You don’t have to look far to find content mills paying freelance writers ridiculously low rates these days.
It’s a reality—one that isn’t good for your writing career, portfolio, bank account, self-confidence, or sanity.
Does anyone actually make good money writing for content mills?
Well, here’s the news: Not all content mills suck. Wait, what?
There’s an emerging breed of content mills that may be a game-changer for freelancers.
According to some writers who’ve worked on these platforms, you can earn big coin if you do it right. But there are some pitfalls you’ll need to watch out for.
Are these content mills just a new take on the lowest-bidder game?
Or do some content mills actually provide value and pay pro rates?
Here’s what you need to know about an emerging class of content mills that may offer better opportunities and where to find freelance writing jobs:
Content mills: In the beginning
When I started freelancing about 10 years ago, content mills were just getting rolling. I set up a profile (soon to be abandoned) on the content mill site Guru.com. It seemed like an easy way to find clients.
The same year I picked up my digital pen, a former MySpace executive teamed up with a private equity investor to launch Demand Media—the mother of all content mills at one time.
Their specialty was trading table scraps for low-quality content from freelancers, and gaming SEO to rank their content high in Google.
After Demand’s CEO cashed in big with a public stock offering, many more content-mill sites started up, whose founders dreamed of a similar payday. A series of Google algorithm updates nearly killed the industry. And now, Demand Media has changed its name to Leaf Group. But renaming this company is like that old joke about putting lipstick on a pig.
Just as content mills were dying, though, a new breed of mass writer platforms began popping up. Now, there are at least a handful of sites where pro rates and pro writing go together.
Here’s a rundown on the top contenders in the emerging field of ‘move-up mills’:
Contently – Founded 2010
Contently defines itself as a “technology company.” The home page states their audience is brands in the market for content services — and Contently’s service offerings go beyond writing. They offer videography, photography, and infographic design, too.
Billing themselves as a content marketing platform, Contently is a place where brands can log in and manage their content marketing from one dashboard. Their network of freelancers are paid by Contently upon completion of their individual contributions.
Jordan Teicher, a senior editor at Contently, said their average freelance writing rate is $1 per word.
“There are other factors that go into deciding what tier a story falls under on our rate card,” he said. While he wouldn’t share details, he did say blogging typically pays less, while other projects such as white papers pay more. Technical projects also tend to demand more pay.
Tom Bentley, a 25-year freelancing veteran, confirmed this. He said he made $250 for a piece that required one hour for research and as little as $100 for a 700-word article.
“I don’t pitch unless I get a minimum of 40 cents per word,” he said. “I try to hit 50 cents.” What he likes about Contently is that they pay immediately upon completion of each assignment. No waiting.
How Contently connects clients with writers
The process of finding work at Contently differs drastically from that of content mills. There’s no job board, and no project bidding. That was one of the few things Bentley said he didn’t like.
“It’s understandable that writers want the ability to apply for jobs,” Teicher said, “but that system requires a balance. If anyone can apply to any job, then you’re talking about platforms like Craigslist where quality varies wildly. Our approach is more controlled, to ensure the right writers are recommended for publications that suit their skills and experience.”
Build your own portfolio
You get a public-facing portfolio at Contently, which you can update at any time (you can see Bentley’s right here). However, to get an assignment, you must wait for Contently’s talent team to contact you. Depending on the writer’s skills and breadth of experience, that could take a while.
Opportunities to earn more
Contently also has two publications of its own that freelancers can write for. Teicher said writers usually earn $300-$400, depending on the piece.
When asked why a writer should use Contently if they can earn top dollar through their own marketing, he said, “By all means, do it. I don’t think it has to be either/or.” He added that paying writers a fair rate was an important part of their service.
While Bentley likes that Contently does the legwork in finding clients for him, he still does his own marketing and works directly with other clients.
ClearVoice – Founded 2015
There are two clear differences between Contently and ClearVoice: The manner in which you’re selected for assignments, and the way in which each service pays. At Contently, you know what you’ll make before taking an assignment. At ClearVoice, they quote you the rate, then take out their finder’s fee — and it’s substantial.
“It’s frustrating that they take 25 percent,” said freelance writer Ronda Swaney, who’s only received one assignment from ClearVoice. “I wish they’d send more work.”
How to find gigs
When you sign up for ClearVoice’s service, you select a minimum rate for receiving notifications about available projects. When a brand offers an assignment, you are sent the ones that match your criteria, and can raise your hand if you want to work on it.
“We then present five to 10 writer options for the brand to choose from,” said ClearVoice CEO Jay Swansson. The brand then chooses the writers they want to work with from that writer pool.
