How to Dig Out of the Content Mill Hole and Land a Client — Fast

Man escapes from paper holeBy Elaine Yue

“You’re an idiot.”

That’s what I told myself after I spent three hours writing a 500-word article for a content mill.

What did it pay?

A whopping $5.

When I had decided I would do some freelance writing to “make some extra cash,” I had no idea that writing a 500-word article would take hours.

There was no way I would make money like this.

I start to dig

By luck, I came across the Make a Living Writing blog. My entire perception changed.

I could actually make money writing!

I joined the Freelance Writer’s Den and read everything. I was sure these tips would bring me a high-paying gig immediately.

Information overload

But I quickly realized I had a problem.

I had no idea where to begin.

All of these tips were great, but they were coming from veteran writers who already had a marketing plan in place. They already had prestigious clips and connections. One tweet and the gigs would roll in.

I had no clips.

I had no connections.

How was a newbie writer supposed to start?

Mind-mapping a marketing plan

I decided to mind-map a specific plan:

1. I answered:

  • Who am I serving?
  • What do they want?
  • What fears keep them up at night?
  • What problems can I solve for them?
  • Where can I find them?

My mind map helped me organize my thoughts so I had a cohesive plan. Otherwise, I was left thinking, “I’ll try this technique” or “I should try that technique.” This process gave me a more concrete road map to follow.

2.  I built a prospect list using Manta, Linkedin, Jigsaw, and Google. Using Manta’s data, I identified health supplement companies with $1 million-$5 million in annual revenue — my target audience.

3.  I created a website with a blog to use as samples.

4.  Using tips from the Den and Ed Gandia’s Warm Email Prospecting class (yes, I did find it through this blog, and that is Carol’s affiliate link), and working with the answers to my questions about customers’ needs (getting more customers, educating shoppers about health concerns), I created this email:

Subject:

Congrats on becoming an Authorized Distributor of [Vendor] → trigger event

Message:

I read a press release that [Company] has become an Authorized Distributor of [Vendor] – congrats! → trigger event

I’m contacting you because I help nutritional supplement companies write newsletters, blogs, and marketing material that help convey their messages clearly and effectively to customers. And I have some ideas on how you can convey your message to your very specific and special target audience. → value statement

Let me know if you’re interested in discussing further. No sales pitch — just seeing if we might have a good fit. → call to action

Finally, a client!

When a client called me, I realized how great timing and an effective pitch were instrumental in landing me the gig.

He had been thinking about creating better content for his customers and increasing his Google ranking.

So when I said that I was a health writer who could write effective content, it was a no-brainer.

The gig: four blog posts and two landing pages for $1,000. Every month.

Tweaking my plan

I am by no means on easy street — yet. My marketing plan is still a work in progress. But for us newbies, any plan is better than no plan.

So take all of the tips from the Den and other sources, create a plan, and I guarantee you will get your first client.

Elaine Yue is a freelance writer and consultant specializing in the health supplement and insurance industries. For more details about her marketing plan, check out ElaineYue.com.

Do you have questions about how to earn more from your writing? Learn more in my community Freelance Writers Den – take ecourses, attend live events, ask writing pros your questions in our forums, and use our exclusive Junk-Free Job Board.


  1. Thank you, Elaine, for providing positive proof that there are high-paying clients beyond the content mills!

    Content mills thrive on their supposed anonymity. Writers imagine that they’re somehow an “easier” option because there is no need to directly interface with clients.

    But…

    One fellow writer told me that she worked for three hours on a 500-word piece, for which she was paid the princely sum of $10 – only for the buyer to turn around and leave her reputation-crushing public feedback. Ouch!

    The good news is that with the latest Google changes, SEO “word arranging” is a dying (non) art. Will content mills survive?

    Smart writers are looking for other options *now*. Thanks for providing an excellent blueprint based on personal experience.

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Marianne, I totally agree: OUCH!

      The main reasons people turn to content mills is that 1) they don’t know any other alternatives and 2) they think they need to build up their writing skill first before people will pay them good money for it. I fell into #2.

      So thank goodness there are blogs like this one to educate us!

      And you’re welcome! I go into a ton more detail on my site about my marketing plan (couldn’t exactly write 1000+ word post here :)). Check out my link above!

      • Robert Jennings says:

        Elaine,

        I fell into #1. Until I found this blog (by Googling “how to make a living freelance writing,” of all things…) I thought that content mills were the entire industry. I never knew I never knew so much. So, thanks to you for providing an utter newbie some insight, and thanks to Carol for providing this amazing resource.

        I believe that, in any industry, you’re only as successful as the company you keep. Hopefully, now that I’ve decided to change my company, I’ll be able to change my career.

