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I worked with a content mill: here’s what I learned

André Spiteri

Maverick Words Ltd

PRO

Back in December 2015, I did the unthinkable.

I was in my second month freelancing full-time and I was living in London, which, I can confirm, is as expensive as they say it is. My savings were disappearing far too quickly for my liking. And while I did have work coming in, it wasn’t nearly enough to pay my bills.

So I decided to join a content mill.

The plan: of misguided hopes, eagerness and naivety

Content mills are a bit like Marmite in the freelancing world. You’re apt to find a ton of articles online telling you to stay away at all costs, and a ton of others telling you they’re not so bad if you know how to make them work for you.

OK so maybe they’re more like living with Tinnitus that Marmite. But I’m sure you catch my drift.

Anyway.

Personally, I was on the fence when I decided to join. I knew they paid poorly. That much was readily apparent. But, ever the optimist, I thought I could make it work. So I did some research and picked one which had better than average ratings and pay (I’m using “better” very liberally here).

Then, I formulated a plan.

This was pretty simple. I’d take on 15 to 20 articles a week. At £20 a pop (incredible to think that this was actually better than what many other mills paid at the time), the work would net me £400 a week, or about £1,600 a month. Not too shabby.

Meanwhile, I’d keep pitching in order to find better clients, using the best articles I did for the mill as portfolio pieces (I had read somewhere that this was possible and that, in some cases, you even got bylines).

Before I knew it, I’d be off the mill, writing for big clients and rolling in it.

Easy, peasy. Right?

Well, it doesn’t take a genius to see why my plan was doomed from the get go.

But let’s dissect it.

The problem, as I now know, is that my plan was based on flawed premises. Namely:

  • I fell for that old chestnut “we’ll send a lot of work your way.” So I thought I’d instantly fill my pipeline with a steady stream of work.
  • Given what they were paying, I expected the work to be reasonably easy to complete.
  • I thought I’d have time to plan out my week and schedule the work so I could also pitch and service my other clients.
  • I assumed I’d be able to use at least some of the work in my portfolio

Spoiler alert: I was wrong on all counts.

I could blame this on the mill and say they misled me. And this wouldn’t be far off the mark. Most mills draw you in with the promise of ‘lots of work’ and ‘opportunities for self-development,’ only for reality to hit you upside the head when it’s too late.

But let’s be honest. I was a 33-year old, supposedly mature adult. I should have known better. So, in hindsight, I blame this on eagerness, inexperience and that pile of bills I had to pay.

Getting recruited

The application process was fairly straightforward. I filled an online form with my name, email and a link to my website, and that was that.

They got in touch a week later. They were pleasant to deal with, and asked me to write a test piece which they’d pay me for even if I wasn’t accepted. The piece was straightforward, and I banged it out in about two hours. They loved it, paid me promptly and sent me a service contract to sign.

So far so good. Everything was going according to plan.

Crunch time

With the onboarding all squared away, it was time to roll my pyjama sleeves and get to work. Sadly, this was where my plan started crumbling like the house of cards it was.

Firstly, my pipeline wasn’t instantly filled with work. It was more like a very slow trickle.

Of course, this isn’t especially shocking. With most clients I work with, we start slow to test the waters and only proceed to larger projects once we’re both comfortable that it’s a good fit. Nonetheless, I was quite surprised at how long it took to build momentum.

I lasted six weeks on the mill (Yeah another spoiler I know. But I bet you already knew this wasn’t going to end well, didn’t you?). But, at my peak, I was only assigned three pieces a week, which means I got paid a grand total of £60 a week for my efforts.

As it happened, this was a blessing in disguise.

All work and more work

Work would be assigned every Thursday evening. With a Sunday deadline.

So that was my weekend sorted.

All the work was also ghostwritten, which put paid to my hopes of gaining any portfolio pieces. To be fair, it was possible to get bylines. It just so happened that I was assigned to projects clients wanted ghostwritten. Call it the luck of the draw.

But, more to the point, it’s no exaggeration to say that I grossly underestimated the amount of work involved.

Most of the articles I was asked to write were for a B2B audience. And even though they involved topics I was conversant with (they asked me to pick topics I was comfortable tackling before I started), I still had to put in the work. And by that I mean do the research, absorb the concepts and then write.

I also wrongly assumed all articles had a 500-word limit. But their instructions for each article were that it had to be “as long as necessary.”

This, of course, made perfect sense. I’ve always thought your typical 500-word post is superficial and doesn’t add much value. And, when you’re writing for a B2B audience, you can’t get away with superficiality. You need to dive deep and show that you know your stuff.

But let’s not forget the context.

We’re talking about a solid 8 hours or more of work to deliver a quality piece. It’s a very fast turnaround (three days, two of which are Saturday and Sunday, and you have another 2 pieces  with the same deadline to do).

And you’re getting paid £20 for your efforts.

You do the math.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in

The job didn’t end when you finished writing the piece. You were also responsible for sourcing royalty-free pics to go with the article.

