Evernote is a tool for capturing and arranging your information and ideas. It serves as a digital file cabinet, personal notebook, and project management tool.
Bethany Stephens is the founder of Soapbox Influence, a marketing agency based in Bentonville Arkansaw. Her company employs 15 people and works with Fortune 500 brands, including NBC Universal.
Stephens is also a writer and blogger who considers Evernote a key part of her creative workflow. In this interview, Beth explains:
- How she uses Evernote to capture ideas and write
- Why every writer and creative should capture ideas regularly
- What her tagging and filing system looks like
- Why she also uses Evernote for task and project management
And lots more.
I start by asking Beth to describe what her business does and why her team relies on Evernote so much.
Bryan Collins: Beth, it's nice to talk to you. Could you start by giving me a bit of background information about Soapbox Influence, and why you decided to set up your business in the first place?
Bethany Stephens,: Sure, of course. Soapbox Influence is an agency based in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is the global headquarters for Walmart. We're a very retail centric business, we serve consumer packaged goods companies across the US. We're really a bit of an offshoot of a larger company that's been around for about 30 years. I was working as a marketing consultant, and the parent company was my client. They basically create the in-store displays that you see in large retail stores across the US, and felt that digital marketing and social media could be a nice add on to that.
Bethany Stephens,: So, Soapbox really started as, basically, a product offering, it turned into a division. One day, we said, "We think we've got a full, separate company on our hands, here." So, I joke that I moved out of Mom and Dad's basement, got my own place, and off we went.
Bryan Collins: How many people are you employing at the moment?
Bethany Stephens,: We have about 15 on the Soapbox team.
Bryan Collins: Okay. Who do you do business week, or what type of companies?
Bethany Stephens,: Sure. Again, primarily consumer packaged goods companies. So, you think about the large brands that you see in grocery and retail stores across America, SC Johnson, Clorox, Danone, the NBA, the National Basketball Association even has retail offerings. Companies like that tend to be our clients.
Bryan Collins: Very good, very good. You also describe yourself as a blogger, writer, and social media lover?
Bethany Stephens,: Indeed, started out as a writer myself. I'm very much an admirer of some of the work you're doing to support writers and creatives.
Bethany Stephens,: Used blogging as an outlet, like many people did back in the day. I always joke that I'm an elderly blogger, at this point. But, really an outlet for writing, and that has evolved into a marketing practice, as content marketing becomes more and more prolific.
Bryan Collins: That's fantastic. Yeah, blogging is definitely a key part of any effective content marketing strategy. So, what I was particularly interested in is how you're using Evernote to help with your marketing campaigns, and the collaboration with other people, or perhaps even clients. Would you be able to walk me through your process?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, of course. It's interesting, I've used Evernote now for about 10 years. I was looking, before our conversation this morning, I have 24,000 notes in my-
Bryan Collins: Wow, that's a lot!
Bethany Stephens,: Evernote. So, to say that I'm an enthusiastic and prolific user is an understatement. Really, through the years it's been my catchall. I've joked about the people who use the What Would Jesus Do bracelets, and I've always trained myself to think, can this go in Evernote? Once it became habit, there's where I kept everything. I very much subscribe to the idea of it as an external brain.
Bethany Stephens,: As a creative, it's where all the bits and pieces go. Every idea, every writing concept, every draft is starting out in Evernote. Every shopping list, essentially everything. It was a very natural addition to my business, as we started to build it and look for a catchall for information.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. It's interesting you say a catchall for information. I started using Evernote, I think it was 2013, or maybe 2012, but I just started clipping web pages, and PDFs, and putting them into Evernote. Is that something that you do? Or, do you use it more for-
Bethany Stephens,: I do.
Bryan Collins: Different types of it? You do? You do.
Bethany Stephens,: I do, yeah. I clip just about everything. I think I'm one of the individuals who used a lot of the earlier iterations and additions to Evernote, so I use Skitch, and I use Scannable as add on apps, so throughout the day I'm often clipping, whether it be articles, I'm clipping if we're doing an update to our website. I'm probably clipping it, and then mocking up with arrows to show where edits should go. Yeah, it's where everything goes, there's no better way to state it.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I use Skitch quite a lot for the same reason. For example, I've been working with a contractor, and they're doing some work on a book, or the site, I'll annotate with arrows and say, "Can you fix this, or can you fix that?"
Bethany Stephens,: Right.
Bryan Collins: Evernote is organized around tags and notebooks, and there's a lot of debate about what way to organize your notes. Have you got a system that works for you, or do you gravitate towards one type?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, I think as I mentioned, having 24,000 notes, I'd better have a good process. The optical character recognition within Evernote has been a lifesaver for me, because everything's so searchable. I upload a lot of PDFs and documents, and so on.
Bethany Stephens,: But, when it comes to tags and notebooks, I would say five or six years ago, I had to retrain myself because I was getting really sloppy. It was the equivalent of a file cabinet, and I was just cramming everything into it with no rhyme or reason. So now, I really err on the side of very few notebooks, rather than trying to have a notebook for everything. Then, being giddy with my tags, because there's so many ways to cross tag.
Bethany Stephens,: A good example would be travel, so I have one travel notebook. But then, every trip and destination has a tag, so it's very easy for me to find a hotel reservation tied to New York in February, pre-Coronavirus.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, yeah. You said you have 24,000 plus notes. Do you ever go back and remove notes, or do you just let the library or database build up?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah. No I don't, I think I'm one of those obsessive keepers. But, I can afford to be a bit of a hoarder in Evernote, because it's not taking up space. I keep it all, and I am one of those individuals who is constantly astonished when I find something in the archives that's useful, years later.
Bryan Collins: When I started using note capturing tools, I think the first stage is just getting into the habit of capturing, but second stage, where the real value is, to actually go back and look at what you've captured. Do you have a process where you review your notes? Or, perhaps go back and see if there's something you've missed?
Bethany Stephens,: This is so funny that you're asking about this, I did it earlier this week. I found some notes from May 2019, that were really useful to our business. We had an individual who was in a leadership role within our company at that time, who is no longer with us, and we have a new individual in that role. The notes that I found, just in doing a cursory review, were still very relevant, so I shared them with that individual and he said, "Gosh, this is the best roadmap for my job, and I wouldn't have known to ask these questions."
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, I don't know if I have a great process, but I definitely skim my notes, and then go back to them fairly regularly, yes. Not all 24,000.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, that would be a lot. I've used Evernote in the past for outlines for articles, so I would ... My process would be to put the headline in the heading in Evernote, and then to put some sub headlines, and then a couple of bullet points. Then, maybe attach some relevant information, probably a PDF or a link. Then, I would review that, and then I would write the article in a different application.
Bryan Collins: Do you have a process when you're writing something, where Evernote would form part of it?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, that's a great question. I tend to start with the note itself as a placeholder for an idea, because often you're not ready to flesh out a concept right in the moment that you have the idea. So, the moment I have an idea for an article or a blog post, I launch the note. It may just be a handful of bullet points.
Bethany Stephens,: Then like you, I will go back and typically throw in a headline, perhaps a subheader, and I'll go ahead and tie in any tags, any hashtags that would be relevant. Then, I do typically write the article within Evernote as well. I have a bit of luxury now, in that we have a marketing team who will then take my Evernote, and translate it over to our blog. So, I don't have to worry too, too much about various formatting issues, to translate it to our website. But yeah, I tend to do it all within Evernote.
Bryan Collins: I'm glad you mentioned about your marketing team, because I've also used Evernote for a collaboration, because you can share a note with somebody, either internally or externally.
Bryan Collins: What do you think is necessary to do before you share a note?
Bethany Stephens,: That's a good question. I do a little bit of both, with one side of the spectrum being sharing raw notes, and just letting the recipient make sense of it. Other times, I'll go back and really organize. I'm known for bullet pointing, and bolding text, and action items, and so on.