Swansson said the range of pay writers can expect starts at 10 cents per word and goes up to $1 per word. Bentley said he joined ClearVoice, but hadn’t received any assignments so he emailed support. He received an email within five minutes with the following message:
Bentley had listed his minimum at 75 cents per word. After receiving the customer response email, he changed it to 50 cents per word. One month later, he received two offers but turned them both down because “neither of them were suitable for me.”
ClearVoice is proud of its customer support and responsiveness, and writers appreciate it, as well.
According to Swansson, writers have a public-facing portfolio. The site crawls the Web to find writers with bylines at top publications, then creates a portfolio for them, even if they haven’t joined the service.
Swansson said I had one, but I had difficulty finding it. He mentioned a few publishers I’d written for, so I knew he wasn’t bluffing. After Googling it and coming up empty, I stumbled upon another writer’s portfolio and reverse-engineered the URL to find my own. (To see a sample portfolio on ClearVoice, check out Swaney’s.)
Tools and communication
“We built a messaging system into the app,” Swansson said. “We encourage as much communication as possible between clients and writers. They know who each other are.”
Swansson also mentiond that brands have access to an editorial calendar. When I asked if there’s one for writers, he responded, “That’s a good idea. I’ll see about adding a calendar to that side of the platform.” And when I suggested a tool that would allow me to keep track of all assignments in one place, even those not acquired through ClearVoice, he got excited about that idea too.
When asked about the ease of using the platform, Bentley said all of the services he’s tried are a little clunky. “The interfaces can always be improved,” he said.
I can vouch for that. I signed up for ClearVoice, Contently, and eByline, just to try them out. While I found ClearVoice’s dashboard to be the most attractive, it’s also least user-friendly, with eByline a close second.
The one thing Bentley, Swaney, and Swansson all agree on is that writers using the ClearVoice platform want more work. At least, the happy ones do.
Skyword – Founded 2010
Skyword’s browser tab reads “The art and science of content marketing,” and its official tagline is “Moving stories. Forward.” They attract brands with a quiz on where they stand on the “content marketing continuum”
Agency-style content marketing
One subhead reads “Content marketing works.” In our interview, Community Manager Molly Berry described her company simply as a “content marketing company.”
“We work with a wide array of clients,” she said, “from short blog-like articles to in-depth e-books and whitepapers for very well-known tech enterprises.” And they’re even venturing into videography and video design.
What all three companies have in common is they target their services toward brands looking for content, and see freelance writers as core assets. This might be a defining distinction between these so-called content agencies and content mills.
That and the fact that content mills paid beans and existed primarily to feed search algorithms. Compare Carol Tice’s $400 experience with ClearVoice to, say, Writer Access, whose top-paying writers earn a whopping 7 cents per word.
Nice rates — and big brands
At Skyword, writers can earn $150 to $800 per article, Berry said, “depending on the type of content and length.” They pay twice a month through PayPal for all projects a writer works on in that period. The good news? “The client pays the PayPal fees.”
Skyword really does act like an agency, going so far as to plan the content strategies for its clients. Bentley got an assignment from Google and Swaney worked with Hewlett Packard. She said she’s never earned less than $350 for a blog post at Skyword. Her gigs have primarily been ghostwriting and tech writing. “Those two areas seem to have a hard time finding experienced writers,” Swaney said.
The editing process
One thing both Bentley and Swaney agreed on is the editing process isn’t ideal. Some clients have their own in-house editors, where others rely on Skyword staff. That’s true of Contently and ClearVoice, as well, but Bentley mentioned a particularly irritating experience at Skyword. An editor (an employee of the client’s, not Skyword) said one of his assignments was “crap.”
While Swaney has had a good experience with her editors, she mentioned that one writer friend had a different experience. “There seems to be a lot of turnover in companies like this,” she said. “You don’t know who you’ll be working with, and there are various levels of experience. Some may not be experienced working with writers.”
Despite that headache, however, both writers said they like working with the agencies.
How Skyword connects clients with writers
Skyword has two ways of operating. They offer the full-service setup for clients where they plan the content strategy, set the writer pay rate, and act as intermediary between the writer and client. Skyword also allows brands to search their writer pool and select writers.
eByline – Founded 2009
Like the other platforms, eByline sees itself as a connector between brands that need content marketing and writers who provide content. Their goal is to meet the needs of both audiences.
eByline founder Bill Momary says their freelancer pay at eByline is all over the chart.
“It’s an open market,” Momary said. “Buyers dictate rates. The rate for a 500-word article in Pennsylvania might be different than in L.A. or New York.”
One reason for this is because eByline works with a lot of journalists and news agencies. Momary said the platform has more than 17,000 freelance journalists registered, which makes it unique among the freelance marketplaces in this article.
