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So, What’s the Deal With Content Mills?

Sep 19, 2016

Content Mill

If there’s one question I’ve heard over and over again from people who are just getting started with freelance writing, it’s this: What do you think about content mills? Are they a good way to get your foot in the door with the writing industry? Would you recommend them?

Well my friends, as it turns out, I have a lot of feelings about content mills. So, what better way to voice those opinions and share my thoughts than to dedicate an entire post to those tempting little buggers?

Without further ado, let’s get into the good stuff!

What is a Content Mill?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “content mill”, let’s start by breaking down what exactly a content mill (sometimes alternatively called a “content farm”) is.

To put it simply, a content mill is a company that employs a large number of freelance writers (we’re talking hundreds or thousands) to churn out a massive amount of written content for clients that work with that particular platform. Often, writers are allowed to claim projects they’d like to work on—which run the gamut from full-length articles to short product descriptions.

I can understand their appeal to newbie freelancers—trust me, I found myself perusing many a content mill just a couple of years ago when I was desperate for any sort of paid work. And, if you’ve just been getting your feet wet with freelance writing, you’ve probably come across quite a few of them. Outlets like Crowd Content and TextBroker both fit under this umbrella.

Are content mills the best way for #freelancewriters to get started? Click To Tweet

But, after some time in the biz (I hope you pictured me straightening my sunglasses and winking as you read the phrase “in the biz”, because it only seems right), I’ve realized they truly aren’t the best way for freelance writers to get started. Why? Well, as you might guess, there are quite a few pitfalls associated with these platforms.

Want to get the ball rolling by pitching your work to some unpaid sites? Grab my list of seven websites to get your freelance writing career off the ground!

The Problem With Content Mills

Low Pay

This is the one you’ve likely heard the most about. The pay that these content mills provide for written work can only be described with one word: Atrocious. There’s absolutely no way you could earn a living (or maybe even pay for your morning coffee…) with the rates they offer.

Need proof? I signed up for a Crowd Content account when I was just getting started, and I still have a login today. Here are the projects available to be claimed right now, and the maximum earnings for completing each one:

Content Mill

So, I get paid $6 to turn around a 500-word article in one day. No thank you. There are five pages of available assignments just like this one. If I managed to complete all of them in the one day timeframe (which is impossible, considering that’s a total of 75 500-word articles), I’d still only earn $450 for all of that work.

Listen to me: That’s absolutely ridiculous, and you deserve (and can earn!) much more than that.

No Byline

When you’re just getting started as a freelance writer, the majority of your focus should be placed on building a portfolio of published clips.

However, most of the projects available through content mills are ghostwritten—meaning you aren’t even going to get a byline associated with that 500-word article you spent all of that work cranking out.

And, in most cases? You’ll submit that article and never even know what happens to it. It’s like you just send it into cyberspace, collect your $6, and that’s it. Oftentimes, you have no idea even where that article is published. Even further, the work is usually about super obscure topics that you wouldn’t even want to include in your portfolio.

Not the best way to start building your business, right?

Lack of Relationships

Another key part of getting started as a freelance writer? Forming relationships.

But, that’s not something you’re going to get to do when working through a content mill. In fact, you’ll rarely (if ever) communicate directly with the client you’re collaborating with.

All communication goes through the platform—you may never even know the name of the person (or even the business) that you’re working for. So, needless to say, relationship building isn’t really something you can count on with content mills.

You’re Undercutting Yourself

This is something you’ll hear a lot about from professional writers in regards to content mills: They’re an insult to the profession. It’s degrading to the art of journalism.

And, believe me, I can understand that. Having someone offer $6 for a 500-word article definitely feels like a punch to the gut.

While I don’t want to get up on my high horse here and dive into an in-depth discussion about the value of journalism, think about it this way: If you only think your work is worth $6, why should anyone ever value you more than that?

Content Mills

Better Alternatives to Content Mills

Alright, you get it—content mills aren’t the best way to get your freelance writing career off the ground. But, that leaves you with one big question: If not that, then what? What else can you do to get the ball rolling as a freelance writer?

Well, I never like to think of myself as someone who points out problems without offering solutions. So, let’s take a look at a couple of different things that I think are better than using content mills.

Writing for Free

Did your eyes catch on this subtitle and inspire immediate thoughts of, “Wait, what? What on earth is this nutty lady thinking?”

Again, I can’t blame you. But, at least hear me out.

I know, writing for free isn’t exactly the running leap you want to take into the freelance world—you’re looking to make this your career, and not taking in any paychecks isn’t a great way to do that. Plus, how could I possibly say that getting paid a few dollars is undercutting yourself—but getting paid $0 isn’t?

Well, for starters, writing for free may not earn you any pennies, but it does get you a few other things that have a lot of value: Bylines. Exposure. Relationships. Basically, everything you need except pay.

Listen, I know that writing for free can be disheartening (trust me, I did it)—and, I definitely don’t recommend that you do it forever. But, it can be a decent way to start forming some relationships and getting some published clips under your belt. So, if you need to choose between a free published article that you’re proud of or $6 from a content mill, I’d go the free route.

Want to take my advice, write for free, and get some published work under your belt? Get started with these seven websites!

Networking

How many times can I say “relationships” in one blog post? A lot, apparently—but, hopefully that repetition is just driving the point home of how important relationships are when you’re building your freelance business.

Obviously, one of your main goals when you’re just getting started is landing clients. And, of course, that all happens through relationship building. So, instead of spending your time churning out as many $6 articles as you can, why not channel your efforts and energy into networking?

Send some personalized LinkedIn messages to editors you’d love to get in touch with. Send out a few cold emails to prospective clients or publications. Interact with brands you admire on Twitter. Set up some informational interviews.

No, these efforts won’t bring in cash for you immediately. But, it’s one of those things you need to do in order to build your business. And, trust me, taking your time to do this will definitely pay off (and, way more than $6 at that).

Marketing

I know—you want to spend most of your time on paid client work that fills your wallet. However, marketing is another one of those key activities that’s necessary if you want to increase your income.

No, you could argue that it’s not directly correlated to a paycheck—the hours you spend marketing your business aren’t billable. But, successful marketing is critical for getting your name out there (which, ultimately, results in more money and clients for you!).

Have you already set up a website for your freelance business where you can share your writing samples and services? Do you have a professional email address? What about a contract template you can use? Do your social media profiles clearly share what you do?

If not, these are all things you could spend your time working on—rather than pointless articles at $6 a pop.

Over to You

Believe me, I know that the temptation of content mills can be almost irresistible when you’re desperate to get your freelance writing business off the ground—even $1 feels like a win. But, take it from someone who’s been there before: They aren’t the best way for you to go.

There are plenty of activities that are much more worthy of your time. So, rather than falling into that pesky content mill trap, here’s what I want you to do this week:

  1. Find one outlet (either paid or unpaid) where you can pitch and hopefully publish your first article. Then, send an email with your story idea.
  2. Send at least one email/tweet/LinkedIn invitation to someone you’d like to connect with. Remember, it’s all about relationship building!
  3. Pick one marketing task (whether that’s polishing your website or writing a new blog post) you’d like to complete for your business this week and hop to it!

Content mills pretend to be the quick, easy answer to growing your freelance business. But, remember, that’s not the best way. Growing a freelance writing career is going to take a lot of elbow grease and a fair share patience on your part—there’s no magic pill.

So, it’s time to wave goodbye to those pesky content mills and get ready to roll up your sleeves and grow a business you can really be proud of. Go get ’em!

Have questions? You can always give me a holler. I’d love to help out!

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