Bethany Stephens,: So, a good example would be when we have a client call, we're talking to a prospective client for our business. I will immediately open an Evernote, and just capture everything. I do tend to maybe bold anything that's a key action item. But then, as soon as the call's over, I share that note with our team. I no longer take time to try to clean up my notes and thoughts. Typically, they're on the call as well, so what I'm capturing as the leader of the organization is probably very different from what they're capturing. They're able to then use those notes to maybe translate it into a proposal for the client, for our business.
Bethany Stephens,: That fast sharing is something I'm able to do, thanks to Evernote. I probably do more of that than I do the editing, and streamlining, and cleaning up. Just erring on the side of let me get you the information, and you can do with it as you will.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I think ultimately a note is supposed to be iterative, it's not meant to be a final piece of work that's somebody's going to publish as is.
Bethany Stephens,: Right.
Bryan Collins: One thing I need to get better at is taking pictures and putting them into Evernote, and then maybe writing a reaction to them. It's that something that you've had much experience with?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah. I don't know if it's so much photos, but I will ... You mentioned PDFs. So, one of the things we'll do, I'll make candidate notes when we're interviewing, or looking to hire someone. If they send me their resume, I use the forwarding, the email feature, and forward it into my Evernote. Then, I've got a PDF of their resume, and I have a bit of a template I use to make notes on the candidate. Have we scheduled an interview, do we plan a follow-up interview, just some of those key points.
Bethany Stephens,: The nice thing is, I'll often drop in a screen capture from Skitch, of their LinkedIn profile, so that's giving me a bit of a headshot, and a visual reminder as well. It makes just one nice resource to go back to, and look at information on that candidate.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, visual reminders definitely help with notes. In fact, when I was setting goals last year, I was able to pin a visual to each one of the goals, and put it in a particular notebook on Evernote.
Bethany Stephens,: Oh, I love that.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, it's something I learned from Michael [Hyatt 00:11:52]. I'm not sure if you're familiar with him?
Bethany Stephens,: Oh, very. He's such an Evernote guru.
Bryan Collins: He is, yeah. I learned a few strategies from him.
Bryan Collins: I'm also curious, because if you're 24,000 notes ... I haven't that many. But, what's your search process look like? If you think to yourself, I want to find that outline for that article I was going to give to my team member to write, how would you go and find it? Would you just search for the headline, or something else?
Bethany Stephens,: That's a great question. I think this is probably going to sound a little odd, but I think I've probably, thanks to Evernote, developed a bit of a strange ability to retain keywords. So, if you think about searching, you're looking for the most unique word, right? So, I'll typically throw in the word that I think will lead me to that note.
Bethany Stephens,: I've really not had too, too much trouble. I think Evernote has such speedy search, it's been the reason that I've probably stuck with the platform across a decade, because I never have any trouble finding anything. I think good tagging and good keyword use, and the more you use it, I think the more you self-train toward that.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I'd agree with the self-training idea. I was also reading a study that say when you write something down, you're more likely to remember it. Maybe that's why it's the same in Evernote, when you put it into Evernote, you're more likely to think of the keyword.
Bryan Collins: Do you still take paper based notes, or notes within an analog notebook from time to time?
Bethany Stephens,: I do. I'm looking at an analog notebook here as well, and I used to use the ... I can't think of the exact name of the notebooks that would sync with Evernote, where you could take the photo. I found that I wasn't prone to do it. It's a bit embarrassing, but sometimes I do tend to go through in longhand, and that's how I make sense of my notes. Then, I can almost put the cleaned up version, or even a screenshot, into Evernote. But, I do use both, and it's probably for me to be able to jot and retain information than anything.
Bryan Collins: Do other people in your business use Evernote as well? Apart from the people that you've shared a note with, would they use it in their roles?
Bethany Stephens,: Yes, they would laugh really hard at this question, because it's typically the first thing that I do with a new hire, is I set them up in Evernote. Because our onboarding process is built there, it's probably one of the Evernote uses I'm most proud of. I essentially created a digital onboarding binder, so to speak.
