Why I Don’t Work for Free
As a full-time blogger, not a week goes by without someone asking me to do something for them for free.
Sometimes it’s brands, wanting me to write a blog post about them for nothing; other times it’s websites or magazines looking for me to contribute my content, or provide them with photos, in exchange for a by-line, or “exposure”. The requests may vary in the details, but they all boil down to the same thing: an expectation that I will spend time working on something that will ultimately benefit the other party more than it will me.
When I tell the people who make these requests that I’m not able to work for free, they almost always seem surprised, and even a little offended, by the very suggestion that they should pay me for the work they’re asking me to do. “We don’t have the budget for THAT!” they exclaim (I can almost hear them turning to their colleagues and saying, “Can you BELIEVE the cheek of this blogger, asking us to PAY her to write for us? She should be grateful we even noticed her!”), conveniently forgetting that they DO have the budget to pay everyone else involved in the project – it’s normally just the writers who are expected to work for free: not because the large, household-name brands who make these requests can’t afford to pay them, but because they don’t feel they should HAVE to. Why would they, after all, when they know many of us will work for free?
Writing is a skill that is not valued, and blogging even less so. Part of the issue, of course, stems from the fact that many bloggers don’t value their work themselves – and if they don’t attach any value to what they do, then why would anyone else? Many of the blogging groups I belong to are now filled with threads, not about how to monetise your own blog, or get paid to write, but about how to get published on The Huffington Post – a profit-making site which pays everyone who works for it EXCEPT its bloggers. Why? Because bloggers work for “exposure” – EVERYONE knows that, don’t they?
“Oh, I’m just a blogger!” they say, “Why would anyone pay me to write?” Here’s the thing, though: you’re not “just a blogger”. You’re not “just” anything, in fact. If you’re blogging professionally, you’re a small business owner – someone who’s built up their own business from scratch. Even if you’re completely new to blogging, and have never earned a single penny from it, you’re still a writer, you’re still creating something – and if the thing you’re creating has a value to someone else, then you deserve to be compensated for the time you spend creating it: ESPECIALLY if the other party intends to profit from your work.[separator type=”thin”]
“You’re not ‘just’ a blogger. You’re not ‘just’ anything, in fact…”[separator type=”thin”]
This is why I don’t work for free. Websites like The Huffington Post, just to take an example, make a profit from other people’s writing. The writers make nothing – even although it’s their work that’s bringing people to the site, and their content that’s being monetised. That just doesn’t seem fair to me. Even if the blogger in question has no track record, and has never been paid to write in their life, if Huffington Post thinks their work is good enough to publish, then it should be good enough for them to pay for it: it’s as simple as that.
If YOU’RE going to profit from my work, then I expect to profit from it too. So while I’ll be more than happy to let another blogger feature one of my photos on their blog, say, if a brand wants to use that photo to actually SELL the dress I’m wearing in it, then sorry, but they’re going to have to pay me for it. I don’t spend hours taking photos and editing them just so a multinational brand can make some easy money off them, and avoid paying a photographer/stylist etc of their own, and nor do I spend time writing blog posts so that someone else can profit from my writing: it just doesn’t work that way – or it shouldn’t, anyway.
All too often, though, it DOES, doesn’t it? Brands ask bloggers to provide work for free; bloggers agree because they’re flattered to be asked, because they think they’re going to get some much needed “exposure” out of it, or because they just don’t value the work they do enough to expect to be paid for it. Hey, we’ve all been there: I’ve written before about how I once wrote ten different blog posts, about ten different (and yet totally the same) sets of false eyelashes, purely because someone sent me them, and I was all, “Oh wow, FREE STUFF! I better do something in exchange for it!” So the brand paid approximately £20 for what amounted to a full day’s work for me, and in return I got a bunch of single-use false eyelashes which I wore only to photograph for my blog. Great deal, huh?
