The ongoing debate that has no end… When should bloggers work for free? This week, a Sydney based media agency was fined a ton of money for their “unpaid internship” scheme. This precedent will no doubt send ripples of panic through the digital media community as most of the ‘big sites” got big by getting bloggers and school leavers to do their work for free. One well known site was brought into the spotlight recently for their practice of hiring “interns” to do their social media moderating for them for free. While it looks good to have a big brand on your resume, does it justify unpaid labour? So what about bloggers working for free? The debate goes on and on and many of those debating have worked for free for these big sites – creating content for “exposure”.
Blogging in the internship context
While most bloggers aren’t school leavers with nothing to put on a resume, the goal of getting some credible names into their media kit has remarkable similarities to a resume tick. Sydney based Internship placement service New Kid advocates for young folk trying to get a foot in the door without being turned into slave labour. They recently posted a very useful checklist for interns to decide if their contract is legal or not. Applying it to bloggers makes for some interesting points. If blogging is a career then working for free is a blogging internship….
But I’m not an intern, I’m a great writer
No, you’re not a school leaver with no skills. You do however, have some stuff in common with one.
- You’re in a competitive pool of applicants - all wanting the same thing
- You have very little evidence of how great you – your blog/their study transcripts – look great but don’t prove any professional/workplace skills
- You’re in a market that competes on price. Your industry is “cheap” to hire because of the rules of supply and demand
- Without “hands on” work experience, your application for paid work doesn’t stand out from the pile.
What you get out of it
The issue is defining what bloggers get out of working for free. If it’s a $400 handbag you’ve had your eye on, and that’s roughly how much you charge for a sponsored post anyway, then that’s direct payment and win-win. If it’s some random kitchen appliance worth $24 that you will never use… that’s lose/win. The issue is that blog group discussions polarise the issue. Should bloggers work for free – YES or NO. There’s no maybe. There’s no asterisk. It’s a heated issue and one that inflames passions so greatly that there is no room for clear debate.
Purpose of unpaid work
Is the purpose of the unpaid blogging work to give you exposure or is it to help with the ordinary operation of the business?
Huffpost. Mamamia. Kidspot. All well known for not paying their writers. Sites like Forbes that do pay, pay on a commission based on page views. So how do you measure the value of exposure if you consider blogging your career? While you can’t trade your exposure for bread and milk, there is such thing as a digital currency.
Referral Traffic: Spikes in traffic via referrals from these big sites does allow you to measure your exposure. While it comes down to how good your article was and how viral it went, referral traffic, when properly tracked can have a “dollar value” assigned to it. If those readers then subscribe to your blog and visit regularly (and it’s up to you to tell them to do that) then you’ve got more numbers to show potential advertisers – which converts to bread and milk currency.
SEO Value: Kidspot (for the moment anyway) gives contributors a followed link. For some bloggers, a followed link from a site with a 72/100 (read very good) domain authority will be enough to bump your own domain authority and force your blog into search results. This equates to more traffic, which equates to bread and milk money.
Reputation: Lordy. This one is the problem one. Does having “Huffpost Contributor” on your blog translate into dollars? As someone who hires dozens of bloggers (with actual money-money) a year to do sponsored posts, I would say no. I don’t care. I care about your ability to deliver and your professionalism. Does an increased domain authority and higher traffic matter to me? Hell yes. That kind of shiz I’ll pay more for. So the followed link matters. The subscriber sign up matters. The actual contribution doesn’t. For readers, the “contribution badges” in your collection do matter. The “Voices” finalist badge gives you credibility in a sea of very ordinary blogs. It might get them reading. If what you write isn’t great, it won’t be enough to get them subscribing.
Nature of unpaid blogging work
Is the outlay of work equivalent to the rewards you’re receiving?
I love the call outs for “guest contributors” where they’re happy to give you a followed link if you write the content, upload it, source the images, share the content, moderate any comments and then do this four times a month for a minimum of six months. LORDY. Who are these jerks?
If it’s a single article designed to demonstrate your expertise and style on a relevant blog – does that work for you? If you’re a qualified teacher for example, and a large site wants an educational post on something you know all about – should you do it for free? It might take two hours of your time. What’s that worth to you? Does it further your reputation in your niche (see above) or does it give you something to send to potential clients as an example of your work? Should bloggers work for free if the time outlayed is equal to the benefits likely to be returned? This may come down to your goals as a blogger. If you’re wanting to become an “authority” in your niche then the value of appearing on credible sites is worth it. If you can’t get that “authority status” without a ton of credible sites coming up when your name is Googled, then you might have to suck it up and start writing.
Are you expected to deliver specifics?
If you’re expected to deliver a list of specific items – a post, a shoutout, a record of reach and engagement – then you are a professional – and professionals get paid. If there are ramifications for you missing a deadline – then you are a professional. If there is an expectation for you to deliver something that “goes viral” then you are a professional. If the “client” is putting expectations on you, then you should be paid – expectations are for employees.
If you don’t do it – who will?
This is the best litmus test offered up by The New Kid. If you don’t do it, who will? If the answer is nobody, it’s not essential to running their business and it’s really just there for you to get yourself some exposure – then chances are it’s benefiting you too. Business doesn’t “waste time” on activities it doesn’t overtly need unless it sees a way to engage the community (which increases their brand value). If you’re there engaging the community, it is probably helping you too (see above re referral traffic). If the answer is, someone paid will have to do this – because the business NEEDS this to function or market themselves -then the answer is – feck off, pay someone! This applies to sponsored posts. It may seem like being on a PR Company’s list is “currency” but in many cases, they don’t even know who you are. Unless you’ve got an understanding with the PR Company that any work you do for them will be rewarded in some way (be it free stuff you really like or actual milk money) then being on a PR list isn’t actually that valuable.
It’s true that the big blog sites need regular content to stay big but if nobody provided that, they’d pay someone or lose market share. The controversy is, the answer to “if you don’t do it, who will?” is usually “someone else, for free”. The blogging industry has spoken – if one person does it for free, it’s forcing this economy of “will work for exposure” upon the whole community. In fact, it’s not that simple. It’s supply and demand and more than two million blog posts are published every day. Having craploads of bloggers in a big pool devalues the industry, not just the writing for free thing. It’s true that if there was a culture of NOBODY WRITES FOR FREE it would stop the “competing on price” culture but in reality, like any high supply industry, unless you’ve got a stand out brand, you’ll always be competing on price (read Woog, Nikki Parkinson etc).
I did four years, 40+ hours a week for free
Yes, I did. I loved every minute of it (well, most minutes). I didn’t just “write for free”, I made ads for free, I trained other volunteers for free, I sold beer in a hot stall for free. I volunteered while I was at university. I spent all my free time passionately fighting the good fight for a community radio station. I worked hard. I learned ALL THE THINGS – in saying that I taught myself ALL THE THINGS. I was the poster child for free access to information and exposure to fringe music. I loved it with all my heart. Sound like your blog? For me, the “will work for free” thing wasn’t blogging. In fact, blogging was really just LiveJournal rants back then. What I got from my “working for free” has paved the way to career highlights like BBC World Service, BBC Current Affairs, Commercial Radio writing and eventually, the skills I needed to do what I always wanted – make money on my own terms. It was all about getting exposure to skills and using them to build a career. You already work for free. The question shouldn’t be “should bloggers work for free” because writing a blog with no income IS working for free. The question needs to be revised to “how can my blogging experience lead to my career goals” – and that’s not so black and white.