The Problem With Free

Nearly every freelance copywriter will at some stage be asked to write for free, or for such a derisory amount that it might as well be free.

This isn’t a new problem, but since the internet shepherded writers together in one big pen many will have opened emails informing them they ‘work in a competitive marketplace’, which I hope for many meant the next click was the delete button.

The problem with free is that it doesn’t work in any business model I’ve encountered.

But that hasn’t stopped the obsession with trying to source products and services for as cheaply as possible.

A business model that includes free doesn’t add up

The already burning free debate has recently had petrol poured all over it by Chris Anderson’s article about his next book, in which he discusses how ‘digital economics has turned traditional economics upside down’.

The idea is that with storage and distribution costs virtually zero it should be possible to provide digital products and services for free, with revenue generated from advertising and selling extras.

Now I was a big fan of The Long Tail, with its rallying cry for internet entrepreneurs to setup blogs and start selling fragranced soap and Moroccan kitchen tiles on a global scale, even if it was an old niche marketing principle reheated for the internet.

However, Anderson’s new stroking of the proverbial beard and sharing his vision of a freeconomy has met a barrage of criticism in a recent E-Consultancy article for ignoring the physical costs (employees, food, equipment etc) in running a virtual enterprise or providing a proven model for how such a business can be sustained.

Which is part of the problem with sourcing services based on free or cheap – it doesn’t work in any sensible business model for either the buyer or copywriter.

Cheap copy simply cheapens a business and devalues the copywriter

In a recent discussion in my local online networking group, The MK Media Circle, frustration boiled over when a brave soul suggested cobbling together a business’ website using Dreamweaver or WordPress.

The idea of cutting corners in the creation of a business’ online presence highlighted the problem creative industries face in justifying their value to cost conscious clients.

Many don’t seem to realise that more goes into creating a finished product than just time.

Whenever quoting you should always remember that it’s also your experience, know-how and a sprinkling of skill you’re providing. Your words are not just to fill up space, but to promote your client’s professionalism, expertise and to shift a few of their products at the same time.

A professional copywriter will achieve this by reading the brief, compiling their notes, having a think then composing a message that will differentiate a product, make it desirable and pitch it in a way that persuades the customer why it will improve their lives.

Do you want people to think you’re cheap?

With a website now often the first point of contact, making the right impression has never been more important.

A badly written landing page will simply give the impression that the company is in the habit of cutting corners, which in turn means less sales and less chance of the business succeeding.

The next time you’re approached by a client obsessed with free or cheap just remember that it’s your writing that can make the difference. And if they don’t want to give the impression that they cut corners they shouldn’t be doing it with your pay cheque.

So if you’ve got a portfolio and value your skill, don’t work for free or cheap because, as with some of Anderson’s business models, the sums don’t add up.

3 thoughts on “The Problem With Free

  1. Tom Chandler/Copywriter Underground

    Unlike so many others, I thought Anderson’s “Long Tail” was something of a crock when I read it, or more accurately, it was a restatement of some fairly obvious principles (as the cost of deliver goes down, smaller markets become potentially profitable)

    I wasn’t surprised when a later look at the hard data didn’t exactly support his conclusions.

    The new book sounds even less tenable. Sure, storage and bandwidth costs have fallen, but exactly how is all that “free” storage going to populated?

    User-generated isn’t the whole answer; after all, to attract users you’ve got to develop some expensive technology, and to keep attracting them, you need to keep developing it.

    Of course, some seem to expect writers to also work in the “free” mode to make the new “free” business model work, and sadly, there seems to be more than a few willing victims.

    Let somebody else work for free. Baby needs a new word processor.

  2. Hi Tom,

    I feel the same way when I get informed by a new startup that they only have limited funds and cant afford to pay my full rate. My feeling is that if that’s the case they haven’t thought through their business plan properly and have got caught up in the hysteria of being the next Facebook. Consequently alarm bells start ringing in my head and I’m even less inclined to take any risks with my pay cheque.

    Why does everything have to be free or cheap? Trying to do everything as cheaply as possible just presents more risks which will cost more to fix later on in my opinion. And that includes the lost customers who wont come back because of the poor copy.


  3. Great post!

    Unfortunately, we have all gotten a sort of fast food mentality and everyone is looking for the “value menu.” The mindset shouldn’t carry over into copywriting, but unfortunately it does.

    I know that my rates turn a lot of perspective “clients” away (and they aren’t even that high).

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