Milling it over: content mills, a freelancing conundrum

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Should a freelance copywriter enter the murky world content mills?

Content Mill – a website that ‘hires’ copywriters and other freelance ‘professionals’ to produce (cheap) work for clients.

The inverted commas are present because there seems to be little, if any vetting process to prove that applicants touting their creative wares via content mills possess any qualifications or experience whatsoever. Any old Tom, Dick or, indeed, Ernest Hemingway can create a profile and pitch for work and this lack of quality control has created a somewhat lawless state – the wild west of the freelancing world, if you will.

So how do content mills work?

Commonly, a client posts a simple brief for the work they require, sometimes also providing an indication of budget (often rates of pay are eye-wateringly low, way below industry standards, and in many cases, not even close to touching minimum wage either.)

Once a job goes live, a feeding frenzy begins, where bold claims and gobsmackingly low rates fly like pint glasses at a pub brawl.

The client sifts through the pitches before awarding the work to their favoured freelancer, with the mill itself taking a cut of their proposed fee (they basically grind your bones to make their bread.) Most sites allow clients to post their requirements free of charge, but many require the freelancer to pay a small fee in order to bid for each job, along with a 10-20% commission, or more, once the work is completed.

Content mills straddle many different types of freelance work (including web and graphic design, copywriting, brand management, marketing.) There appears to be no governing body or umbrella organization to ensure good practice or set any sort of precedents. Some may be good, some bad, some utterly abhorrent. You pay your money and take your chances.

My content mill career

When I began freelancing, I sensed that relying on content mills for regular work wasn’t a great idea. I knew it like I know that eating four packets of Wotsits in a row isn’t good for you in the long-term (they won’t sit well on your stomach and you’ll feel grim about yourself after.) The problem with junk food, however, is that it’s quick, readily available and so much easier than cooking a proper dinner. Crunch. Nom nom.

Having taken some time out of the copywriting business to handcraft a few small people, I’d recently returned to freelance copywriting full-time. I’d had some great long-term clients and a steady stream of referrals, but when tiny hands began to make demands, these dwindled away to almost nothing.

Returning to work, I developed a new website, updated my brand, messaged old contacts and started cold calling an increasingly bizarre range of potential clients (including Magic Merlin, whose flyer copy I tore to pieces without invitation at a kids party) I also began blogging for my life, but marketing a small business or freelance service takes time, and it wasn’t long before I found myself Googling

Find freelance copywriting work online’

in the middle of the night, feeling like an alcoholic taking a first illicit sip of booze after a long stretch of sobriety.
The sites, the dirty, filthy content mills that appeared before my eyes had pages and pages of available work. It was right there in front of me, like ripe fruit, ready to be picked.

Reader, I’m only human. I reached up to grab it – only to find it was riddled with maggots.

My first sign up was with People Per Hour. The site claims to hire ‘expert’ freelancers, which suggests a reassuring level of skill and experience is needed to qualify.

I submitted my personal info along with ticking boxes to describe my skills and experience. I added some work examples and pressed send, thinking I might hear back in a week or so. My application was accepted within half an hour, so quickly that it could only have been glanced over, if it was read at all. If I say I’m an expert basket-weaver, probably the best basket weaver in the world, it seems that People Per Hour will happily believe me. I wish I’d said that now.

I then took a short test in order to be certified as ‘job ready’ – which isn’t mandatory but does get you a ‘sticker’ for you profile. I like stickers.

The test involved some questions about the People Per Hour process before asking a bizarre series of complicated maths questions that I had to use Google to answer (what this has to do with copywriting isn’t clear. I’m going to go with ‘nothing.’)

Then came the English component. I rolled up my sleeves. I was going to ace this.

Question 1.

I learned the value of hard work by ___________ hard.
a) always worked
b) working very of
c) by working very
d) by very working

My four-year-old got that one right (bear in mind that’s who could be writing your copy if you use People Per Hour to hire a writer.)

It seems this is the level of English usage that makes you an ‘expert’ on the site.


I started to look for jobs and there’s some juicy work out there if you’re prepared to separate the wheat from the chaff (at least for me.)

Content writing, advertising copy, product descriptions, direct marketing copy… I’d read the brief and feel a swell of excitement as I imagined getting my teeth into the work, getting to know the client, researching, writing, redrafting, running it past another writer, making more edits, finally presenting my hard work for another few rounds of editing and final approval.

Then I’d glance at the rate being offered and, often, make some sort of angry / insulted / outraged noise while spitting out a mouthful of tea.

Many jobs are offered at an hourly rate that works out at less than the UK minimum wage. Substantially less. I saw 2000-word articles on complex topics advertised for a flat fee of £7. I saw pages of web copy required for £15 each (my current prices start from £150 per page, and I’ve been told that’s on the low side.) Projects that would take an experienced professional writer several weeks to complete were priced at less than £100.

Grumbling from disgruntled freelancers lurks in the comments section beneath many job posts, though all questions are vetted by the site, so the vast majority of ‘Is this for real?’ comments aren’t published (none of mine ever have been.)

No matter how low the price, every job attracts a lot of applicants, with 10 being the lowest I’ve ever seen (often hundreds of willing freelancers submit a pitch.)

Why are content mills so popular?

I get it.

Everyone likes a bargain.

Faced with a list of freelancers (all apparent ‘experts’ according to the content mill) clients are going to choose someone who’s offering a price on the lower end of the scale.

Those who truly appreciate good copy written by an experienced professional will find one via Google, via personal recommendation, via LinkedIn, and will be prepared to pay standard industry rates to secure quality work by a seasoned writer with policies, procedures and insurance.

