Friday, November 16, 2007

Nightmare on Elance II: Revenge of the "Connects"

It's been an interesting week. Elance dropped a bomb when it announced its new membership structure, and the change hit many providers hard--particularly in the Writing & Translation category. After a flood of angry postings on the Water Cooler--and a few outside bloggers covering the story as well--Elance has made changes to its new structure. To its credit, the company appears to be making an effort to listen to its providers.

An Elance representative (Lorenzo, who replied to the last post on this blog) actually called me last night to discuss the changes. Much of what he said was an attempt to explain to me why Elance was making the changes in the first place--nothing I hadn't heard from Elance already, to be honest--but he did tell me he was also looking for feedback. The feedback I gave him was this: I needed more "connects" to make a membership worthwhile; the Premier program can't claim to be merit-based if we have to pay for it; and I'm not wild about paying monthly.

I was happy to hear that Elance was taking our feedback into account, and today they announced some changes to the changes. Here's my impression.

The "connects" situation is just a little more reasonable. In the first installment of this horrow show, it cost three "connects" to bid on a project between $500 and $1,000 in budget. Since I bid on a lot of those projects and would only get about 25 "connects" maximum, that left me with about eight bids in a month--not enough to make my subscription worthwhile.

With the changes, some memberships have slighty more "connects;" not enough to make a real difference, in my opinion. But a few other adjustments make the plan a bit more reasonable. This time around, the "under $250" project category is gone, and all projects budgeted at $500 and under are worth one "connect." This means I can bid on more projects using just one "connect," and it's possible to work it so that my "connects" each buy me a bid and I might not have to buy more.

In addition, "connects" are now spent in multiples of two, not three--two for $500-$1,000 projects and four for higher-budgeted jobs. Spending in packs of three was problematic, as "connects" were only sold in packs of ten--ensuring you'd always have a few left over and would have to buy more to use them. Now there's no disconnect between how I spend my bids and how I buy more.

These changes are not huge, but they do make conditions a little better--and they make me think perhaps continuing my Elance membership might be doable, if I'm careful.

Premier status is free--for now. Elance has promised to make its Premier status free until March so providers are given time to judge its value. Here are my thoughts on that.

For a long time, I worked on Elance under the Professional membership. A year ago, I splurged and bought a Select membership. I saw my value in the marketplace go up significantly; I was winning more projects and commanding higher fees. I realized that buyers were seeing the Select category as an indication of quality, even though it just meant providers spent more money for their membership.

I have a feeling the Premier membership will do the same, except to an even greater degree because Elance will market it to buyers as a merit-based award. That's fine, if it really is. But Elance is still planning to charge us for it in a few months; plus you have to pay them extra to verify your credentials--a waste of money for writers, in my opinion, as your portfolio and feedback should be "credentials" enough. I think that soon it will be difficult to win bids as the high quality option without a premier star, which will cost us an extra $240 per year on top of our original plans. I don't want to pay that much for it and I can foresee having more difficulty winning bids without it--something that makes me believe Elance isn't going to work so well for me in the future, after all.

You can get a refund. No, you can't. Yes, you can. In the early Water Cooler discussions, a lot of people asked about refunds. Initially, Elance responded back that your remaining membership fees (if you've already bought a full year's subscription) could be applied toward a new subscription. No mention was made of refunds. So a lot of writers believed no refunds were being offered, and people were upset.

Later, I saw a few Elance people saying refunds were available on the Water Cooler. Then I got my call from Lorenzo (the Elance employee) who assured me that refunds were, in fact, being offered. I'm not sure if this was simply bad communication on Elance's part or if they truly did intend to discourage people from asking for refunds by not mentioning them, but it's strange how they didn't stress right away that refunds were an option.

You can't use money previously spent on Elance to buy connect packs. No wait, yes you can. When I found out what was going down at Elance, I considered rolling over to a cheaper plan and using my remaining paid membership funds to buy extra "connects." None of the plans offered enough "connects," so I knew I'd have to do that anyway if I wanted to stay. I emailed customer service to make sure it was an option, and I was told it wasn't--I would have to buy extra "connects" on top of my membership fees, no matter what plan I chose.

I wasn't too keen on throwing more money at Elance that way--especially since I'd thought I'd already bought a year's worth of bids. That pretty much clinched it--I didn't want to stay on Elance at all after I heard that news. I decided to roll over to the free plan and ask for a refund.

Later--after posting my thoughts on the Water Cooler--I heard back from customer service that they had made a mistake; that in fact you could use remaining funds to buy extra connects. Confusing, to say the least--but it again made the new Elance a little more palatable.

Low quality bids: are they really that big of a problem? One thing I kept hearing, in my phone conversations and on the Water Cooler, is that low quality bids are a big problem on Elance. Buyers are getting dozens of bids from low quality providers and don't like sorting through them to find the quality workers. I'd offer one piece of advice to those buyers right away: look for the higher prices. Quality workers don't make $5-an-article offers. But at any rate it never sounded quite right to me, this idea that buyers were being inundated with junk bids.

I just took a look in my project history to see how many bids were accumulating on these projects. In my most recent of round of bidding, here's what I saw:

35 bids: one project
20-30 bids: seven projects (mostly in the low twenties)
10-20 bids: fourteen projects
Under 10 bids: eight projects

In my bid history, most of the projects were getting between ten and twenty bids. That seems like a reasonable number--hardly an inundation. These changes seem to have been made to filter out the "junk" bids primarily--but I'm just not seeing that in the marketplace. Hm...curiouser and curiouser.