        • Carol Tice says:

          I think there are thousands of writers just like you, Robert. And that’s why I started this blog! Glad you found it. ;-)

          And it’s so true about the company…I used to be blown away by seeing long conversation threads on Freelance Writing Gigs about “I’m so excited, I’ve moved up from $5 an article to $10!” and others replying “Wow, that’s awesome!” And I was like, WTF!!! That is NOT awesome!

          The writers you hang out with contextualize what’s happening in your career. If you have a context of all other mill writers, you might never know that you’re visiting the Underworld of freelance writing and that there’s another world with real rates in it up above…

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Marianne — I’ve been warning about the decline and fall of content mills for three years now, ever since Demand Studios shared its IPO financials and revealed it never made money, even before the Google changes hit its traffic. Since then, it’s no surprise that they have scaled way back on the amount of content they are assigning and paying for.

      I started Freelance Writers Den to help writers in this exact scenario, who need to move up and earn more and learn to find their own clients…because I have real concerns that the whole mill way of earning is going to fade out of the picture.

  2. John Soares says:

    I haven’t written for content mills, but I know one person who did it for only a month or two until she started getting good-paying gigs. Then she said goodbye forever to Demand Studios.

    She did get a bit of experience and she became comfortable with meeting deadlines.

    The key thing: she was also marketing heavily to quality markets the whole time she was writing for Demand. I think too many mill writers get stuck in a rut and lose confidence in their ability to win quality assignments.
    John Soares recently posted..The Freelance Writers Den is Open for One Week ONLY

    • John,

      That is a great point. There is nothing wrong with writing for a content mill or taking another unglamorous gig to pay the bills. But make sure you spend time every day marketing your services to higher-paying markets.

      And do whatever it takes to keep your confidence high. Confidence is key.

      Jennifer
      Jennifer Roland recently posted..Get More, Higher-Paying Writing Gigs by Taking Good Care of Your Sources

      • LindaH says:

        I can’t agree more, John and Jennifer, about keeping the confidence level high. After reviewing a recent forum on several writing topics I found myself so deflated from negative speak that I began to doubt myself until I stopped and said, “Wait a minute!” Enough of those blogs posts!

        Edgar Degas said it best: “Self doubt is an insidious insect that can suck the life out of even the smallest dream–Never give in to it!”

        Elaine gives a great example of what is required to pull out of the content mill rut and succeed with higher paying markets. Her blog reflects the value of Carol’s insight, experience and contribution through her blog and the Freelance Writer’s Den, and of Elaine’s personal journey to turn her career around. Everyone would do well to follow suit, fight self doubt and take action to turn things around. We can all do it if we simply create a plan.

  3. Thanks Elaine for providing us is very informative post. Actually this is the first time I have heard about this. And I am interested to do this too! I hope I can learn more of this.

    • Elaine Yue says:

      You’re welcome. Carol’s Den forum is a great resource to get started. You will never run out of things to learn there!

  4. Barbara says:

    This is good, Elaine! I’m also a former DMS writer, but I’ve been reaching out beyond my “comfort stretch zone” for several months now. This includes writing novellas (not great pay, but it’s better than I was doing after DMS changed its business model and didn’t say much about those changes.

    I wrote an e-book and published it to Kindle and, from that, I’m in discussions with a military wife about a book idea she has. Am I uncomfortable with this kind of stretching? Oh, yes, I am!

    But the alternative is doing more and more content writing and that’s just not in my plans.

    Thank you!

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Barbara, yes! You must get out of your comfort zone! That’s the only way things will happen. In fact, one of the things I gauge is whether something makes me uncomfortable. If it does, then I make myself do it. :)

  5. Ken says:

    I’m also a freelance (trying hard) writer writing for a low rate. The reason is I feel that I’m still not worthy to ask for higher rates. I feel (and know) that my writing still needs more job and improvements. But reading this post gives me inspiration and I also found out that someone has gone what I’m going through right now and that I can also succeed in this field.Thanx!
    Ken recently posted..Hello!

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Ken, writing “well” is subjective. No matter how long you’ve been writing, some people will think you are great, and others will think you suck. :) Improving your STYLE just comes with time and actually improves with more work. And maybe your particular style is better suited for certain mediums. For example, I would not be able to write fiction. It’s just not me. And writing about finance would be difficult for me. But I love writing blogs because it’s a more casual style of writing.

      So you just need to find those clients for whom your writing is suited and go after them!

