About a year ago, a post came across my Facebook feed that really chapped my hide.
A fellow blogger was admonishing the rest of us to “stop working for free.” She essentially said that bloggers who work for free are ruining the industry. And she blatantly mocked bloggers who work in exchange for products of nominal value.
Obviously the post still chaps my rear.
She’s not alone though. It’s a sentiment that’s repeated regularly throughout the blogging community.
And yet, it’s only one side of the story. I wanted to share another perspective, so I wrote a post called Blogger Confession: Why I Work for Free.
I anticipated a bit of backlash, but the response from other bloggers was almost entirely supportive. Of course, it’s quite possible that the post wasn’t read by enough people to generate any negative responses. Much of the feedback on that post was from other new (or newish) bloggers who: a) wrote for fun and thought of free products as the icing on the cake; b) considered products to be sufficient compensation for their work; or c) felt as though they needed to build a “resume” or a body of work before they could expect to be paid for blogging.
It’s been about a year since I wrote my original post. This blog has grown substantially since then, and my 200th post seems like a great time to revisit my thoughts on the subject of working for free.
Mommy Runs It is by no means a big (or even biggish) blog, but my pageviews have increased by 900% since I wrote my “work for free” post. (That’s a fun statistic, isn’t it?) About 6 months ago, I started making a small, very, very part-time income from this blog. Is the income commensurate with the time and effort I put into it? Not hardly. But I love what I do. I mean, I really, really love it. And as both my family and I have come to learn, my happiness carries tremendous value. (If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.)
So the big question: Do I still work for free?
The answer: Yes. But only for the right reasons. (MY right reasons. Your mileage may vary.)
Review All the Things
I didn’t start this blog thinking that I would immediately begin making money.
Eh- well, I guess that’s not entirely true. Sure, I didn’t think I’d make a full-time salary in my first year, but I did see myself making a little bit of money, even if it was just some extra cash to spend at Target and Starbucks. I certainly didn’t anticipate that paid work would be so difficult to come by that first year, or that it would take me nearly 18 months to reach my goal of 10,000 unique monthly visitors (UMV).
I’m fortunate in that my family doesn’t rely on my income to make ends meet. But there I was, hunched over my laptop for 5-6 hours a day, the laundry piling up, my eyes permanently glued to my phone in a never-ending frenzy of Facebooking-Tweeting-Instagramming-Pinning-Stumbling. How long could I justify this to my family (and myself) without having anything tangible to show for it?
I think that’s when the free products (i.e., “working for free”) started looking good. Finally, my chance to have something to show for all of my hard, unpaid work. “No, honey, I didn’t make any money this month. But look at the sunglasses/gadget/vitamins/laundry detergent I got for you!”
And the free stuff? The daily visits from UPS and FedEx? It was intoxicating. It made me feel important. “Look at all this stuff for ME!” “I have klout! I’m an influencer! I know it because the box says so!”
The more free stuff I got, the more unpaid posts I was obligated to write. The more time I spent writing product reviews, the less time I had to write about running, or motherhood, or the things that I actually love. And the less I wrote about the things I love, the more diluted and unfocused this blog became.
I knew that the paid opportunities would come when my audience grew, but my audience wasn’t growing. Sure, I was getting compensated with products – but I was settling for short-term gains instead of building a foundation for long-term success. Things were getting out of hand.
New Year, New Focus
By the time January rolled around, I knew it was time to make some changes. I needed to make this space mine again.
I cut way back on product reviews. Now when I decide to review a product, I’m careful to choose things that are consistent with my brand and relevant to my audience. No more agreeing to review something because I maybe have a friend who can use it, or because I’m afraid to say no. I also try to avoid reviewing things that I dislike – not brand-specific, but general categories like protein powders or energy drinks. If I wouldn’t eat, wear, or use it in real life, you probably won’t see it here.
And most importantly, I’ve started focusing on writing blog posts that aren’t product-centered. I mean, if I’m going to work for free, I’m going to write for ME.
