The murky world of content mills

Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Is it ever a good idea for a freelance copywriter to enter the murky world of the content mill?

Content Mill – that’s the correct term for websites that ‘hire’ writers and other freelance professionals to produce (cheap) work for clients. The title immediately suggests it’s a pretty unpleasant place to be. I thought we all stopped working for peanuts in mills during the Victorian age.

The inverted commas are there because there seems to be little, if any, vetting process for applicants wishing to tout their creative wares on many of these sites. Any old Tom, Dick or, indeed, Hemingway can sign up and bid for jobs. This lack of quality control gives the impression of a lawless state – the wild west of the freelancing world.

So how do they work? Usually, the client posts a simple brief and so begins a feeding frenzy where bold claims and often gobsmackingly low rates fly through the air like pint glasses in a pub fight. The job is awarded to the clients favoured freelancer, with the mill itself taking a cut of the proposed fee (they grind your bones to make their bread.)

The amount collected by the content mill ranges from 10-20%, sometimes higher. So, if you agree to do a job for £100, you’ll walk away with between £80-£90 for your work (there may also be a small fee to transfer this amount to your bank account.)

Some content mills also charge the freelancer to pitch for work. The usual system involves buying ‘tokens’ or ‘credits’ which you then ‘spend’ each time you apply for a job.

When I returned to full-time freelance copywriting after a break to raise my children,  I sensed that signing up to a content mill wasn’t a great idea. I knew it like you know that eating four packets of Wotsits before dinner isn’t sensible (though it’s definitely easier than cooking a proper dinner.)

When you’re looking for work as a freelancer, particularly at the beginning of your career,  it takes time to build momentum. You may face weeks, if not months, of silence – firing out emails to warm contacts, networking, plugging away at your website, working on SEO, building a social media presence. And none of these things might pay off. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

Pitching for jobs on sites like People Per Hour and Upwork gives you something to do with your time. It feels like you’re productive and part of something – there’s a client, a brief, a proposed fee (or at least a suggestion of one.)

Though there’s an element of chance, when I started using content mills, I believed that writing intelligent, carefully crafted pitches that showed the value of my service would win through. I was wrong.

Content mill jobs look like ripe, low hanging fruit – there for the taking….

I’m only human. I have mouths to feed. So, I reached up to grab an apple, only to find it was riddled with maggots.

My first sign up was with People Per Hour. The site claims to hire ‘expert’ freelancers, which suggests that a certain level of skill and experience. I submitted a list of my skills and relevant experience, added some thoughtful work examples and pressed send, thinking I might hear back in a week or so.

My application was accepted within an hour, so quickly that it could only have been glanced over, if it was studied at all. If I say I’m an expert basket-weaver, with a degree in basket weaving and over twenty years professional basket weaving experience, that I’m probably the best basket weaver in the UK, it seems People Per Hour will happily believe me.

I then took a short test in order to be certified as ‘job ready’ – which isn’t mandatory but does get you a ‘sticker’ for your profile. I like stickers.

The test involved a series of questions about the People Per Hour process along with a bizarre series of pretty complicated mathematical sums (?) Then came the English component:

I learned the value of hard work by ___________ hard.

  1. a) always worked
  2. b) working very of
  3. c) by working very
  4. d) by very working

I asked my five-year-old that one and she got it right. It seems this is the level of English usage that makes you an ‘expert.’ Awesome.

There’s some pretty juicy work out there on content mills.  I’d read the brief and feel a swell of excitement as I imagined getting my teeth into the work, getting to know the client, researching, writing, redrafting, making more edits, finally presenting my hard work and getting good feedback, potentially repeat business.

Then I’d look at the rate being offered and make some sort of angry/insulted/outraged noise while spitting a mouthful of tea at the computer screen.

The rate per hour that clients offer on this site is often substantially less than minimum wage.  I worked out the time it would take me to complete a project once, and the hourly rate came out as £3. That’s illegal, immoral and impractical.

A comment section beneath each job post shows just how disgruntled many of the sites signed-up freelancers are about the situation.

‘£50 is a high value job?’
‘These are not ‘expert’ rates I’m afraid.
‘Are you serious?’

There are also some comments I can’t repeat. All are entirely justified.