Bethany Stephens,: As soon as someone joins our company, they are activated within Evernote. Then, they receive a link to our onboarding process. I'm a big believer in self-onboarding, I think probably because I'm a lover of words, and of writing. I don't want to train someone, I want them to train themselves, essentially. They will walk themselves through our onboarding process, which has a litany of articles to read, it gives them case studies, and various steps to go through. So, for about two weeks when someone joins Soapbox Influence, they're spending time in Evernote.
Bethany Stephens,: Beyond that, they may or may not use it regularly, but by almost insisting that they use it for their first two weeks, it becomes a bit habitual. I don't know that anyone uses it quite as prolifically as I do, for certain. But yes, it's pretty integral to our business, from day one.
Bryan Collins: And that note, is that a read only note, or is it a personal checklist that they would work through, or something else?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, it's a checklist. It's literally built as a checklist, with check boxes, so that I can see them going through the onboarding process because it's a shared note. Then, it's hyperlinked so each step of the checklist is leading them to another section within Evernote. It might be things like here's how to set up passwords within our password keeper. Then, they click that link within Evernote, and it takes them over to a how-to.
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, it's a linked process. There's probably about 30-ish notes. There are even some things ... If you're familiar, there's a military ... I'll have to send it to you, if you're not. But, there's a military article called Letter To Garcia.
Bryan Collins: Okay.
Bethany Stephens,: It talks about an individual who's charged with getting a letter to Garcia during wartime. I just think it's a great read for our new hires. We really, as a company, value people who are problem solvers, and self starters, and it really speaks to that. So, within that onboarding checklist, they're linked over to a PDF of the Letter To Garcia, they read that, and then they come back and check it off.
Bryan Collins: Oh, very good. Yeah, I haven't read that letter.
Bethany Stephens,: It's great.
Bryan Collins: I'll look for it afterwards.
Bethany Stephens,: I'll send it along.
Bryan Collins: I'm looking at my Evernote here, and I have a lot of shortcuts on the left hand side of the screen. I think I have 30 shortcuts, with some saved searches. How have you set up your shortcuts?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, that's a great question. I'm looking here, I probably have, I would say, about 20 within my shortcuts. I have a template called Action Items, and that's a weekly template that I use to make sense of my tasks and so on. I have what I call my Action File, which is basically all the active things that I'm working through. Then, I have some various reference notes, that include our mission, vision, and value statement for our business, my kids' school calendars. It seems like I'm constantly trying to remember when they have a day off and when they don't.
Bethany Stephens,: Of course, right now, we're living in perpetual days off. Yeah, I use the shortcuts quite a bit, those are those most often referenced items.
Bryan Collins: Do you also have any saved searches? Or, is it simply shortcuts?
Bethany Stephens,: Just shortcuts. Yeah, I have some links that I've renamed to various tags, such as travel, or writing, and articles, like that. But, no saved searches.
Bryan Collins: It sounds like you're also using Evernote for not just a note taking and creativity tool, but for project and task management?
Bethany Stephens,: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes.
Bryan Collins: That's basically check boxes, and to-do lists as well?
Bethany Stephens,: It is, yeah. A lot of times linking back. So, speaking to a new client, as an example. We might need to send over some examples of our work, so I'll often drop those in there as well. Then, if there's anything that I want a team member to take action on, typically our marketing team, I'll probably highlight that, put their name in the note, and make sure that I'm drawing attention to the follow-up for them.
Bethany Stephens,: Another, I think, somewhat interesting use ... I don't know that I find it that interesting, but I get a lot of feedback on it is I keep a current bio and headshot for myself in Evernote. Anytime I have a speaking engagement, I send that over. It's got various iterations ready to go, and it's linked so I can update it at any time, and change things. I always get comments on that when I send it someone prior to a speaking engagement, they think that's so interesting. I guess, just because it's not a PDF.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, yeah. That's a good idea, actually. I must do that. Do you also ... What I was going to say is, is there anything that you would say to yourself this does not go into Evernote, or I wouldn't use Evernote for this?