Beyond writing for myself – yes, I do still work for free – sometimes, under certain circumstances. Interestingly enough, those circumstances are similar to the ones that I listed a year ago:
1. If I’m writing in exchange for a great product.
2. If I’m writing in exchange for a product that I think will appeal to (and help expand) my audience.
3. If I’m participating in a blogger event that will benefit my blog by increasing my UMVs and/or social media reach.
4. If I’m collaborating with a friend or a PR rep with whom I’ve worked before.
5. If I’m building a relationship with a brand that I admire and respect.
Pass It On
I’m no expert on monetizing a blog, but I do have a few things that I want to pass on to new (or newish) bloggers who are in a similar position to the one I was in a year ago – bloggers who want to monetize but feel that working for free is their only choice.
1. My 3 most popular posts were all unpaid:
#1 – I Survived the 3 Day Refresh (and Hated Every Minute of It) is a review of a product that I purchased myself. With my own money. Best $80 I ever spent.
#2 – That One Time I Tried Oil Pulling (Part 1) is an unpaid post about a $15 product (which I received for free). This post brought in a huge amount of traffic after the brand posted my review on their Facebook page.
#3 – 10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before My First Half Marathon was based entirely on my own experience and was not related to any product or brand.
These 3 posts alone have brought in at least 1/3 of my all-time traffic, and I didn’t receive a dime for writing any of them. Don’t dismiss opportunities just because you’re not offered money.
2. Don’t get dazzled by the free products. Opening packages is fun, but try to remember that those products aren’t really free. PR reps don’t send us boxes because we’re super awesome and they want to be our BFFs. I think it’s important to reframe this whole idea of “free” stuff. Your time is not free. Neither is your blog space. Resist the temptation to say yes to something just because it’s free. Only agree to write what you WANT to write.
3. But also resist the temptation to automatically say NO to something just because it’s unpaid. As you get to know your audience and study your analytics, you’ll be able to make educated guesses about the type of posts that will be successful. Take that $15 bottle of pulling oil, for example. I agreed to review it because it was a product that interested me, and I believed that I could present it in a way that would interest my audience as well. If I’d said no just because it was an unpaid post, I would have missed out on literally thousands of new readers.
4. Learn what works, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. I’ll be honest – I haven’t mastered the art of pitching for sponsored work yet. Every paid job that I’ve gotten so far has either been one that I applied for (via a 3rd party) or one that the brand presented directly to me.
But I’m learning that there are ways to optimize unpaid work. For example, my product reviews/giveaways generally get read far more often than stand-alone reviews. So when a company asks me to review their product, I’ll ask them to include a second product for a giveaway. Nine times out of ten, they say yes.
I’ve also learned not to assume that a brand is going to promote my post about their product. This seems like a no-brainer to me (I mean, win-win, right?) but it’s really not. I’ve worked with smaller brands that are incredibly supportive on social media, and I’ve worked with larger brands who won’t share my post at all – not even one measly tweet. It’s frustrating because the tiniest bit of effort on the company’s part would go such a long way.
Anyway, my real point is that I’ve learned to address this issue up front. I’ve started just asking directly. “Will you share my post on your social media outlets?” Of course, this doesn’t mean that they’ll actually follow through, but it’s always good practice to be open about my expectations.
5. There is enough work to go around. You know that Facebook post I mentioned earlier? The one that mocked bloggers who work for free? I think it still bugs me so much because I just don’t get it. I mean, sure, I suppose in theory we could all band together and refuse to work for free. (Bloggers unite! Go team!) But you know who would lose out in that scenario? New bloggers. Bloggers with a smaller audience. Bloggers like me, this time last year.
When a “big” blogger gets angry because a “small” blogger accepts free work – well, I think that’s kind of like a company executive complaining that an entry-level employee didn’t demand a higher salary – and claiming that the lower salary is skewing the company’s average and ruining the economic climate for the entire company.
Apples and oranges, my friends.
An entry-level employee knows that she’s there to learn the business, to develop her skills, and to build her resume – and in some cases, to move up the corporate ladder. All in due time.
So here’s what I think.
If you don’t want to work for free, then don’t! There’s no need to snark on other bloggers. If you feel that an opportunity isn’t right for you, decline it – and then consider sharing it with a blogger who might be grateful for the lead. Share your knowledge. Lead by example. Be the kind of person who lifts other people up.
If you want to work for free, then do it! Ignore the mean girls (and boys) and do what’s right for you. Remember that most of us want to see you succeed. And unless I’m way off base here, most of us don’t care if you review 100 free products a month. Your blog, your time, your life. Go for it. You do you.
Or maybe that’s just me.