      • Ken says:

        Wow! Your already useful post was made even more useful because of this reply. It’s my first time to hear or read what you said. I actually thought being a (professional) writer can write about anything. This is one of the hindrances why it’s still hard for me to consider myself as a writer; I can’t write about anything. Now that I knew that I’m normal, it will add more inspiration to pursue this career. Again, thanx! = )
        Ken recently posted..Hello!

  6. Jeanne H says:

    Wow and congratulations! I’m so happy for you. I bet your post gave Ms. Carol some serious warm fuzzies. :-)

  7. Tonya says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post!! And I thought I was the only person that took 3 hours to write a 500 word article. I have always loved writing since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I was laid off from my last job that I decided to try it as a profession. I instantly found content mills and I stuck with it because I didn’t know any better. It’s been about 9 months now and I’m finally venturing out and finding clients that are willing to pay more for my work. I still need a lot of help though!! I will be the newest Den member in a few minutes! Thanks again and I really love your style of writing :)

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Tonya, you’ve just made my day! Thanks for the great compliment. I’ve actually been studying a lot of bloggers’ style and emulating the ones that make me read the entire posts.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Welcome aboard, Tonya! Lotsa help for you in the Den…just ask your questions in the forums, start going through the ecourses and podcasts, and let us know where we can help you out.

  8. Wow, awesome article. Congratulations on your success Elaine!

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Thanks Rebecca! It’s just a start but I’ve never felt more right (professionally) about anything. This is something I’m determined to make work.

  9. Laura says:

    Congrats Elaine! That’s huge; I’m a fan of Ed’s warm email prospecting as well. Whenever I wanted to get in touch with someone I used to spend hours trying to customize a thorough email, only to get no response. The trick is exactly as he (and you) described – be personal and tailor the message, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket until you already know they’re interested! I’m so happy that you got an awesome gig right off the bat. Great work!

  10. Elana says:

    Hello Elaine, I’d like to thank you for writing one of the most useful and inspiring posts I’ve read on this blog thus far. Thanks for breaking it down for us noobs : )

    Much success to us all!

  11. Anita says:

    Good for you, Elaine. Thanks for a bit of specific, concrete inspiration.

    Here’s to many more successes.
    Anita recently posted..enroll your child in a summer reading program

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Thanks Elana and Anita! I’m happy to hear that this post helped you. I actually have even more specifics (including a list of resources that have helped me a lot) on my page. Click on my link in the author box if you want to know even more!

  12. Kathy Kramer says:

    Thank you for this post! I write for one content mill, which I’m trying to get out of. It’s not Demand Studios. In fact, I’ve never heard of it until I came here. I actually view my time doing this as an “internship”. Right now, I’m working on clips, because I don’t have many.

    I love this post because I’m in this position right now. It’s part inspiration/part kick in the pants. :)
    Kathy Kramer recently posted..Hello world!

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Hey Kathy! Keep a blog related to your niche – this will give you better clips than you could get from content mills because they are specific to your niche. As much as I wish my content mill article about cloud computing would impress my health clients, they didn’t really help much!

  13. Steve Maurer says:

    Great post, Elaine.

    I love your Letter of Introduction. Thank you for sharing it with us.
    I’ve written for Textbroker, a type of content mill that’s a little different from Demand Studio and the like. Even though it’s got good support, the pay is still way too low. Breaking out of that mold is priority one.

    Writers who come from “the mills” often have problems putting a good value on their writing. They’ve written for so low for so long that it seems hard to charge a good fee. I can remember my first article paid (drum roll, please) $4.95. While it did give me a good feeling that I could write and someone would pay for it, I know that my work is much better than that.

    Thanks again for the great post.
    Steve
    Maurer Copywriting
    Steve Maurer recently posted..Are Discount Text Services Really That Cost Effective?

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Steve, you’re a Textbroker convert too?? I wrote for TB because I had heard that DS was “picky” about the writers they selected. Isn’t that funny and oh so ironic? Anyway, part of me is still glad I started out with the mills because now I appreciate the alternative.

      • Steve Maurer says:

        Hi, Elaine.

        Yeah, they were pretty good to write for and it was pretty steady. I still check out the site to keep up with trends. I’ve found some interesting things:

        1. When I started in 2010, there were more requests for lower-level writers. Now, the class 4 writers get the lion’s share of the orders by a HUGE margin.
        2. Some clients are looking for better ways of getting writers. In fact, I’ve had 3 clients that I used to write for on TB that are now coming to me personally, away from the site. All think working directly with me is a much easier way to go.
        3. In fact, one former TB client, a website developer, asked me if I would work personally with him. I wrote about 50% of his own site content when ‘milling about.’ Now that we are working directly, one-on-one, he is contracting me to write the copy for his own clients.

