the content out there.” I know that every other plumbing company in town is putting something out right now in the winter about pipes freezing or preparing your home for winter or something like that, but we need to get our content out there. We need to be a part of the conversation. And it makes their current customers feel good. They feel really good about it and engage with it because it’s like, “Oh, my guy, the guy that I recommend for plumbing services, is out there. I’m not always hearing about Competitor A and what they’re saying.”
It’s a delicate walk. Sometimes, as the marketing consultant, I feel like I’m doing the same content that everyone else is doing, but in a lot of these small business cases, you’ve just got to get your name out there and in the mix.
ROB: Right. It almost seems like for them – you kind of alluded to it – it’s about the relationship they already had with the client. It’s about the work they already did. Hopefully, they did their homework and got the client’s email address while they were out doing some plumbing work, and then that seasonal tip of how to not freeze your pipes is a little bit of caring, almost. It’s maybe not original, but you’re showing up, and it’s a good reason to be in the inbox. Nobody’s super mad about “I’m reminded for the third time about how to not have my pipes freeze,” because that’s a legit problem that is expensive.
EMILY: Right. It’s also going back to being organized. We’ve got that data organized so that we can reach whatever customer we need to so when there’s a big winter storm barreling down on Indianapolis, we can get that email out, “Hey, here’s things to think about with this winter storm.” It’s a welcome addition to their inbox because it’s timely and it’s for them. To your point, that’s exactly right.
ROB: Emily, when we’re talking about somebody’s website content, when we’re talking about having them talk about what they’re doing in a way that speaks to their customer, a lot of times they’ve probably already tried. They already tried to write their website content, and they just couldn’t find the right thing to say and the right story. How do you help someone communicate what they might not know how to communicate, but they almost feel it more than they know how to write it?
EMILY: It’s funny; I was having this conversation with a copywriter yesterday, and we were both talking about how we have struggled to write for our own websites. Which is why I’m hiring her to write some new pages for me, because I am stuck. Obviously, I’m a consultant, so I’m always going to say, “Hire a consultant,” but I think that shows the value of a consultant, to have someone come in with an outside perspective and really be able to put your story down on paper and make sense of it.
I love the clients when I’m their target audience, a 30-something young mother or whatever, because I can bring in that perspective of “That wouldn’t resonate with me as your audience member” or “Yes, that would resonate with me.” Like I said, I’m always going to be on Team Consultant because I am a consultant. But I think it’s important to know that even marketing professionals struggle with it. We struggle with telling our own story and have to get outside help. So, I wouldn’t expect a small business or a nonprofit to be any different.
ROB: I’m glad it’s not just me, because we looked at our website content and in a moment of desperation, I said, “I need to invest in our future, and I’m going to invest in having someone else do this.” They went out and talked to a few of our clients, and they told things back to us that sounded true but I could never have given the words. So I will advocate for Team Consultant here as well. I went through a StoryBrand process in our case, which was also interesting. I don’t know if I would’ve done that – I don’t know. I just know that hearing something back truthful felt a lot better than trying to make up words myself.
EMILY: Yeah, it’s a good level set for you. It can provide more perspectives and it gives you a good level set, and not only is it someone else translating your story – do we have time to do that? I mean, we’re so busy as business owners. If one more thing is off our plate, go for it.
ROB: Right, and it’s a good reason to think a lot about profitability, around margins, because that creates the ability to invest into the future, the ability to have some reserves to hire people. There’s a lot of moving parts there.
When you look forward, when you’re looking at what’s next for Evergreen, when you’re looking at what’s next for marketing for your clients, what’s coming up that you’re excited about? Where is this going?
EMILY: Evergreen, I am hoping to still grow and provide more support to nonprofits and small businesses – which I realize is a non-answer answer. But 2022 is going to be really the first year that hopefully nothing crazy is happening. I mean, first year of business was pandemic and baby; second year of business was still pandemic and it just seemed like crazy, crazy stuff going on. So 2022 is really going to be about finding level ground and finding a solid footing within the business. It’s been exciting here; even since the beginning of the year, things are happening and things are coming together. I’m doing some awesome projects with some pretty cool clients, so that’s really exciting.
As far as clients, what I’m seeing and what I’m talking to them a lot about is trying to get more proficient and effective in our current marketing models. I’m talking a lot with clients – now, keep in mind these are small businesses and nonprofits, so they’re a couple of years behind – we’re talking about lead generation emails and how to get conversions on emails. We’re talking about how to do that on social media and really start to pump that up.
Like I said, these are small nonprofits and small businesses, but they are starting – I think in the big organizations, a lot of marketing ideas and processes start there, and then nonprofits and small businesses are maybe a little bit behind and start to figure it out. I’m really excited because I’m seeing that stuff start to bubble up and happen. A lot of my job right now is trying to figure out how to bring it down to a smaller size for them. It’s easy when you have a 10- or 12-person marketing department to do a lot of lead generation and conversions and things like that, but we’ve got to figure out how to bring this down to a smaller scale.
ROB: It definitely makes sense. The clients that you’re talking about don’t always have that margin for the experimental budget that some of the other brands will have, so being able to distill something that’s actually going to work and deliver, or have a good chance of it – it’s great that people have you thinking about that for them.
Emily, when people want to find you and Evergreen, where should they go to find and connect with you?
EMILY: My website is evergreenstrategic.org, where you can learn a little bit about my agency. And I’m a big LinkedIn-er, so find me on LinkedIn, Emily Hack in Indianapolis, Indiana, and connect. I’d love to chat on message about marketing or anything else going on in the world. So yeah, I can be found there.
ROB: That’s great. Emily, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Thank you for sharing your own journey and expertise. Very grateful for it, and good to meet you.
EMILY: Thank you. I had a great time.
ROB: All right, be well. Thank you. Bye.
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