Do not work for free Dear Branding, Social Media Outreach, and Social Media Marketeer-types:

I understand you have a brand to build, followers to find and content to market as you turn your income streams into raging rivers. But really, please consider this quotation, attributed to Evelyn Waugh, before you ask me or anyone to provide you with free services:

“After you ask a writer to dash something off for you in his spare time, invite a farmer to spade your garden in his.”



What happens when you call a biologist a whore?

#StandingWithDNLee sparked a number of firestorms within science and academic communities this month. It was a catalyst for a number of discussions, including gender politics and racism in academia, misogyny in science and beyond, and general reputation management. Just as important, it shed light on a more endemic issue faced by many in creative fields: the assumption that creatives (communicators, writers, artists, etc.) should volunteer their services to support another company’s brand, project or bottom line.

Transparency alert: I am a professional communicator,  freelance foodwriter and I’ve blogged about food for more than eight years. If anyone expects me to write for them or give them permission to use my posts, photographs or recipes, I expect to be paid…in money. Good karma is a non-taxable benefit, but in reality it doesn’t pay my mortgage, and my local grocer won’t accept it as legal tender. My limited pro bono work is happily given to a select few.

OMG, I heart you and your blog!

Marketeers pitch me “opportunities” every day. They ‘love [my] voice and recipes, especially [insert most recent post here]’ and feel a great synergy between what I do and what their employer or client does. Lubricated “win-win” words urge me to consider their invitation because our alignment is at the astrological level: audience, focus and my demographic being the usual suitors. Sometimes colleagues’ names are thrown in. Sometimes they blithely toss in a sparkly mention of oodles and oodles of eyeballs that oogle their site.

The catch is….there’s only an opportunity if I provide what they want for free. As soon as I broach remuneration, the planets no longer align for the  fruitful relationship the marketeer originally envisioned.

There’s a difference between offering an opportunity and being opportunistic

Opportunity: noun. 1. a good chance; a favourable occasion. 2. a chance or opening offered by circumstances. 3. Good fortune.

Opportunistic: adjective. 1. of or relating to opportunism. 2. [Ecology {of a species}] able to spread quickly in a previously unexploited habitat. 3. [Med] a. (of a micro-organism) rarely causing disease except in unusual circumstances, e.g. in patients with depressed immune systems. B (of an infection) caused by such a micro-organism.

(both definitions: Canadian Oxford English Dictionary)

Tight budgets force creative, cost-efficient ways to produce interesting and engaging events, campaigns and web properties. As with unpaid internships, it’s easy to justify not paying for what a company needs, so they can mount or continue their projects:

  • Many people want to build their own name and gain experience
  • We’re all at the mercy of the law of supply and demand: too many creatives, too few opportunities, so we don’t have to pay
  • Amateurs and bloggers create content we want on our site, but because they blog for free on their own sites, we shouldn’t be expected to pay them
  • Creatives really should pay us for giving them exposure on our site, and that exposure will lead to paid work

Colleen, Schaunard, Mimi and Rodolfo don’t live happily ever after

Ah, La Bohème: starving artists in garrets; pooling coins for a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and a lump of cheese; dancing by candlelight. Romantic, non? All of us who create want that life, especially the ending: Mimi can’t afford medical care and dies of consumption.

Many of us honestly love putting together phrases, applying colour to canvas and jamming with other musicians…but we love eating, central heating and running water more. My friend Janet LaDue, professional baker and owner of Luv & Buttah, regularly fields requests for free catering. She summed up the issue nicely:

“what one is asking me to do, is not receive a paycheque so that they can enjoy an event they usually can’t afford.”

Don’t get me wrong: some bloggers and creatives willingly volunteer their services and products for exposure and non-monetary gains. It’s their choice and bully for them. But the choices of a few, sometimes under specific conditions (e.g.: the recipient organization is a registered charity), shouldn’t dictate the treatment of the whole.

I heart when they try to insult me for not giving it away for free

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been called a whore for wanting to be paid for writing content for sites which aren’t mine. At the same time, I don’t know if women who give away free content are called harlots.

