Blog

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.

 

**

Postscript:

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.

**

Share this article

This entry was posted on Monday, July 30th, 2012 at 4:06 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting, Digital. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 comments

  1. “Put bluntly, is it fair that the pimp takes all the money while the prostitute does all the hard work?”

    That sums it up, really.

    The thing is, if somebody is willing to do the work for so little, and the clients are happy with that standard, fine. I’ve not got a problem with people who don’t value their work getting paid pittance, or clients who don’t value copy getting any old rubbish.

    It’s all about the split and, genuinely, I’ve avoided blogging on it and kept largely out of the PCN discussion because it just makes me so angry.

    Also, for what it’s worth, the gauge of how the split works was based on the fact that I started going through the process of listing a job on that specific site that I don’t really want to promote.

    If they’re going to come forward and say ‘No, you’ve misunderstood, this is how we divide the money up’, I’ll happily listen and reconsider my stance.

    Great post.

    Stephen

  2. The irony is that low quality content doesn’t rank well. Yes, some sites are still breaking the rules and getting away with it, but the algorithms are catching up.

    I know times are lean but do you think you look professional if you are on sites like peopleperhour or odesk or these low-paying freelance outfits? If you want to work for little money (or free for exposure), you might as well work for non-profit organisations and at least do a good deed.

  3. James says:

    They’re taking a 50 per cent cut of the fee? That’s unbelievably exploitative.

    Do their clients know that when they pay, say, £30 for some copy, they’re effectively getting £15 worth of work?

    I don’t see why anyone would order copy from them if they know how little the actual writer was paid.

  4. al says:

    Hi James, while I’m unsure of the exact split and I’m sure it varies between mills, it’s been suggested on the thread linked to above that the split is actually higher in some cases — i.e. the mill earns £2 for every £1 the copywriter makes. But even 50p in every pound is scandalous.

    That’s why I suggested the idea of a “fairtrade” copy mill — as you suggest, I think it would appeal to most clients too, who want their writers to be reasonably happy (by virtue of being reasonably paid).

  5. Rob says:

    So you spent all last week crying about “content mills” and now your solution is to create another one?

    {slow clap}

  6. al says:

    Rob, since you seem to be so unwilling to engage with any of the arguments presented to you, would you be willing to confirm or deny, for the record, rumours that you drive a white cadillac and carry a swagger stick?

  7. James says:

    If the £2 for every £1 figure is true I don’t see how they can justify taking two thirds of the fee for themselves – for doing what exactly?

    Fair enough – provide cheap copy if you want but it’s the tiny proportion they give to their writers that makes this so bad.

    You have to foster relationships with your workers as well as your clients and I can’t see many writers sticking around for such a small cut – nor can I see anyone producing their best work.

    It seems like very short-sighted business sense to me – much like the unprofessional, brattish comments they leave online.

    In ten years, I’d wager they’ll look on the way they handled all this with much regret because I don’t see this succeeding for them long term if they keep acting the way they do. A bit of success now means nothing if another website can come along and offer people a better service (just ask Friendster and MySpace).

    I think a fairtrade version of these mills is a very good idea. Recognise that some clients want certain types of copy cheaper and provide it while giving the writer a living wage.

    It’s the year of the co-operatives this year so a co-operative content agency would be very timely.

  8. Rob says:

    Ha! You’ve just gone up a few notches in my brattish estimations. Nice to see despite lacking any concept of a “profitable business” you’ve at least got a sense of humour ;)

    To be fair, if you’d done any research before just jumping in feet first, you’d know that many of the jobs that go through Copify only charge a commission of £0.01 (on work that pays £0.04, exactly what you’ve suggested above).

    Sometimes we take more, sometimes less, depends on many factors built in to the simple ecommerce system we bought for £5k.

    You haven’t really presented me with any valid argument to respond too. You’ve screamed blue murder about what and how Copify operates, then suggested an “alternative” which is identical.

    @james In reply to “…for doing what exactly?

    What does any business “do” to justify making a profit?

    Do you think we’re running some sort of charity social enterprise to feel good about ourselves? Get real!

    For a planet Earth opinion on the subject, read this.

    http://blog.copify.com/post/debunking-the-myths-about-content-mills/

  9. al says:

    Rob,

    Nice to see you’ve decided to join the debate (I was wondering how many pimp jokes it would take).

    Perhaps if you spent less time swiping at us professional copywriters, brand bidding on our keywords, and employing — by your own admission — rank amateurs, and instead explained the benefits of your service, we would understand more about your business model.

    Here is why I think your business model is exploitatitve:

    1. Exploitation via unreasonable working conditions

    Regardless of the split, you haven’t refuted the most important figure — that a copywriter would “have to write 1,920,000 words each year, or the equivalent of a novel every seven days, to earn the average wage”.

    That figure alone strikes me as being unfair and unreasonable — even for low end copy.

    2. Exploitation via unfair profit margins

    I looked on your site. All it says on the homepage is that copy is available “from 3p per word”.

    Assuming you’re paying the copywriter 2p out of that, you’re still taking quite a cut — that works out to £10 every time a copywriter earns £20. Is a 50% mark-up justifiable for the amount of work you do?

    And that’s assuming it’s actually a 2p / 1p split. I can’t find anything on the publicly accessible pages of your site that says that (And for some strange reason, I haven’t signed up to your service). For all I know the copywriter is earning 1p while you take 2p per word. Hence my figures.

    Your role is fairly simple — running a site that attracts clients, processing applications, and processing payment. It’s slightly more complicated work than Paypal, who charge a 4% processing fee, but you too benefit from huge economies of scale. You’re not meeting every client, you’re not chasing every invoice… most of the process is automated. So is a 200% cut acceptable? No. Is a 50% cut acceptable? No. Is a 20% cut acceptable? Maybe. But I’d like to see you justify it.

    3. Exploitation via failing to act in the interests of your clients

    Essentially you are an agent — taking bookings and negotiating payment. However the job of most agents is to go out and fight the corner for their clients — and try to get them more money, not less.

    The solution to all this is very simple — in a free market, someone will come along and provide a better service. That service will probably pay more, take a smaller cut, and provide better quality copy than the amateurs willing and able to work for the amount you pay are able to deliver.

    TL;DR?

  10. I have to agree with Al – someone is going to come along and provide a better service, which given some of the rubbish I’ve seen churned out by content mills shouldn’t be particularly hard.

Leave a comment


Site by Spencer Lavery