        Shameless Plug for Freelance Writers Den: New folks, you cannot go wrong with the Den,that is, unless you don’t join! You will be hanging around with other writers, people who understand what you are doing, the problems and challenges you are having and who are willing to help you succeed. The courses offered will teach you some good skills and force you to grow without knowing it. Since taking J-school, I’ve contacted more people on the phone than ever before. And really enjoyed it too!

        Elaine, thanks again so much for your post. It’s stuff like this that will help new writers get a great start!
        Steve
        Steve Maurer recently posted..What Your Writer Needs to Know

        • Carol Tice says:

          Hi Steve — great to hear your positive feedback on the Den! Just to clarify 4-Week J-School is one of the few courses I do that are NOT included in Den membership. It has everything except J-School and the Blast-Off class, just because those are small-group coaching environments, and everything for the Den has to be something hundreds can attend at once.

  14. What an inspiring article and thanks for including your actual LOI, which is brilliant. I’m happy to hear that Demand Studios hasn’t prospered from their attempts to take advantage of writers.

    One thing I think deserves emphasis is that you targeted businesses with a million + in annual revenue. Clients will only pay what they can afford to pay.

    When I recently felt comfortable enough to review my rates and ask all my clients for a raise, only one was unable to oblige. He was hit by Penguin and was experiencing a drastic downturn in traffic. We worked out an interim solution – less assignments per month at better pay while he uses more of his budget to revamp his sites. That’s just one more reason to find real people to work with instead of content mills – you can establish working relationships and find solutions that work for everyone.
    Rob Schneider recently posted..Putting Grammarly to the Test

    • Elaine Yue says:

      Rob, great point – being able to communicate and work with clients is key. It really is all about relationships. And of course, finding those clients who can afford you. :)

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m always saying, if you have the kind of clients where you can’t ASK for a raise — because it’s a mill platform where that’s the rate, take it or leave it — you know you have the wrong kind of clients. Rates should always rise over time, as you learn more about a client and become more valuable.

  15. Max R. says:

    Congratulations on your success, Elaine–and thanks for sharing it w/Carol’s readers!

    I just attempted to visit your site, as I’m in the process of building mine. I was met w/this:

    http://www.elaineyue.com/landing/marketing-plan-land-freelance-writing-gig-30-days/

    Is this intentional? Or are you in the process of updating your site?

    Since there was no other way to enter your site WITHOUT first tweeting for you…..I left. Forgive me and my confusion…but are you asking that people tweet about your information BEFORE they even see it…..?

    I’m sorry if I misunderstood your intent (or visited at a time when you were in the process of an update)….I look forward to being able to visit your site sometime soon!

    • Max R. says:

      If I click on your name (from comment posts), I can enter your full site. So I guess I found another way in. :) Sorry for the confusion.

      • Elaine Yue says:

        Hey Max! Sorry about that, that’s actually a feature of the landing page that is supposed to encourage readers to tweet or share it first before reading the content. But you can actually get around it by just clicking the “x” in the upper right hand corner. I guess this is a flaw in this type of page!

        If you didn’t get a chance to view the page itself (rather than my general site), try it again and just close the share box. It will still give you a link to get into the page.

        Thanks!

        • Max R. says:

          Hi Elaine–
          Thanks for responding–I’m so sorry for my cluelessness.
          I was SO eager to see the information that led to your success…I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I’m still a relative newbie to twitter and had a total mental disconnect as to why I was getting that page instead of your information….(lol…duh max).

          I see now that I really need to commend your creativity in linking a landing page in a way that will encourage your visitors to get traffic back to your site–how very smart (and social media savvy) of you….!

          Thanks for being so patient and kind toward me–I certainly appreciate it!

          Best,
          Max

          Again, *great* blog post and so glad you shared!

  16. Thank you for bringing up the point about knowing what your target market it. That has been the hardest part for me – finding amongst the millions of potential places the few that I fit.
    April Schroader recently posted..A Schroader Family Blog: A Simple Life

  17. Jun Mallorca says:

    Some of these content mills are taking advantage of newbie writers. There are even writing jobs paying $1 per 500 words article. I agree that making a plan will help you land better and higher paying jobs. Thanks for sharing your story.

  18. chigo says:

    Thanks for this post. I mean, there is no way I would write a 500 word article, give you the full rights for $3. I know my worth and quality of my content. Does it mean there are no better alternatives to Iwriter, Demandstudios and textbroker.

    • Carol Tice says:

      No, there are plenty of alternatives, Chigo!

      Just proactively go out and find real clients who sell a real product or service in the real world. Real magazines with real readers, who have real incomes.

      Stop reading ads and hanging around mill dashboards, proactively market your business, and presto! Totally different pay scale.

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