Monday, October 1, 2007

Smart Spec Work: When to Work for Free

On a post a few days back, Ted Grigg from DMCG left a comment that got me thinking. I made a sort of off-the-cuff reference to how spec work is never a good idea. Ted responded that there are some times when working for free as a freelancer might be an advantage. Thinking about it later, I realized that “never” is too strong a word. Here are some circumstances under which I’ve worked for free—and maybe you have, too.

You need some legitimate-looking samples. Nobody comes out of the womb with a fully-formed portfolio of writing samples set in professional graphics. If you have no experience, it can be tough to convince someone to pay you to write—even if you know you can do it. I collected my first samples by writing a newsletter for my former employer, a brochure for my dad’s business, a fundraising letter for the choir I sang with, and a few feature articles for a local arts magazine—all for free. Those gave me the credentials and the confidence I needed to start looking for paying work.

Do it smart: Choose clients who will be willing to help you in your quest to look professional. Offer to do the project for free if they’ll dress it up with graphics and give you copies. Or ask them to provide you with your first testimonials, or contact info to use as a business reference. This will help you establish a professional-looking track record in a short amount of time.

You want to break into a new area. If you have come to specialize in one area of copywriting and want to break into another, you might want to consider doing some spec work to make connections and get samples. I’ve read advice from direct mail marketers that said to seed yourself on the mailing lists of companies who use direct mail, choose a business and write a sales letter for them, and then send it in on an “I’ll bet my letter can beat your control” offer. No matter what type of writing you’re looking to break into, a free or even discounted offer can look attractive—especially if you already have a professional track record to prove you’re good at what you do.

Do it smart: As with the situation above, make sure you’re getting something in exchange: a finished copy, testimonials or references. Make sure their testimonials reference the type of work you did (for example: “Jennifer did an AMAZING job writing our video script!”) so that you can showcase your experience there.

You’re genuinely inspired to write. I occasionally write free posts for Employee Evolution, a site geared toward Generation Y in the workplace. I’ve been interested in this topic ever since I experienced my own generational culture clashes in my first jobs out of college. I already had a few ideas for articles in this vein, and writing for them was easy for me.

I’m willing to work for free on a very limited basis if it’s a topic I’m extremely interested in, or a cause I’m passionate about. I know several writers who have donated work for charities and nonprofits they believe in, and I see nothing wrong with that.

Do it smart: If you’re writing for charity, you’re writing for charity. But if it’s just a topic you’re interested in, try to be tactical about who you choose to write for. Employee Evolution, for example, wasn’t a random choice. It has a lot of recognition in its area. It’s been cited in the New York Times and other well-known publications, and it has a strong audience. Even if I was writing for them for free, I knew that having my work and links on their page would bring me good things.

You really will get great exposure. I cringe at those job offers on Craigslist and other places that say “we can’t afford to pay you, but you’ll get great exposure.” But I realized I’ve done just that many times. I’ve written articles for article directories without any compensation, as part of my article marketing campaign. But in these cases, I really do get some exposure. The idea is to get links to my site out there and establish credibility on the web.

Do it smart: Be very selective about where you choose to submit your articles. Choose sites whose articles come up all the time in web searches, with strong Page Ranks and a track record of at least two years. No start-up that can’t afford to pay you can offer good traffic and exposure. But a good article directory doesn’t pay its authors because it doesn’t have to—it has other things to give.

In addition, don’t submit articles for free to a place that won’t allow you to use your own name as a byline, link back to your website, or choose your anchor text.

Never work for free if you won’t benefit from it. That’s the bottom line. When you’re doing paid work, the client rules. But if you’re not getting money for your work, make sure the job serves your agenda in some other way: it’s a sample you need or exposure that will benefit you.


Matthew C. Keegan said...

Jennifer, what a well written and instructive post. Working for free does come in handy especially for reasons you mentioned.

There are times I'll take a particular project, simply to get the exposure I need to write on a particular topic. Many times clients want to know if certain subjects were covered, e.g. pearl jewelry or car parts, so I need to show them what I have written and where it was published.

Of course, if the bulk of your work is free or low pay, then those awful Craigslist ads will be right up your alley!

Jennifer Williamson said...

Yeah, those Craigslist ads kill me. But what really kills me is that somebody is actually writing for these guys!

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Tag, you're it! See details here: