Milling it over: content mills, a freelancing conundrum

Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Is it ever a good idea for a freelance copywriter to enter the murky world of the content mill?

Content Mill – that’s the correct term for websites that ‘hire’ writers and other freelance professionals to produce (cheap) work for clients. The sarcastic inverted commas are there because there seems to be little, if any vetting process for applicants wishing to tout their creative wares. Any old Tom, Dick or, indeed, Ernest Hemingway can sign up and bid for jobs. This lack of quality control gives the impression of a lawless state – the wild west of the freelancing world.

So how do they work? Usually, the client posts a simple brief and begins a feeding frenzy where bold claims and gobsmackingly low rates fly through the air like pint glasses at a pub fight. The job is awarded to the clients favoured freelancer, with the mill itself taking a cut of their proposed fee (they basically grind your bones to make their bread.)

Content mills for all kinds of freelancing seem to exist, most straddling many different professions (web design, graphic design, copywriting, brand management, marketing etc.) There appears to be no governing body, no umbrella organization to ensure good practice or set any sort of precedents. Some may be good, some bad, some utterly abhorrent. You do your research and take your chances, it seems.

I sensed that signing up to a content mill wasn’t a great idea. I knew it like you know that eating four packets of wotsits isn’t a great idea (but is definitely easier than cooking a proper dinner.) They wont sit well on your stomach and you’ll feel pretty grim about yourself after. But they’re as light of air as they go down. Crunch. Nom nom.

Having taken more than five years out of the business to hand-craft some small people, I’ve recently returned to copywriting with a vengeance. I had some good long term clients and a steady stream of jobs but when tiny hands began to make demands, these dwindled away to almost nothing. I’m now pretty much starting again from scratch, having done more feature than copy writing over the last couple of years. It’s a hard slog. It seems harder than last time – but maybe I’m just more cynical and knackered.

After developing a brand spanking new website, messaging everyone I know, knew or might want to know in the future and sending cold emails to an increasingly bizarre range of potential clients (culminating in a Magic Merlin, whom I met at a kids party – surely you don’t need to specify you’re magic if your name’s Merlin) I found myself typing ‘find freelance work’ into google. I felt like an alcoholic taking that first illicit sip after a long stretch of sobriety. The sites, the dirty dirty content mills that came up all had work, lots of work, long lists of clients looking for jobs. It was all right there in front of me, ready to be picked like ripe fruit.

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 would suggest a certain level of skill and experience would be needed to qualify. I submitted my personal info along with a list of my skills and relevant experience. I added some work examples. I pressed sending, thinking I might hear back in a week or so. My application was accepted within hours, so quickly that it could only have been glanced over, if it was looked at at all. If I say I’m an expert basket-weaver, probably the best basket weaver in the UK, it seems 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 a series of questions about the People Per Hour process before posing a bizarre series of pretty complicated maths questions that I had to google to answer. Then came the English component, in which I was asked the following;

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 for me. It seems this is the level of English usage that makes you an ‘expert.’ Awesome.

I started to look for jobs. And there’s some pretty juicy work out there (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 to the client. Then I’d glance at the rate being offered and, more often than not, make some sort of angry / insulted / outraged noise while spitting a mouthful of my ever present tea at the computer screen.

The rate per hour offered is often less than minimum wage, substantially less. Projects that would take a responsible, experienced writer several weeks to complete are being pitched at less than £100. Grumbling from disgrunted writers lurks in the comments section beneath many job posts. ‘£50 is a high value job?’ ‘These are not ‘expert’ rates I’m afraid.

And some I wont repeat. All entirely justified. It seems that these lurking, trolling freelancers just can’t get over their moral outrage at how little their profession is valued on these sites. On the one hand, I sympathise with their vitriol. On the other, I think their time might be better spent looking for better paid work.

People like a bargain. Faced with a list of freelancers (all apparently ‘experts’ according to the content mill) people are going to choose someone who’s offering a price on the lower end of the scale. People who truly appreciate that good copy should be written by an experienced professional will find one via google, via recommendation, via linked in. It wont occur to them to start a bidding war. To them, price is a consideration, not THE consideration.

Many of the things they say about content mills are true. They can only be diluting the value of good copywriting. They can only be making the profession look like a scam – something anyone with a reasonable grasp of the English language can do in their sleep. 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 I’d have to work for the rates people are prepared to pay.

Not a good scene.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

I find myself pitching for jobs.

"Freelance working? It's something we do for a bit of extra pocket money, like selling bits and bobs on Ebay."

It’s weirdly addictive. Even though I must confess, I haven’t been awarded anything yet. It’s knowing I’m a good writer and wanting recognition for it, the ‘pick me’ aspect, the quick and easy money it would thrust into my bank account (and even though I know I should be holding out for better rates, a bird in the hand and all that – you can’t pay for your Tesco shop with ‘one day’ or ‘what if.’)

