July 30, 2012How to kill content mills
Content mills match cheap copywriters to cheap clients. Charging as little as 2-3p per word, they pay their copywriters as little as 1.5p per word.
- To put that in context, a 1000 word blog post would get you £15.
- Put another way, you’d have to write 8000 words each day to earn the national average wage (and that’s without taking holidays).
- Put another way, you’d have to write 1,920,000 words each year to earn the average wage. That’s the equivalent of a novel the length of The Great Gatsby every seven days.
Not even Superman can work at that pace.
I’ll present those facts without comment and leave you to judge the quality of content mills for yourself. How much thought or care or dedication do you think goes into copy written at that kind of pace?
But Ben Locker raises a very good point over on the Professional Copywriters’ Network — never mind the quality, are content mills immoral?
Are content mills immoral or exploitative?
I would disagree with Ben’s diagnosis. I don’t think any situation where people freely enter into a contract to do work at a certain rate is immoral. Unless a gun is pointed to their heads, it isn’t slavery, it’s a choice.
But it is exploitative. In fact, it’s such a classic case of capital exploiting the means of production, it could come straight from a Marxist tome of two centuries ago.
There is a place for cheap content at price-per-word rates. When someone needs a 30,000 word website that’s mostly product descriptions or space filler. Or when someone needs a lot of non-sales focused content very fast.
What there isn’t a place for is someone taking the lion’s share of the profits for doing relatively little work.
The most well known content mill attempted to justify their service by saying:
“As for the writers, exploitation? The work is there for taking and certainly not a “full time” offering. We source the work, take care of all the billing and invoicing (aka chasing invoices!) and pay out what they’ve earned every week. Ideal for anyone wanting top up their income as and when they like. Hassle free!”
Leaving aside the fact they’re freely admitting the people working there are not full time professionals, but actual amateurs, they’re attempting to justify their existence by stating that they take the “hassle” out of working as a copywriter.
It’s worth noting that several payday loans companies justify their existence by stating they “take the hassle” out of getting a loan.
They also take a huge and unjustifiable bite out of your earnings. And that’s why I think the payday loan business model is exploitative. For the same reason, so are content mills.
Pimps and prostitutes: A familiar business model
Payday loans companies charge a representative APR of about 4214%. That’s a hell of a lot of money for the “convenience” of their service.
I don’t know the exact splits in operation at certain content mills, but it has been suggested that when the writer earns £6, the mill makes as much as £12.
Even if the mill makes £3 on every £6 the writer earns, it’s still too much money for the job they do — when anyone else could come along and do the same job for less.
There’s a place for cheap content. But a business model that skims anywhere between 50% and 200% off your wages just for introducing you to clients and invoicing them for you is taking advantage of you.
Put bluntly, is it fair that the pimp takes all the money while the prostitute does all the hard work?
Nonetheless, I applaud the content mill’s entrepreneurial spirit. So much so, in fact, I’m willing to suggest a free market answer to the question of exploitation. (Sorry folks, turns out I’m not a Marxist after all).
It’s time to set up some competition.
If, as has been suggested, content mills are making up to 200% profit on every job, why not set up a rival site to source cheap low-grade content from copywriters looking to ‘pick up some slack’ in their work… and take a fair cut? Say 20% instead of 200%?
Or an alternative business model — such as a flat monthly subscription fee for being a member, with a much lower take, say 10%?
Overheads would be minimal — so the mill would still make a tidy profit. Some of our most successful businesses are mutuals run for the benefit of their employees — the Co-op and John Lewis being prime examples.
Paypal only charges a 4% processing fee, not a 50% one. Because if they tried to charge 50% a rival would undercut them in an instant.
It’s time to do the same to content mills.
Fairtrade Copy Mills?
A simple ecommerce site can cost less than £5000 to set up (If you’re interested in hiring me to do so, get in touch). Yet a content mill selling 10m words per year (that’s just five writers working full time) and taking 1p per word (20%) on a ludicrously low paid 5p per word job would earn £100,000 per year.
A content mill selling just 1m words per year at this rate would likely break even.
One person could manage the site. Even taking overheads into account, as well as adwords spend, etc — you’re probably looking at a 60k+ income just for running a site and chasing invoices.
If it turns out that it really does cost that much (50%-200%) to chase invoices and source clients, I will happily eat my words. But my instinct tells me the person doing the lion’s share of the work is getting an unfair share of the profits while the mill makes all the money for doing comparatively little.
At the moment, a certain content mill enjoys being the only “go to” place for cheap, low-grade copy. As a consequence, they’re able to use their position to drive prices down for copywriters and take a greater share of the profits for themselves.
Competition in any market is always healthy. In this case, competition would force content mills to offer better deals for copywriters while still providing cheap low-grade content for those 30,000 word product description jobs.
I’m willing to bet a fairtrade content mill run by actual copywriters that paid a better wage and took a smaller share of the profits would gain a quick foothold in the low-end content market because a) copywriters would be happier, better paid, and more invested in their work and b) costs could be kept low by taking a smaller percentage cut, while improving service quality.
In other words, don’t look at content mills as a bad thing. Look at them as an opportunity. Anyone with a few thousand pounds to spend could set up a rival site, pay better, and still earn a profit.
Entrepreneurs, over to you.
In January 2013, Copywriter Alexander Velky signed up to Copify. Despite their claims that there are no “£2 jobs” – he found one. He also discovered that they were paying 1p a word for the job. Alexander wrote about this on his blog – referencing the name of the company that posted the job, which is a breach of Copify’s T&Cs. The company asked for 200 words for £2. Alexander pointed out the pitiful wage and the fact that the content would be useless for SEO purposes. Copify got in touch threatening to sue Alexander for breach of T&Cs. He amended his post to remove references to the end client, but kept the remainder of the post. You should read it, here.
And if you’re thinking about using a service like Copify, consider this: £2 for 200 words works out at considerably below the legal minimum wage in the UK if you work out how much time is involved. While it’s not illegal (as writers aren’t “employees”) it’s certainly exploitative – and in my opinion immoral to hire someone at this rate. Pay peanuts, get monkeys.