The problem is, though (Well, ONE of the problems, for there are MANY problems connected to the thorny issues of blogging for money…) that sometimes it IS a good deal. This one wasn’t, obviously: I put in far more than I got out of it, so lesson learned and all that. Sometimes, though, brands will offer to send you something that IS of value to you: and I’m not talking here about monetary value (or not necessarily: if a brand offers to send me something I love, but couldn’t afford to buy myself, though, I’m not above accepting it, and nor would I judge anyone else for doing that. It’s all about deciding if what you’ll get out of the exchange is worth what you put into it… ), but the kind of value that brings readers to your blog.[separator type=”thin”]
“It’s all about deciding if what you’ll get out of the exchange is worth what you put into it”[separator type=”thin”]
If you’re a fashion blogger, for instance, it’s helpful to have new clothes to feature every now and then, because readers might tell you they like to see bloggers re-wear things, but they also tend to complain when they see the same item a few too many times, or when they can’t actually buy the clothes they see you wearing, because they’re no longer available. If you’re a beauty blogger, meanwhile, you need beauty products to review , don’t you? Most of us can’t afford to buy a constant stream of new clothes and makeup, just to have something to blog about, so if brands are able to step in, and if the items they’re offering are something your readers will genuinely be interested in, then you may well think that’s a deal worth taking. And you might be right. Confusing, huh?
For me, the bottom line is that if I’m going to be working for a brand, whether it’s by providing content for their website, or writing about them on my blog, there has to be something in it for me. It’s not fashionable to say that, because it sounds greedy, but like I say: I’m a business person, and no good businessperson is going to hand over their product or service for absolutely nothing, are they? Unfortunately, most of the time, that’s exactly what I’m asked to do. Brands normally offer “exposure” in exchange for the work they expect you to provide: they say they’ll give you an image credit, promote you on social media, feature you on their website. They try to tell you that all of this “exposure” will be worth more to you than money, and sometimes (although not often), they’re right: sometimes there ARE situations in which working for free will pay off in the long-run.[separator type=”thin”]
“the bottom line is that if I’m going to be working for a brand, whether it’s by providing content for their website, or writing about them on my blog, there has to be something in it for me“[separator type=”thin”]
I got into journalism, for instance, by working for free for my local newspaper: I wrote to them asking if I could come in and do work experience, and spent several weeks technically working for “free” for them. Actually, though, what I got from that experience was worth more to me than money: I got actual, hands-on experience of every aspect of working for a newspaper – experience which I just wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. At the end of those few weeks, the editor of the paper liked my work enough that he started paying me on a freelance basis, and eventually talked the publishing group into creating a job for me (yeah, he was an AWESOME editor, seriously), which I worked in for the next two years. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t done those first few weeks for “free”: in fact, if I’d sat at home saying there was NO WAY I was going to lift a finger unless I was paid for it, I’d still be sitting there now – assuming my parents hadn’t kicked me out first, obviously.
So I understand working for free, is what I’m saying. I get why people do it, and I know there’s a Catch-22 in many forms of professional writing, whereby people won’t pay you to work for them unless you can demonstrate some writing experience… which you can’t get until someone agrees to let you work for them.
The thing is, though, there’s working for free, and then there’s working for free. In the example above, for instance, I didn’t get paid for the work I did, but there was a real, obvious benefit to doing it. I wasn’t promised a job at the end of it, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a job in journalism without doing it. Blogging doesn’t really work like that, though. Brands don’t approach bloggers because they’ve had a good look at their resume, or seen their work on another website. No, if a brand approaches a blogger and asks them to contribute something to their website, or blog about them for nothing, it means they’ve already seen some value in the work the blogger does – and I know I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again: if your work has value to someone, they should be willing to pay for it. It’s not fair for THEM to get paid in cash, while YOU get paid in “exposure”: exposure doesn’t pay your bills, and it’s not accepted as legal tender, so if you’re going to work for “exposure”, you have to be really, REALLY sure that there will be an actual benefit to you.