In fact, Momary recounted, eByline was started when he and a colleague left the L.A. Times when newsrooms were laying off staff. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we built software that kept people in one environment?’ We decided we’d cover sporting events, the courts, business, everything a newspaper would do.” Companies looking for content marketing services came later.
Formula for pricing projects
Today, Momary is the senior vice president of content at Izea, the company that purchased eByline last year. Izea is a publicly traded company and bills itself as “The Creator Marketplace.” Three factors that determine writer pay at eByline, Momary said, are:
- Assignment scope and complexity
- Content type
“We’re seeing more freelancers willing to offer a discount if they can get more work,” he said.
How to find work
There are two ways to find work at eByline. If a brand is familiar with a your work, you can be offered a direct assignment. The other option is to use the platform’s job board, where brands post jobs for the marketplace. Writers set up alerts for the types of jobs they want. If a writer sees a job she wants, she creates a pitch and the company chooses from among the pitches received.
One plus to eByline is that the pay you negotiate is the pay you receive. If an assignment pays $100, you receive $100. eByline charges companies extra for making the connection and keeps the difference. That’s one of the things Bentley said he likes about the platform, where he recently earned $200 for a 700-900 word article.
The application process
Momary also said eByline approves only 1 percent of the writer applications they receive. It took a little more than a month for my application to get approved, and only then it was after contacting them and inquiring as to the status of my application.
From the time of my inquiry to the time of approval, I lost an assignment that was available that would have been right up my alley, for a significant fee.
However, less than a week after approval, I landed my first gig, a 600-word blog post for $225. That client also added me to their Favorite list.
The reason most applications are rejected, Momary said, is an incomplete profile. In terms of criteria, what eByline looks for is quality of work, recent publication credits, and whether a writer has worked with “quality publications.”
“We also look at subject matter expertise,” he said. “If we have 3,000 travel writers and not enough demand, there isn’t enough work for another travel writer. So we look at that.”
The new content mills: Worth your time?
Are there any downsides to writing for this new breed of mills? Consider these:
- Pay rates vary. While top writers can earn 50 cents per word or more, most writers shouldn’t expect that kind of pay. Experience, skill, availability, and ability to persuade a brand to choose you over the competition are all factors. Some of the spokespeople I interviewed admitted openly that some writers earn as little as 10 cents per word.
- You need more than a profile. Getting a profile does not guarantee work. Sure, you have another channel through which opportunities may come, but don’t think this replaces your own outbound marketing such as your LinkedIn profile or writer website.
- Keep up your own outbound marketing. If you decide to work through freelance marketplaces, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Do as Bentley does and use them as supplemental income. Work on getting the majority of your income from other sources—like your own website.
- Communication and editing process may vary. As noted by Bentley and Swaney, you may run into frustrations with assignment editors. In the interest of fairness, however, I’ve had similar frustrations with clients I’ve worked with directly.
- Work can dry up easily, or not come at all. Both Bentley and Swaney mentioned they’ve gone weeks or months without an assignment at one or more of the marketplaces they signed up for. If you want to eat, you shouldn’t rely solely on the marketplaces.
Ultimately, you have to decide whether it’s worth your time to pursue work through these emerging content agencies.
5 Rules for writing for the new content mills
If you want to write for content mills, go for it. On the right platforms, it’s possible to make some decent money.
But after 10 years of online marketing that started with a freelance marketplace profile, I’ve learned that my best customers come either through my website or through my own content marketing.
That’s not to say you can’t, or shouldn’t, pursue business through a content mill. Especially for young writers just starting out, these could be a starting point.
However, if you do, follow these 5 rules for writing for content mills:
- Set yourself a minimum pay rate. Make no exceptions.
- Establish a niche and seek work within that specialty. You’ll be perceived as an expert and can command higher pay. In fact, choose a marketplace that’s the best fit for your specialty.
- Never compete on price. Compete on quality.
- Take some time to understand each marketplace. Learn to write an effective profile, choose the best clips for your portfolio, and make use of customer service if you need help optimizing your marketing channel.
- Do quality work and always meet your deadlines. It’s the best way to keep your existing clients and get referrals to grow your business.
The bottom line: Setting up a bunch of profiles on content-mill sites might earn you some extra money. But it’s not a reliable way to market your services and find enough clients that pay pro rates to pay all your bills.
Your best marketing tools are still likely to be an effective website, a social media presence, great clips, and the discipline to consistently pitch prospects with queries and pitch letters.
Have you checked out any of the ‘move-up’ content mills? Share your experience in the comments.
Allen Taylor is a former newspaper editor turned content strategist in the FinTech and next-generation technology niches. He currently edits four niche Web publications through his boutique freelance writing service Taylored Content.