And you had to submit each piece for editing.

Of course, when you’re a copywriter, getting edited is a fact of life. I was never asked to do any major surgery. That said, I often got passive-aggressive notes. Stuff like “It was OK, but you had a typo.” or the dreaded “don’t start sentences with And” type-comments.

This will seem like a minor complaint. I’ve been told much worse over the course of my career.

But, once again, it’s all about the context.

You should never take amend requests personally. But when you’ve just given up 8+ hours of your weekend for £20, and the only thing they have to say to you is that you had one misspelling in a 1500+ word piece, that’s way easier said than done.

Reflections and lessons learned

So, do I regret it? Would I do it again? Would I recommend it?

No, no and no.

It’s been said before, and I can confirm it. At the end of the day, content mills only benefit themselves. Not clients. Not you.

Put simply, content mills just aren’t conducive to delivering good work. When you’re faced with complicated subject-matter, a quick turnaround and low pay, you have to cut corners. It’s inevitable. Otherwise, it would be impossible to deliver one, let alone several pieces on time (unless you worked non-stop 24/7).

This means:

  • Less time doing research
  • Less time absorbing the concepts
  • Less effort put into getting the copy just right

Clearly, the client isn’t going benefit or get the most bang for their buck with this approach. They’re just going to get sub-par copy from an overworked and harried copywriter.

And working for a content mill certainly doesn’t benefit you.

Sure, you’ll get work without doing any marketing. And you may even get some pieces you can put in your portfolio.

But is it worth the stress?

Ultimately, we all want to do work we can be proud of. Work that genuinely helps our clients reach their goals. In order to do this, we need the right conditions. A solid brief. Time to do proper research. Time to think and craft the copy. And, yes, fair pay for our efforts.

Trust me. Content mills ain’t where you’ll find that.

 

Comments

PRO
11th June 2018

Andy Nattan

Cracking post André. When I did a bit of a dive into mill writers for an infographic for ProCopywriters (see here: https://www.procopywriters.co.uk/2017/09/dont-be-a-starving-writer-steer-clear-of-the-mills/) I came to a realisation.

If you’re good at your job, you’ll make a terrible mill writer.

All of the people I found praising copy mills were laughing that they’d be paid to “churn out” a few hundred words while playing computer games. Coincidentally, they’re the same people who gave me dog’s abuse when I shared that infographic on a few forums. Ho hum.

If you’re diligent, and you try hard, and you do the reading, well then you’ll make pennies an hour.

Glad you’re now working on more rewarding projects!

PRO
11th June 2018

André Spiteri

Thanks Andy.

Agreed wholeheartedly. It’s impossible to make money and do a good job on a content mill. The conditions make it so it has to be either one or the other.

Yes, I quit after six weeks and never looked back!

13th June 2018

Gill

Oh my God, 8+ hours of work for £20? No byline, no nothing… It really breaks my heart to read this, especially because I imagine you did your best on every piece :(((

Thank you for sharing this, André! Hopefully, it will keep others away from these mills.

PRO
13th June 2018

André Spiteri

Yes Gill, unfortunately that’s the reality of content mills.

It’s easy to get lured in by the prospect of getting lots of work with no marketing effort, which is how many newbie freelancers fall for them (me included). But the reality is that no-one benefits except those who run them.

PRO
13th June 2018

David Elliott

I understand what you’re saying, but you have to learn the skills somewhere. I learnt all about keywords and SEO, delivering a set number of words on time and in accordance with the brief, at content mills, some better paying than others admittedly. You don’t just suddenly become an expert copywriter and are able to dive straight in to well-paid work that you source yourself, unless you’re lucky enough to have a few contacts in the right places. Mills are something you learn the basics in before moving on to better things. If you hadn’t done the mill thing you wouldn’t be a copywriter today, because you wouldn’t know what was involved.
Apparently the writer Lawrence Block spent the earlier part of his career writing pornography for men’s magazines. He said he wasn’t proud of it but at least it kept him writing and learning the ropes enough to move on when he felt ready.

PRO
13th June 2018

André Spiteri

I agree. You have to learn the skills somewhere. And you don’t suddenly become an expert. But that doesn’t mean you should be paid pennies, because that’s just plain exploitation. It’s not fair on the copywriter and it’s not fair on the client.
Re your point about Lawrence Block. I’m not sure how that fits in this context. Doing work you aren’t proud of and not being paid fairly are separate issues. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other. You can do work you aren’t proud of and get paid fairly for it. And you can do work you’re extremely proud of and not get paid at all.

PRO
13th June 2018

David Elliott

In an ideal world you’d get to do work that you’re proud of and get paid well for it from the outset. On internships and apprenticeships you either get no pay at all or a nominal sum in many cases because you’re making a sacrifice to learn how things work so you can then take that basic knowledge and move on to better things. How an ideal world works and how the reality is are two different things.
Starting out in copywriting everyone would like to get a load of money, be proud of their work and at the same time become experts overnight but the reality is a few years’ hard but instructive graft.

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