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Freelance copywriting: a race to the bottom?

Freelance copywriters: what’s your worth? It’s a question that I’ve contemplated a lot over the last year. Even after freelancing for several years, knowing how much to charge isn’t easy – and it’s not an area that’s well understood by clients, either.

When you start out as a freelance copywriter, the most difficult part of the job is often finding work. If you haven’t come from an advertising agency background and can’t strike out on your own with a couple of loyal clients, how do you find those first few customers and the reassurance that you’ll be able to pay the bills while finding your feet?

The answer is often one of the following: a content mill, or a gig through Facebook.

Content mills are websites that let you bid for work; they usually take a cut – either from the writer or from the client, but at some point in the process you’ll pay something.

This sort of setup can be handy for finding your first few jobs or filling gaps in your income, but there are all kinds of rules that might restrict or penalise you as you attempt to make a living. Trust me – I’ve been there.

The second option is the one I’ll focus on today: finding gigs on Facebook.

“I found you on Facebook…”

When I started out as a freelance copywriter, I didn’t use Facebook to find work. I did use the platform to promote my services via a dedicated page but that was about it.

As the years have gone by, I’ve started getting involved in relevant groups – local networking meets, freelancing groups and copy-related collectives, too. Through these groups I’ve picked up quite a bit of helpful advice, made some contacts and found ‘opportunities’ for work.

Facebook groups have been relatively useful when I’ve been looking to promote a client, or to develop my list of contacts. As well, a couple of freelance copywriting gigs have piqued my interest – to the extent that I’ve made contact and established a connection.

I stress, though, that these gigs are few and far between – I can count them on one hand.

Many, many more of the opportunities I’ve spotted have attracted my attention – but for the wrong reasons.

A race to the bottom

Professional writers have a unique skillset. Many of us have honed our abilities for years, learning everything from the intricacies of grammar to how best to tease out the perfect quote from an interviewee.

Identifying the right voice to position a brand at the top of their market or selling a product without customers realising that our words are bait is a talent with the potential to make clients a lot of money – and something we deserve to be paid for.

When clients ask about my rates, I give them an overview and sometimes direct them here for something a bit more official. My freelance copywriting rates undercut the market but they’re right for me – I set my rates to reflect my experience and the client’s budget, bearing in mind that most of my customers are small businesses and startups.

Even so, I would never expect to be asked to write 1,000 words for a pittance of around £20, which is what I see frequently in a couple of these Facebook groups. Here are a couple of examples below:

 

What’s worse is that members aren’t permitted to express their outrage because of the group rules and threats of being kicked out, so we’re restricted to angry/amused reaction emojis.

What’s even worse than that, however, is the startling number of writers bidding for the work despite it being tantamount to slave labour.

By bidding for jobs like these, writers are essentially telling the poster that the price is OK. Not only that but by accepting these rates, freelance copywriters are undervaluing the work of our industry as a whole, setting a dangerous precedent – however unintentionally.

The only way is up

I get it: we all need to make a living. This post does not come from a place of judgement; I’ve been in the position where I’ve accepted low-paid gigs because frankly, I needed to eat, too.

Things changed for me when I started to use my network properly, rather than jumping on Facebook posts for work that would leave me burnt out and demoralised.

Many of us writers are introverts; we enjoy the solitude of a screen. Mingling is not a fun idea – at least not without a bottle of wine (each).

When I was a teenager, I suffered from crippling anxiety. I ended up dropping out of school for a while because I just couldn’t cope. I studied a degree in journalism and by the end of my three-year stint realised that I just didn’t have the mettle to do the job – I couldn’t face uncomfortable or confrontational conversations every day.

I went straight into content marketing for national brands – which was eye-opening in different ways – and later, sick of corporate bureaucracy, into freelance copywriting around my daughter.

What I’ve found is that by choosing not to become a journalist, I still have to be brave; I still have to venture outside my comfort zone and find those clients, mainly by meeting people.

The term networking still scares me and I rarely attend formal networking events. What I do instead is get talking to other creatives, local businesspeople, friends of friends… I’m gradually building up my network and now, I never have to go for those Facebook gigs. There are other ways.

Try popping into a shop you love and striking up conversation with the owner – you never know when they might need someone to help them out with social media or write some snappy product descriptions. Attend a local launch event and talk to people who can introduce you to the host. Contact local media outlets and ask them if they need a spare pair of hands, or find a friendly networking group and tag along to a free meetup.

What I hope to get across here is that we – us freelance copywriters – have value. You could work for a day (illegally) to make that £20 and feed yourself physically but will it satisfy your soul?

This article was first published on my LinkedIn page.

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