I'm not sure what to do about Elance at this point. I suspect that even if I do decide to stick it out for a few more months, I'll probably want to leave as soon as the Premier program becomes expensive. I have several great repeat clients on Elance that I wouldn't want to lose, but I can probably keep working with them if i keep a free (Basic) plan and let them get in touch with me. The new changes-to-the-changes have made things slightly better, but regardless of what I do in the short term, this situation has made me think that maybe it's best to cut the strings in the long term.


Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

You know what really kills me about all of this is that there are providers who were PO'd about these changes who are now saying, "Thank you, Elance. You have now made it possible for me to maintain my membership." Huh? I mean what exactly did Elance do for us except give us a free trial of "premier" status and up the cutoff points for connects? I'm still getting far fewer bids per month at a much higher price. That's the bottom line, and it still sucks.

Jennifer Williamson said...

I was pretty disappointed to see the reactions from providers. It's like--excuse me for being cynical here--the second plan was the original plan all along, and Elance specifically designed a horrendous "first" plan to get everyone so upset that the "second" plan seemed like a favor.

Wow, am I paranoid.

Unknown said...

How do you guys keep it all straight? Reading through your thorough explanation, Jennifer, I'm shaking my head wondering exactly why they're making you work so hard and pay so much. It's baffling.

I'm starting a job listing site in which only employers pay to find talent. It's nuts to expect writers to have to manuever such a whacked out system. Oh, and then change it and alter it and change it back again but not exactly ... just enough to confuse you into thinking you're winning something.

You're right to feel paranoid, Jennifer. I would, too!

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Oh, when you've been jacked around by Elance as many times as I have, you learn quickly how to keep it all straight. Otherwise, you (literally) pay the price. I'm actually looking forward to sitting back and watching to see how long it takes for Elance to realize that they need to restructure yet again. What is about to happen is that all of their outstanding providers will be leaving en masse (or seriously cutting back on work there) and the company's income will be driven by desperate newbies who are willing to pay the astonomical fees for a month or two until they realize how stupid they've been. In the meantime, buyers (quality ones anyway) are going to start realizing that they can't get quality work there anymore, and the whole restructure is going to go down the toilet. Or so I hope in my vengeful mind. ;O) Meanwhile, I'll keep my free profile up. It still draws potential clients to me directly on a fairly regular basis.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Yeah, my profile also draws in clients from time to time. It's worth it to me to keep that up for a little while at least; plus I have a couple of regular clients through Elance and I want to keep working with them. I also feel pretty reluctant to get rid of my 100%-perfect satisfaction rating, which I worked hard to build. Not that it will help me out much without a "Premier" star beside my name, I have a feeling. But I'm definitely going to bid less from now on--and possibly not at all.

Christine said...

I only recently signed up for Elance, but already I have an icky feeling about it. The highest-paying gig I saw in my category -- Writing and Translation -- listed a budget of $5,000 to $7,000, for writing "concise" tips on management and business. Sounds pretty good, right? Then, after I've bid, I realize that the project would require 600 words per tip -- and that the project as a whole would total about 600,000 words. That's more words than the New Testament. And averages out to about a penny a word. Seems like every project I see is trying to get away with paying dirt-cheap prices. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? Thanks.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Hi Christine,

There is quite a bit of that on Elance, unfortunately. In general, I don't bid a lot on those higher-paying projects, because much of the time the per-word rate is low even though the overall budget is high. Instead, I look at budgets of around $1,000 and under. Press releases tend to be a high-paying category; you can make over $100 for a one-page release. Short article batches (around 10 or less; stay away from those projects that ask for hundreds of articles for "bulk rates" of $5 per article or so) I can get away with charging reasonable rates for. Stay away from Ebooks; a lot of clients want a few hundred pages for a few hundred bucks or under. I've had success with Elance in the past, but it did take me a while to start landing projects as a new provider.

Christine said...

Thanks much for the insight. I guess I'll keep an eye on Elance and see if smaller jobs might do me some good. In the meantime, I'm really hoping I DON'T win the job I bid on ... could take the rest of my life to complete it, and I promised delivery in three weeks! ;)
By the way, if you're bored and interested in peeking at my web site, I'm always looking for feedback from fellow freelancers:
Thanks again.

Jas Mahay said...

Jannifer is absolutely right , in my case I am new to eLance ecosystem.
Most of my work is taken from directly from clients at my web site ,But I thought of trying at elance .
When they launched new connect system, it was confusing for me, however, I thought to myself," OK 25 connects only means bid care fully, bid fewer project and hope for the best. (I used to get 80 bids earlier)
And one more thing, some people out there bid in destructive fashion, I can't find better word for than this. for 1000$ or 500-1000$ project they will bid 50$, without actually considering the work. Earlier I used to bid by converting the man hours required to finish the job, but the lower bids make me to abandon project of my interest not to bid. Because now connects are costlier than bids. So I am discouraged and looking out alternatives. But there are good clients I worked...

Now there are many like me, let us see what happens next. I really wish old bid system instead of connects to be re-installed

Amanda Evans said...

I am among the writers that hate what Elance have done and I can't wait for them to realize what a big mistake they have made. I have already downgraded my membership to the free one so I get to keep my profile active. I originally started my freelance career back in 2004 with Elance and I loved it. I have built up my client list and reached my goal of being a stay at home mom. Now when I look at what Elance have done I feel really sad. What about those writers just starting out, with Elance there is no hope of them achieving what I would have achieved in 6 months of being with Elance. It's not just the membership changes either, the amount of ridiculously low bids it making it so hard for good writers too. I think the only thing is to keep watching and see what happens.