Many bloggers agree to work for exposure, because they believe this benefit exists, and that the exposure they receive from appearing on another website will, as in my example above, given them something more valuable than cold, hard cash: that it will bring them lots of traffic to their blog, lots of new subscribers, and possibly a high quality link, which will boost their SEO and domain authority. This is why guest posting is so often touted as a good way to grow a blog, and why so many bloggers spend hours and hours of their time carefully crafting a post to submit to Huffington Post, or one of the many websites like it. It’s also why brands think it’s perfectly OK to ask someone to contribute their work for free – because they’re convinced they’re offering something worthwhile in return.
Are they, though?
In my experience? No. I’ve never written for Huffington Post, and I don’t do guest posts, either. I have, however, had many links from other websites – some of them being huge, household-name brands, whose websites get millions of visitors every month – and I’ve also provided content which I’ve been paid for. On almost all of these occasions, the benefit to me has been negligible in terms of the effect it’s had on my own blog: sure, I might see a spike in traffic or subscribers when the post first goes live, but, with a couple of notable exceptions, that boost has tailed off after a few days, and I’ve been left with nothing much to show for it. In my case, either the brands have linked to me spontaneously, or I’ve been paid for my work, so there’s no loss to me. If I’d actively pursued these opportunities, however, by writing guest posts in exchange for “exposure”, I’d have been very disappointed with the results, as the benefit here is normally temporary, and unsustainable. I’ve also had several experiences where the promised image credit turned out to be an non-clickable one, in tiny text at the bottom of the screen, or a magazine has printed the wrong URL, so there’s been no benefit to me at all: at least if I’d been getting paid, I’d still have gotten something out of those deals.
Obviously my experience might not be typical, and, as I said, there have been a few times when a link from another site HAS given me a lot of traffic. This has always been in the form of organic links, however, with the website in question simply linking to something I’ve written on my own blog, rather than asking me to write something specifically for theirs. For me, then, the real benefit comes from writing the type of content other websites will want to link to, rather than offering them content to publish on their own site. If another blog publishes something I’ve written in its entirety, for instance, there’s no need for readers to click through to my own blog once they’ve read it: sure, SOME might, out of curiosity, but most won’t: they’ll simply read the post, then move on. If the other blog simply links to me, however, their reader HAS to visit my site to read the content: so my time is better spent writing for my OWN blog than for someone else’s.[separator type=”thin”]
“For me, the real benefit comes from writing the type of content other websites will want to link to, rather than offering them content to publish on their own site.”[separator type=”thin”]
Now, I’m sure there are people who’ve had a totally different experience to this: people who’ve written for other sites for free and got huge, and continued traffic in exchange. I’m not knocking that, or saying that this technique can’t ever work, and nor do I subscribe to the idea that people who write for free are somehow “ruining” it for those of us who expect to be paid. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves what their time is worth, and if you’re happy to work for free, and feel you get some benefit from it, then go for it – you don’t owe me anything, after all. I also don’t think you’re ruining my chances of finding paid work, because my experience is that if a brand wants a particular blogger to write for them, they WILL pay for that work. There have been plenty of times when a brand have asked me to write for free, and, when I’ve refused, have come back with an offer of payment – the challenge for me is not to try to “compete” with bloggers who work for free, but to try to be the kind of blogger brands are willing to pay. Which is hard, yeah, but no one ever claimed it was going to be easy, did they?
Of course, everyone values their time differently, and what works for one person might not work for another. I didn’t write this post in order to tell other people how they should be running their blogs, or to scold them for making the decision to work for free: it’s their decision to make, after all, and if you feel there’s a genuine benefit in working for free, then by all means, do it. Just … please be very sure that that there IS a benefit to you (a real, measurable one, not some unquantifiable idea like, “It’ll help get my name out there” or something like that.) before you devote your precious time to creating something that will only ever benefit someone else.