Some outreach folks respond professionally when I make it clear that I expect compensation. Some are downright rude when I won’t give up my time, energy and resources to meet their project goals. Essentially, I’m:

  • Dumb for not realizing I’m losing great exposure (associated with a site with lower traffic and PageRank than mine)
  • Not a team player nor community-minded for not providing free content (to support a cause I don’t believe in,  for a community I’m not in)
  • Unreasonable for not handing over content rights (so my work won’t be part of a compilation they’ll publish, and keep the proceeds of)
  • Egotistical for expecting to be paid for services (rendered to a publicly-traded company whose annual revenues are in the billions ($s, €s))

Exposure can lead to hypothermia

Exposure. It’s a carroty false-hope of a word that marketeers, evangelists and others tasked with Social Media outreach dangle in front of bloggers and creative types. Opportunists hope to play on what they think of as their target’s insecurities and cravings: attention and validation. They also hope the contributor’s 4theluv mentality will bring their audiences to the marketeer’s site (which, of course, boosts views and everything that goes along with that).

It’s only win-win when we both win

These opportunities are always couched in language designed to make recipients feel as if it’s a fair deal. A win-win situation. The thing is, I don’t see win-win in business models that don’t do any of the following:

  • Pay writers (etc), for building site credibility and attracting eyeballs to the website
  • Compensate contributors for using their names when trying to attract other contributors
  • Reimburse creatives for resources used to create original content (such as ingredients used to develop a recipe)
  • Share in the spoils when the site has been acquired, or their content has been re-purposed (e.g. published in a book)

What’s the solution?

I know I’ve focussed this on freebies asked of creatives. I’m sure other professions encounter this (“Say, you’re a doctor—can you take a look at…”)…but I’ve never heard of a structural engineer asked to design a bridge for free for any for-profit company.

It would be great if companies evaluated their projects and business plans with these questions in mind:

  • Do we have the capacity to produce what we need, in-house?
  • What does an external person bring that we don’t already have in place?
  • What’s the going rate for the professionals we want to be associated with?
  • What’s the licensing costs associated with reusing already-made content?
  • How will we remunerate for rights transferal?
  • What’s the dollar and time costs associated with free goods/services?
  • What’s our reputational cost of asking professionals for free goods/services?
  • Are there reputational risks associated with paying a fair rate for goods/services?
  • Are some people on this project paid, while others aren’t? If so, why?
  • Why are we approaching known professionals to donate their time to our company? How do they feel about being asked for free services or products?
  • Is this venture a no-go if we pay for content or services?

In other words, dear colleagues, please think twice before asking for free anything. You may get this link to Harlan Ellison’s epic rant as a response (Errmmm depending upon where you work, Ellison’s video may not be worksafe. You’ve been warned)

image credit & info:Permission granted by Benjamin Crick.  The image accompanies his Manifesto For Change, part of a movement to strengthen the value of creators and their work.  More information to appear at  Full wording: Do not work for free under the guise of exposure.  It is bad exposure. If you don’t value your work, neither will anyone else.
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2 comments on “Have I got an opportunity for you”

  1. Wow, that must be very difficult for you. I think the issue with marketers is that they do not allocate enough nominal value to content although they find it to be valuable. Marketing is a risky business – if one can pay 1000s to display a tiny add on a newspaper that is gathering dust in front of the elevator, then they’d be silly to not hire a professional blogger to tell their stories to thousands of readers. Just compare the ROI. What’s worse is that it is actually costing companies $ to hire just about anybody to blog for them. I once worked for a web design company that had its IT manager post updates on facebook – with no interest in or awareness of reputation management. You can probably guess how that company is performing now.

    • Thanks, Jinisha

      As you elude to, if people don’t pay for a service, there isn’t an easy value peg, so they don’t see why they should pay for it.

      Another issue revolves around mistaken ego. It seems as if many marketers feel their brand is prestigious enough that people will want to be associated with it/work for free, or that the brand acts as an endorsement to attract jobs or clients. Other believe that content creators only want visibility and giving them pixel space is, in itself payment.

      I don’t see this changing in the short term, as long as some free content is available. Then again, I’ve seen a lot of poorly constructed “exposure” content…I just hope companies will realize that poorly written posts, bad photography (&c) can actually hurt the company.


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