Brands and Publications Approach Me for Work — But They Don’t Pay!

Content Therapy is Managing Editor’s monthly advice column, where Paul Chaney responds to your questions about the messy dilemmas content marketers face in their work. We are (obviously) not licensed therapists.

Is Unpaid Work Ever a Good Idea?

Dear Content Therapist: I am a full-time freelance writer and editor. I keep a steady roster of clients, and I’m paid well for my work, which is mostly in a specific topic area. I’ve developed a bit of a reputation in this area, and some people even describe me as an “influencer.” I am increasingly being approached by different brands and publications, asking me to write “guest posts,” present on their webinars, or even speak at live conferences. Here’s the catch: They don’t pay. At best, if it’s a live conference, they’ll offer a free ticket. When I ask about comp, people act shocked — like they thought they were doing *me* a favor. Am I out of line? Or is it normal to just do this kind of work for free? —EXPOSURE DOESN’T PAY MY BILLS

Paul Chaney: Good for you. Freelancing carries some excellent rewards but also comes with significant risks. As a freelancer myself, I’ve been on both sides of that fence.

My initial reaction is to say, “No way. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Think about the terms you used to describe yourself and your career: “steady roster,” “paid well,” and “influencer.” All of those qualities testify to your worth as a paid speaker and writer. With that said, let’s examine the issue in greater depth.

Conferences

It is not typical for conference speakers to go unpaid. There are cases where speakers “pay to play,” but that is the exception.

As a former conference speaker, I accepted some opportunities where I wasn’t paid because I received value in other ways, like having my name on a roster with industry notables. (At the time, it was good for my ego and business development prospects.)

At other times, the host covered my expenses. If the venue was nice enough—a resort, for example—the amenities were worth the investment of time and travel. Usually, I would bring my wife along and make a mini-vacation out of it.

Guest Posts and Webinars

When it comes to guest posts or webinars, the scales’ balance could fall on one side or the other. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get paid. Sometimes you’re not.

The real question is, what are your business development goals?

It doesn’t sound like you need more business, but do you want more? If not, then decide if the effort of putting together a presentation or post is worth the time and expense.

Could a guest post, webinar, or conference be a stepping stone to more and better opportunities? That’s a judgment call you must make.

Wisdom dictates that you evaluate each non-paying opportunity to determine if it will create value in other ways. If not, don’t give it a second thought. Be courteous, and tell the brand or publication “thank you,” but you’ll have to pass. Just don’t blanket refuse all offers merely because money is not on the table.

One more thing: When you get an opportunity to present at a conference, and the host asks about your fee? Don’t undervalue yourself. Come up with a number that makes you a little uncomfortable. You may be pleasantly surprised to find the host doesn’t bat an eye at the price.

I’m a Content Marketing Manager, Not a Copywriter!

Dear Content Therapist: I am the sole content marketing manager inside a small but fast-growing B2B software company. We are steadily adding new marketing team members, but so far, no additional writers or editors. As such, I’m being asked to write EVERYTHING: Blog posts, email copy, ebooks, web copy, brochures, social copy, scripts, ads, you name it! The thing is, I’m not actually good at writing all of those things. I’m best at researching and writing longer-form, more educational pieces like blogs and ebooks. I’m slow at this other stuff, I’m bad at it, and I feel like a fraud. I’ve asked if we could hire other writers who specialize in copywriting, but everyone else looks at me like I’m crazy because “writers are writers.” How can I get them to see that this isn’t tenable if they want to hit their goals? —CONTENT MARKETER, NOT A COPYWRITER

Paul Chaney: It may bring little comfort to know you are not alone in your dilemma. It’s faced by many like you employed by small companies everywhere.

 Writing copy and copywriting are indeed two different skill sets. I’m like you—I prefer to write a 1,500-word article or blog post than an eight-word tagline any day. Both are labor-intensive, but the latter leaves me banging my head against my desk, cursing my boss, God, and Don Draper for assigning such an arduous task. 

However, instead of bemoaning your copywriting crisis, take one of the following paths.

Have a Frank Talk with Your Boss

This option represents an “it’s worth a try” attempt to get what you want: Make the business case for hiring a copywriter.

Do some research and create a presentation that spells out the differences between content writing and copywriting. Then, schedule a time to speak with your boss and make the most compelling, respectful case you can for hiring a freelance copywriter.

Suggest a pilot project. Ask if you can hire a copywriter for one project. Both you and the freelancer will write the copy. If the work the freelancer produces isn’t better than yours, then promise that you’ll never ask for help again.

Become a Better Copywriter

If hiring a copywriter is out of the question, then you must improve your copywriting skills. I know that’s not what you want to hear. You can fuss and fume at my suggestion, argue that you have tried, or adamantly refuse. But sometimes reality bites, and we must do things we don’t like to make progress.

Plenty of copywriting courses and books are available to help you. (Robert Bly, a copywriter’s copywriter, has written several excellent volumes that are well worth reading.)

As the saying goes, life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. Find a way to change your attitude and determine to improve your skills.

Find a More Suitable Job

Several years ago, I read a book entitled “Soar with Your Strengths.” Its premise was that you should focus on improving your strengths rather than trying to shore up your weaknesses. In your case, that may mean finding a different place to work.

If your boss is unwilling to make allowances for your skillset by hiring outside help, and you reach a point of frustration such that continuing to work at the company becomes untenable, dust off your resume and begin a job search. There are plenty of companies that appreciate the difference and will value what you have to offer.

Taking care of your mental and emotional health is vastly more important than working for an unyielding employer. And who knows? Once you submit your resignation, he may realize the error of his ways and relent.

Don’t Do “Nothing”

You may have read the business fable, “Who Moved My Cheese?” It’s a story about the fear of change and the need to find “cheese” — something that sustains us and gives us joy. When cheese went lacking, one of the characters was unwilling to search for another source, operating under the pretense that, surely, cheese would magically appear even without action on their part. It never did.

Don’t be that character. Take whatever steps are necessary to improve your situation.

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for advice from a licensed mental health provider, health care provider or legal professional.

Paul Chaney
Paul Chaney is a freelance B2B writer, editor, blogger, journalist, marketer, ghostwriter, and author (that was a mouthful!) with more than 25 years of experience in the content marketing space. As president of Prescriptive Writing, he creates content that helps brands connect with their customers in meaningful, substantive ways.

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