This type of client isn’t interested in entering a bidding war or a race to the bottom. Sure – price is a consideration. But it’s not the only consideration when it comes to selecting a writer. Quality matters as much, if not more than cost.
What’s so bad about content mills?

I’ve heard many negative things said about content mills that I agree with:

They dilute the value of good copywriting – writing that involves adequate research, planning, crafting, editing and reworking.

They make the profession look like a scam – when there’s this many people queuing up to do it for peanuts, surely anyone with a reasonable grasp of English can write great copy in their sleep?

They exploit vulnerable people desperate for work and work on a ‘race to the bottom’ basis where the client will always get a better deal than the freelancer.

And freelance working? It’s something we do for a bit of extra pocket money, like selling bits and bobs on eBay. It’s not a viable career, not based on the hours we’d have to work for the rates clients on content mills are prepared to pay.

Not a good scene.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

I found myself pitching for jobs.

There’s good stuff about content mills?

Content mills are weirdly addictive. Even though the pay is poor, the ‘pick me’ aspect, the quick and easy money direct to my bank account, the potential that a small, simple job might lead to a profitable on-going relationship with a client are seductive. And when the chips are down and work is scarce (the boom and bust nature of freelancing is real, my friends) it’s a bird in the hand. Until Tesco start accepting ‘we’ll get back to you’ and ‘we’re exploring our options’ as payment methods, a content mill job might be all that stands between me and a rejected debit card at the checkout.

What’s it like to use a content mill?

Working with clients through a content mill isn’t a rewarding experience, in my experience. I want to get to know the people I work with, find out what makes them tick, dig deep to uncover what they really want to achieve and take them there, one word at a time.

As a freelancer, long-term relationships are important to me as they provide regular, steady income. One-off jobs can be life savers, but they don’t help me to develop a sustainable business.

Clients found via content mills are generally less demanding and the financial protection offered by the site is nice (if the work isn’t paid for within a set period, they’ll cover the cost without question.) But I can’t help feeling that my writing is devalued by working for such low rates, and I know I’m not giving it my all – would you?

Could content mills offer rookie copywriters or those who’ve been out of the business for a while something other than financial reward?

If you’re looking for a diverse range of clients to select from in order to enhance your portfolio, you’ll certainly find them. If you’re building up a copywriting career on the side of a steady job, hoping to gain experience and improve your portfolio, you can find some juicy jobs via content mills.

If you can afford the luxury and don’t have mouths to feed, honing your pitching skills, working out how to stand out from the crowd, figuring out how best to work with clients, enhancing your CV and getting paid jobs under your belt are all things you can do through a content mill.

There are a select few jobs on these sites that might lead to bigger and better things – it’s happened for me, though I must admit it’s very rare. Content Mills are also a good place to get your foot in the door with agencies, though work is likely to remain low paid. The problem with taking clients through sites like People Per Hour is that once you’ve agreed to a low rate, it’s difficult if not impossible to bump up your prices if you continue to work with that client in the long-term.

Finding work as a freelancer is all about knocking on doors (but not running away like we used to do as kids. Hilarious!) Sure, strategic planning and a methodical approach is required, but it’s often a numbers game too. Cast enough hooks and something will bite. Small fry at first. Then a bigger fish. Bigger. Bigger. And finally, you land Moby Dick, that big name client that takes a chance on you and opens doors to better things.

Even well-established freelancers have their dry patches. I’ve heard several copywriters admit to turning to content mills when times are tight in order to top up their incomes. Many writers go incognito on content mills, inventing a dashing new persona in order to avoid being recognised by better paying clients or peers. Nobody need know you’re slumming it, so if the kids need shoes and the dog needs chum, it can be your dirty little secret.

Some high-profile, well-established copywriters swear by content mills and make an additional income teaching other writers how to get the best out of them.

The majority that I spoke to when starting out, and while penning this post, have warned me to be wary of becoming stuck in a content mill rut. The advice seems to be

Use them in an emergency but get the bulk of your work elsewhere.’

Who works for content mills?
There’s a huge international spectrum and reading other people’s proposals (where that’s possible, many are hidden from public view) a huge range of experience and ability is evident. Some writers provide professional, well-thought out, reasoned and considered pitches, some give bog-standard cut and paste responses (I can do this for you no problem – get in touch.)

I admit that I’ve used a content mill to recruit a web designer for some work and the responses I got were mainly disappointing – lacking in enthusiasm, arriving so quickly they’d definitely not read let alone digested the brief, containing little to no ideas about how they’d approach designing my site, containing few examples of work that I could base my decisions on. The work I eventually had done was disappointing, but what did I expect? I knew I was paying below industry standard rates. It was all I could afford at the time.

Content mills: Yay or nay?

I’m still on the fence.

Paying to pitch for every job along with handing over a 10-20% commission, or more, on any that you’re awarded is tough to stomach. Though private clients are often free to obtain, and you keep 100% of the money you earn, landing one can be a slow process, requiring a high level of patience. The best clients are often slow burners – a luxury that many freelancers can ill afford.

I quickly found that my self-esteem and self-respect took a battering when I wrote pitch after pitch for ridiculously low paid work on content mills, lowering my prices again and again, only to fail to win any jobs! There doesn’t seem to be a secret to winning work through content mills, other than being prepared to work for a rock bottom price (I had my limits, which were often higher than the client was prepared to pay.)

Every time I sign up a new private client, I’m reminded that there are people out there who appreciate the skill involved in what copywriters do and that are prepared to pay a reasonable amount to secure our services. Each time this happens, I vow to hold out for this type of client. They do exist. Like the truth, they’re out there – they just require imagination and perseverance to find.

What’s your experience using content mills?

Have they helped or hindered your career?

Do they diminish the value of freelance work or are they a useful stepping-stone for rookie writers?

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