Why you shouldn’t rely on content mills for long-term work

Gillian Jones

Taith Copywriting - working with b2bs, b2cs, providing web copy pages, bios and profiles. Available for quick turnaround projects.

Content mills help copywriters connect with sellers and potential clients who want a job done for a certain amount of money.

The most well-known sites are Upwork, Fiverr and Peopleperhour. They’ll usually grade your level of experience as beginner, intermediate or advanced.

These types of sites can be perfect for when you’re just starting out, and they offer a lifeline if you have no portfolio and no previous clients to give you testimonials.

Most of the jobs are poorly paid and short-term, but they can be great to cut your teeth on and see if you have an aptitude for copywriting work.

But using these sites isn’t sustainable in the long-term. All they really do is provide you with the experience and the evidence you need to prove you can do the job to potential new clients.

If you’re just dabbling and you’re not thinking of taking it too seriously then, by all means, keep using content mills. There are lots of people who use them long-term, but I can only assume they don’t need the money. Because I don’t believe you can make a living from them, and have a decent quality of life unless you have someone else supporting you financially.

Don’t get me wrong, I started out on content mills shortly after I became a copywriter and I’ve learnt a lot. But now I’m slowly starting to wean myself off them.

I say wean myself off because, for a long time, I strongly believed it was a place where I could feel safe (deposits are kept in a monetary system called Escrow and all work’s confined to the site).

You’re paid quickly for jobs without having to wait months for them to finish, or chase clients for payments, and you get feedback saying how great you were.

But I quickly realised that this is all an illusion. Here’s why.

Myth 1: it’s safe way to earn money and the client will settle your invoice in full.

No, not necessarily. So you should always insist on a deposit before you start and, whatever you do, don’t give your clients the final draft before they’ve done this.

But clients can still disappear without settling the full amount. This didn’t happen often to me, but it does happen. It means you may spend weeks on a job that wasn’t very well paid to start with, with no money in your account to live on until the client settles up, and even then you still don’t get the full amount.

You’re no more guaranteed a client will pay an invoice in full than outside a content mill.

Myth 2: you’ll be guaranteed lots of work in your area of expertise

Yes, possibly but only if you’re willing to work for very little, so it’s a false economy. You’ll do poorly paid jobs and rush to finish them because you need to be paid, then you’ll start the next one and you’ll have to rush that one too. (Because you’re skint after the last job, and you have no money left in the bank because you’re being paid so little.)

You won’t necessarily get loads of jobs either, unless you’re on those sites from sunrise to sunset competing with other copywriters who are always willing to do the job for even less. So, in the end, you’ll just be treading water.

And while all this is happening, your confidence is ebbing away and your self-esteem is taking a nose dive. It’s just one poorly paid job after another, with no sustainable income and no long-term clients. That takes me to my next myth.

Myth 3:  you get to know the clients and develop a good working relationship with them

Because jobs are done and paid for so quickly, it’s hard to develop a long-term client relationship. This means it’s also hard to get to know the brand or their audience in any meaningful way. And how can you know whether or not your work’s achieved what it was supposed to when the client disappears and you never hear from them again?

Yes, often clients will work with you outside of the site and you can work with them for longer. But the main disadvantage of doing this is that your mindset is already set in concrete. You were willing to work cheaply on the site, so why would you start charging more now? And if you’re cheap on the site, then they’ll expect you to be cheap when you’re working outside of it too. So you’re permanently stuck working for very little.

I’m not suggesting this is everyone’s experience. Content mills can be great when you’re a newbie, and when you’re experiencing a fallow period in those first few shaky years. Or if you’ve had some time away from work and you’re returning to the fray. They have their place and they provide a service – of sorts.

What you can do instead of using content mills

If you’re seriously thinking of building a full-time career as a copywriter, getting to know your craft, and having long-term, rewarding working relationships, you’re not going to do it on content mills. They’re merciless conveyor belts of cheap work and short-term relationships.

Yes, everyone does short-term jobs occasionally and they can be great fun. But you should be looking for retainer clients and long-term work that pays you what you’re worth. As Andy Maslen says in his post Why are female copywriters paid 29% less than men?  even his window cleaner can clear £300 on a good day. You should be aiming higher.

So how can you get off these spirit sapping conveyor belts of poorly paid jobs, and find better work and better clients?

By networking. I’m painfully shy, so I’m not a fan of networking in person. If you’re not keen on offline networking either, there are plenty of platforms, Facebook groups, and other online groups and forums where you can meet like-minded people who may be able to pass on work to you at some point. (Procopywriters is just one example.)

LinkedIn is a great one. It’s not one of my favourite platforms, but it can be extremely useful. So reach out, because there are clients there.

Guest blog and get your name out there so people can see what you can do. Look out for referrals from other writers, because by networking and guest blogging, people will remember you.

Try podcast appearances where you can talk about your copywriting, goals, achievements, career highs so far and what you specialise in, if anything. It’s all about reaching out and finding the type of clients you want to work with.

It’ll be tough getting away from content mills but, in the end, you’ll be glad you did.

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