UPDATE [March 5, 2019]

Never mind. Today, Contently said it has scrapped a plan announced last week to begin charging creatives that use its freelance platform a 4.75% fee to cash out their earnings. Following days of being almost universally hammered on social media by freelancers upset about the fee, Contently CEO Joe Coleman conceded the proposal was a mistake. “It will not go into effect, and as CEO, I guarantee one like it never will,” Coleman said in public letter emailed to the platform’s contributors.

Contently will look elsewhere for revenue that the scrapped cash-out fee would have generated, Coleman said. The company is taking other steps to rebuild its bruised relationship with contributors, including creating a freelance advisory council and publishing a freelance community contract on its website. In the contract Contently states that it will, among other things, continue paying contributors “fairly and quickly,” invest in resources that freelancers can use, and set up more workshops and meetups on topics based on freelancers’ input.

One of the country’s biggest freelance writing marketplaces made a change to its payment terms this week that’s got contributors grousing from Boston to Berkeley.

Contently, which operates one of the oldest online marketplaces that content marketing departments use to find, manage and pay freelancers, announced Feb. 27 that beginning April 2, it will charge contributors a 4.75% service fee to cash out money they earn from clients on the platform.

That’s right, Contently freelancers will have to pay in order to get paid.

The reaction was immediate, and not good. Writers who use the Contently platform to get work vowed to mark themselves as “unavailable” for new projects in the system. Others plan to finish projects in advance of April 2 to avoid paying the fee. One started a campaign with the hashtag #nocontentforcontently to protest the new fee.

The blowback was so swift that mere hours after Contently sent an email to current contributors announcing the change, CEO Joe Coleman took to Twitter to address the issue. In a public statement that was still pinned to the top of the company’s Twitter feed Thursday morning, Coleman explained that day-to-day service costs have increased as Contently has scaled its business. “Continuing to subsidize 100% of these services for our freelancers will cut into our ability to keep securing high-paying work for our network,” he wrote.

I know Contently. One of my first content-writing clients was a digital marketing agency that was one of Contently’s first customers, back in 2012. When the agency pivoted to other kinds of work, I continued to do writing, editing and content strategist projects for many years for several major corporate clients that used the platform. I reached out to one of my former clients for their reaction to the change. The company still uses Contently but the manager I contacted was not aware of the new service fee and declined to comment on the situation. I’ve heard secondhand that other clients are aware of it and aren’t happy.

The Economics of Online Platforms

Contently has had a couple of good things going for it. One of the best was holding client funds in escrow so, in many cases, writers are paid the instant they submit a first draft. That’s huge at a time when other writing markets pay in net 30, 60 or 90, and non-payment issues are so bad the state of New York passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act to ensure writers get paid.

Contently also offers writers a free portfolio page where writers and other creatives on the platform can display clips. That service does as much for the company as for the contributors, though, since it’s the front end of a database that clients use to search for freelancers with experience covering specific topics.

It’s not an uncommon business practice for companies to discount an invoice by a small amount if a vendor wants to be paid faster than usual. When I was a columnist for MSN Money, which is owned by Microsoft, I had to become a Microsoft vendor. In order to get paid in a timely manner, I had to agree to a 4% discount of my fee.

It’s not unusual for online gig-work matching-making platforms to charge service fees to both clients and contributors. Several of the biggest generalist freelance marketplaces charge freelancers service fees for work that they get through those platforms, including Freelancer.com and Upwork, according to this roundup of generalist freelance platforms I wrote for PCMag.com. Since then, Upwork instituted a sliding fee scale that rewards freelancers who do regular work or big projects for individual clients.

But since Contently never did, contributors were blindsided by the change and reacted accordingly. No doubt it’s something that the company’s execs deliberated over long and hard for that reason. A Contently exec – who reached out to me after seeing my tweets about the service fee – wouldn’t comment on the record. But they confirmed that it wasn’t a decision the company made lightly.

Although Contently wouldn’t comment, it’s easy to imagine the economic circumstances that led to this kind of decision. Niche platforms like Contently are losing out to generalist services like Upwork and Fiverr, which in recent years have taken on exponentially more contributors and client users. It’s been a few years since I had an assignment through Contently, but when I was still using it often, their built-in CMS was not universally well-liked. If a client doesn’t use the CMS, that leaves a site like Contently to operate as little more than a matching-making service that also handles payments. Which is essentially what the Upworks of the world deliver, but on a larger scale. So you have a niche provider that doesn’t have enough of a value-add to distinguish itself from a larger platform.

By “losing out to” bigger platforms, I specifically mean niche platforms are losing big corporate clients. I’ve previously written about how big companies like Procter & Gamble are starting to use Upwork and similar generalist freelance platforms as an alternative to hiring ad agencies or other vendors for marketing and creative work. In that article, Upwork touted the fact that the fastest-growing segment of its client-side business was enterprise-level companies. That’s exactly the type of client that Contently started with. When I asked Upwork about Contently’s service fee change, an executive there declined to comment.

What Can Freelancers Do Who Don’t Want to Use Contently?

Writers who’ve vowed to ditch Contently rather than agree to part with any part of their fee have some options. There are other ways to get free portfolio space. One is Muck Rack, a platform for PR professionals that, like Contently, gives writers a spot to display clips for no charge. Or they can get creative. This freelance writer posts her portfolio on a public board on Trello, the project management app.

Contently competitors Skyword and NewsCred offer similar types of assignments for freelance writers, photographers, videographers and designers. Neither Skyword nor NewsCred charges freelancers a cash-out service fee, representatives at both companies confirmed. Skyword also offers free portfolios for contributors and potential contributors.

Another alternative is creating a presence on those all-inclusive freelance marketplaces like Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com, which have come a long way since the days when the only jobs available paid $5.