I want to stand out from the crowd, to have the client nodding along with my comments, knowing that I’ve recognized what lies at the true heart of the brief. I want the client to believe my claims, which grow ever bolder by the day. I want to rise to the top, the cream of the crop (yes, I stole House of Pain lyrics.)

But a big part of me knows that the clients aren’t really reading and seriously considering my words, they’re looking at my rate and snorting ‘is she having a laugh?

No. Are you though?

No. You are though.

No you are.

You are.

You.

I find myself looking at what I’d receive, after People Per Hour take their cut, and bumping up my price a bit, disgusted with the pitiful amount I’d take home. I have no control, no power. I’m setting my rates in accordance with someone else cut, rather than by what I know I’m worth. Surely that’s not the way to do business.

But could there be something in it other than money, for rookie copywriters or those who’ve been out of the business for a while? If you’re looking for a diverse range of clients to select from in order to enhance your portfolio, you’ll certainly find them. I came into copywriting using a strategy called ‘The Fear’ (I got the idea from the sitcom Friends, so obviously it was a solid base on which to build my career and future prospects.) In a nutshell, you need ‘the fear’ of quitting your safe, stable job in order to make it in your dream career. But if you’re more sensible than me and stay in a role with a reliable income while copywriting on the side, you can get some pretty juicy experience through content mills and not have to worry to much about the rates of pay.

Even though the money may be poor, the experience might be rich. Honing your pitching skills, standing out from the crowd, collaborating with the client, getting a paid job under your belt – these are all great skills to have if you’re going to make it as a freelancer in any arena.

And there are a select few jobs on these sites that might lead to bigger and better things. I’ve noticed the occasional post where a client’s looking to build a long term relationship with a writer and is digging around for the right one. That could be you. I’ve seen agencies looking for someone to take on a small, innocuous job that definitely have some decent clients on their books. Impress them and you’ve got your foot in the door.

Not quite 'that' sort of freelancing...

Finding work as a freelancer is all about knocking on doors (but not running away like we used to do as kids. Hilariously.) It’s often a numbers game – cast enough hooks and something will bite. Small fry at first. Then a bigger fish. Bigger. Bigger. And finally you land Moby Dick and you’re away. At the beginning, you don’t have the luxury of a niche. You stand on a street corner and ask ‘looking for business?’ You’ll take any job. ANY job. So long as it pays. Sometimes you take ones that don’t.

Even well-established freelancers have their dry patches. I’ve heard several copywriters admit to turning to content mills when times are lean in order to top up their incomes. When the kids needs shoes and the dog needs chum, they may well be all that stands between us and the bailiffs knock (not literally, I just used imagery to dramatic effect.) You can even go incognito on these sites, invent a dashing new persona – nobody need know you’re slumming it.

Some copywriters may swear by content mills and, if so, I’d like to hear from them. Seeking advice from well-established freelancers, I’ve been warned away by the vast majority, in no uncertain terms. ‘Know your value and stick to it from the onset‘ was the general consensus. Is it true that once you start working for content mills, it’s more difficult to be taken seriously as a ‘proper’ copywriter?

And just who are these people that undercut us on these sites? There’s a huge international spectrum and reading other peoples proposals (where that’s possible, many are hidden from public view) a huge range of ability is evident. Some are hugely professional, well-thought out, reasoned and considered pitches, some bog-standard cut and paste responses (‘I’d love to do this job, get in touch’) and others rambling, non-sensical yet absurdly polite almost-poems.

I have to admit using a content mill to find a web designer when putting together my new site. 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. I thought I’d offered a pretty decent price for the job. But consulting a pretty well-known designer for a quote, I was blown away by how much more he charged. It seems I was offering peanuts and getting perhaps not monkeys, but a bunch of bored, pissed off homo-sapiens.

I’m still on the fence regarding content mills. If you stick to the basic packages that don’t dangle your profile in front of clients noses like an embarrassed bookworm, most are entirely free of charge. You only pay commission should you win the job – so what do you have to lose?

Well I’m quickly finding that my self-esteem and self-respect is taking a battering when I write pitch after pitch and fail to win the work. Or when I lower my rate yet again, thinking ‘but no lower.’ When a new client accepted my (pretty reasonable, in line with industry standards) quote today without question, it reminded me that there is work out there and that many are prepared to pay a fair amount for a good job done. It’s much more satisfying, long term, to wait it out for the good ones (providing they eventually come.)

What’s your experience with content mills? Are there any you’d recommend or avoid like Donald Trump? Have they been useful to you and your career or do they diminish the value of freelance work?

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