Bethany Stephens,: I can't think of much. In fact, I think I'm the opposite, with 24,000 notes. I think my tendency is to put it all in Evernote. So, it's even small things like my car license plate. You know, you get to a hotel sometimes to check in, and they want your license plate number and you can't retain it, so I've got that in there. Probably some things I shouldn't have in there, such as my personal health notes, and my drivers license.
Bethany Stephens,: I used to do some training on Evernote for bloggers and content creators, and one of the primary questions I got was, "Aren't you nervous about your things in Evernote?" I would always say, "No, not at all. I'm less nervous in Evernote, than I am having things elsewhere." I tend to keep it all.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, that's a common question from people who are new to using tools like Evernote, or some other software, rather than a traditional tool on their desktop.
Bryan Collins: What's the number one tip you gave to bloggers and content creators, for getting started with Evernote?
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah. It sounds a little silly to keep reference those What Would Jesus Do bracelets, but I always say it's like that. It's to constantly, constantly ask yourself, could I put this in Evernote? Because Evernote's a function of the more you put in, the more you'll use it.
Bryan Collins: Yeah.
Bethany Stephens,: Once it's all in there, and you get in the habit of knowing that anything you need to find is probably in Evernote, and then it breeds sustainability, I suppose.
Bryan Collins: Have you tried the beta?
Bethany Stephens,: I have not, no. Well, I've tried some past betas, but no. I don't think I've used current. Am I missing anything good?
Bryan Collins: I think it supports markdown, so that will be an exciting change, particularly if you're using Evernote to write. You can use hashtags, and stars to format your text, and then later change it to HTML. I use markdown quite a lot, I find it's a way of writing quicker, so I'll be excited if that makes its way into the full version.
Bryan Collins: Finally, back to you. You strike me as somebody who's quite organized, but maybe quite busy. Do you have an ideal early morning routine?
Bethany Stephens,: Oh, this is something I'm obsessed with right now. I love that you brought that up, because I'm reading everything I can get my hands on about morning routines. Yeah, I do.
Bethany Stephens,: A lot of it starts, not surprisingly, with Evernote. I tend to put my tasks in the night before. I love that I strike you as organized, I think that's probably not the case. I have learned to, I think, be regimented with myself, because I am very ... I'm a creative, at the end of the day, I have a lot of ideas. Trying to make sense of them the night before helps immensely.
Bethany Stephens,: Then, right now I'm on a kick with making sure that I have some quiet, alone time in the mornings, so I try to get up before my family, and drink some lemon water, and just think, and process my day a little bit before I dive in. I find then I'm less reactive throughout the day, because I am intense, and enthusiastic. If I don't get some mental order to my day, then I'll be putting out fires all day instead of leading my team, and my company as I need to.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I think that's important at the moment. I'm working at home with three kids, so it's quite noisy during the day, so it's important for quiet time.
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah. [inaudible 00:23:16] your kids?
Bryan Collins: How old are they? 13, nine, and 18 months.
Bethany Stephens,: Oh my goodness, my sympathies on that.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:23:27] certainly keeps me busy. Finally, Beth, where can people find out more information about you, or your business?
Bethany Stephens,: Sure. Our business is SoapboxInfluence.com. Then, I'm fairly active on LinkedIn, and Instagram, and they're all under my full name, Bethany Stephens, with a P-H. Yeah, I'm trying to get my own blog restarted, which is Little Magpie. I think I've been the cobbler, and I've been tending to everyone else's shoes, and not spending enough time writing. With all of us quarantined, I've got a little more time to collect my thoughts, so jumping back on the blog train.
Bryan Collins: Yeah. It can be hard to balance running a business with finding time for creative work.
Bethany Stephens,: Yes.
Bryan Collins: So, I can empathize with you on that. But, it was very nice to talk to you today, Beth.
Bethany Stephens,: Yeah, you as well. I enjoyed it immensely. Thanks for your time, and good questions.
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