Clients on People Per Hour are able to set the category of their proposed job to suit different freelancers, from novice to expert. Unfortunately, they are also able to set what they feel is a novice and an expert fee. People Per Hour offer no rules or even guidance. A so-called ‘expert’ job from one client might pay much less than a ‘beginner’ job posted by another.

Faced with a list of freelancers (all apparently ‘experts’ according to the content mill) people are going to choose someone who’s offering a bargain price.  Clients who know the true value of decent freelance work are very unlikely to be hiring through a content mill. The work consists mainly of one-off jobs for small to medium business owners who haven’t worked with a freelancer before and don’t know how to measure the quality of the work.

To a decent client, price is a consideration, but it’s not the only consideration. Quality wins out (though that doesn’t mean freelancers charge silly prices, they just expect to be paid a fee that reflects the time and effort that goes into a decent job.)

Content Mills have some plus points. They offer a good starting place for those developing a freelance career. If you have a day job, you can afford to do some pro bono or very low paid work to build up a portfolio.  Once you’ve built up a range of experience and have some work to show new clients, you can jump ship.

They’re also flexible, offering freelancers the opportunity to bid only for jobs they like the sound of or can fit around other commitments. You can apply for as much or as little work as you like and if you don’t like the price, don’t pitch for the job.

Writing pitches on content mills definitely helped me hone my pitching skills – but it always felt a bit false (‘Am I really working this hard for coppers?’)

The problems with content mill far outweigh any benefits, for me.

  • They dilute the value of good quality freelance work.
  • They make professions like copywriting look like a scam – after all, if there’s a queue of people claiming that your job is easy, and they can do it in under an hour, why on earth do these professional writers charge so much and take so flipping long?
  • They give the impression that freelance work is something people do in their spare time to earn pocket money. At these rates, people can’t be earning a sustainable living from this sort of thing…

But content mills are weirdly addictive. As soon as I picked up one job, I was hooked. Sure, the pay was terrible – but it was money in the bank. Some weeks, a few hundred pounds earned via People Per Hour was all that stood between me and financial disaster. I was failing to find better-paying clients through my embryonic website and forays into social media. Everyone was telling me it took time – and that was fine – but I had bills to pay.

I know I’m a good writer and I want recognition for it. The ‘pick me’ aspect of content mills appealed to my vanity. And even though I knew I should be holding out for better rates, a bird in the hand and all that – you can’t pay for your Tesco shop with ‘one day’ or ‘what if.’

Content Mills put the power firmly in the hands of the buyer. A good freelance relationship exists when the power is equal. If I’m working at way below what I know I’m really worth, I find it hard to feel good about myself, and therefore good about the work. If a client understands the value I add and is prepared to pay a reasonable amount for this, I can look them in the eye and say, ‘let’s do this thing.’

Many of the freelancers using content mills live in places where you get a lot more bang for your buck. If your cost of living is much lower than mine, you can afford to undercut me – the quality of your work is irrelevant at this stage.

Content mills require you to have a portfolio of work, but this may only include a couple of examples and there’s no guarantee pieces aren’t plucked from the internet and displayed as original. Clients are paying such low rates that the risks are also low.

If the work is of a poor standard, you find another freelancer and try again. Or you assume the work is okay and put it to use. Then you wonder why your website isn’t getting a lot of traffic or your flyer didn’t pull in the leads you’d hoped for.

I’ve moved on from the murky world of content mills now. It took a lot of time and a huge amount of patience and effort, but a steady stream of web enquiries and personal referrals began to trickle in.

My advice to freelancers who are just starting out should be to avoid content mills like the plague. I’d love to tell everyone not to demean themselves and dilute their skills. But I can’t do that – because I know what it’s like being skint and responsible for two children, two hamsters and a big fat greedy dog.

Do what you need to do. Buy try not to build your career on content mills. Use them as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Turn to them only in your darkest hour and don’t get trapped in a cycle of pitching and low paid work.

Spend time working on your website, learning about SEO, showing off your skills in blog posts for your own and other people sites.

Get on Twitter and Linked In. Get involved in discussions about your field. Make friends with other copywriters. We’re all a bit isolated and lonely. We like to chat. We share skills and tips and sometimes work.

There are good clients out there and if you can deliver what you say you can, the work will come. I know you don’t believe me. But it will come.

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