Why I Work for Free and Wil Wheaton May Be Incorrect
This post isn’t a debate, and I’m not trying to start an argument with Wil Wheaton and his post, you can’t pay your rent with the unique platform and reach our site provides. Wil Wheaton is an established brand with a significant following. He’s worked hard to develop his audience and community – hence the outcry and agreement with his stance.
Wil Wheaton was polite in his response. He was also brilliant to do it publicly… taking on evil, exploitative capitalism these days is all the rage. But most of us aren’t Wil Wheaton. Most of us are attempting to grow our reach and audience and willing to invest in doing that. Opportunities to reach an audience like HuffPo has been, in fact, an investment. Instead of paying for advertising, the cost is to supply some of your talents.
Let’s first discuss that mammoth, capitalist beast called the Huffington Post. Martech Zone continues to have double-digit growth year after year. After a decade online, the blog continues to attract great clients to our agency, Highbridge. Direct revenue growth is good, but Jenn (my business partner) and I know that we have to continue investing in the blog to provide a revenue stream that can lead to profitability for the publication.
When the publication does reach significant profitability (excluding the agency work), people may respond the same way to us regarding guest writers and submitted content. We publish quite a few posts each week from guests when we believe that our audience will benefit from the content. We don’t compensate those companies or individuals, either.
We don’t compensate guest authors (yet) because we’ve invested over a decade in growing our audience. I invest at least a quarter of my time every week in reading pitches, communicating with companies, evaluating platforms, doing podcasts, ramping up our video program, reading books, attending events and paying for the platforms that support our publication. I’m afraid to think of what that time is worth… I value it in the millions. I couldn’t pay my rent with that investment, either!
Was Wil Wheaton able to pay the rent with his blog post about Huffington Post? I don’t believe so.
Our audience is of value. We’ve paid for that reach in thousands of hours and thousands of dollars in direct investment and promotion. Payment to our guest authors comes in the opportunity to build their authority with our audience and attract them to engage with them for business reasons. Companies who have invested in writing great content with us have realized indirect revenue from those posts. So, while I haven’t paid them for the content, our audience has
For those of us who aren’t famous and are continuing to work hard to grow our authority and reach online, the opportunity to reach and attract an audience someone else continues to invest in is an excellent opportunity. I don’t believe it’s exploitation at all… it’s a mutually beneficial opportunity where the advantages can be negotiated.
The fact is that the PR professional that reached out to Wil Wheaton was paid for. So HuffPo is spending money to solicit celebrities like him. I believe Mr. Wheaton may have been able to negotiate an agreement where he would have benefitted – both directly and indirectly. Here are a few ways:
- Book Promotion – Mr. Wheaton is an accomplished author. Perhaps he could have negotiated free promotion of his book across the Huffington Post’s vast audience. It could have been done with relevant calls-to-action on some categories or topics, or even requesting that Huffington Post reviews the books in trade. That could lead to quite a few book sales!
- Calls-To-Action – Mr. Wheaton may have been able to negotiate a call-to-action within his Huffington Post bio that encouraged people to book Mr. Wheaton for speaking opportunities. Speaking is a lucrative revenue stream for those with celebrity status like Mr. Wheaton.
- HuffPo Events – Along with HuffPost Live, Huffington Post also promotes and sponsors a number of regional and national events. Perhaps Mr. Wheaton could have negotiated the ability to be a paid celebrity spokesperson at those events – and even had a book signing with each.
The bottom line is that I believe Mr. Wheaton could have easily exploited an organization like HuffPo to drive a lot of attention, audience, and – ultimately – revenue to him. And that revenue does pay the rent!
Why I Work for Free
I write free content on my site, I write free content for other sites where I wish to engage in their audience, and I speak for free at events that have prospects I wish to engage with. Of course I also write paid content for our clients and I am paid to speak at other events. Sometimes, we even pay our way to a national event simply to cover it on our publication. In other words, I sometimes pay just to reach the audience at those events!
Each opportunity is evaluated based on how we may benefit from the exposure and who we might network with there. Our work for free strategy has been extremely profitable for us. The expense of one event wound up in achieving a contract we would have never gotten otherwise with a national brand. That brand led to other brands. And on and on.
So, I could have been paid a few hundred dollars for a blog post. Or, I could close some business with the audience and reap tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts. Now you know why I work for free.
In fact, not only do I work for free – I often pay to work for free! In partnership with Dittoe PR, we’ve invested heavily in finding targeted, relevant audiences we wish to reach. The talented team at Dittoe PR pitches my talent to those publications to provide these opportunities. We continue to reap the benefits of that relationship – doing work for companies in those audiences we would have never met otherwise.
The Moral Authority
Do you ever help people without getting paid? Have you ever picked up litter and thrown it in the garbage? Have you ever provided a homeless person with cash for a meal? Why would you do that? We pay our government officials a significant amount of money to keep our streets clean and to help those less fortunate. We still do it, though, because it’s compassionate.
I don’t want to live in a world where people do nothing unless they’re compensated for it. As a business owner, I can assure you that I’d be out of business if that were the attitude I took. I have several of my friends that are short-sighted like this, and then I hear their frustration that their business never grows. I believe helping people first has been the greatest means of growing my business. And if I help someone for free, they often refer my business to great paying customers.
I’m not questioning Mr. Wheaton’s morals, but I do question the notion that a for-profit company is exploiting someone by asking them to provide their talent in trade. Is Mr. Wheaton exploiting the fact that Huffington Post has money despite the great risk and investment that they’ve made in building their community? They have paid and continue to pay for the maintenance and promotion of their publication – why is that ignored?
The Leading Edge
I’m reading The Slight Edge right now by Jeff Olson and his analogy is that of a farmer. Plant the side, cultivate it, and then reap the benefits. A farmer doesn’t get paid to plant the seed, he only gets paid when that seed is carefully cultivated and results in the fruit of his labor. I’d encourage everyone to plant seeds wherever it makes sense… you’ll yield a great crop once you do!
Join Us on Blab
Kevin Mullett and I are going to talk about this topic this Thursday on Blab in our next Marketing Cage Match! I hope you can join us.
Agreed. It is up to the author to decide whether they feel the exposure will compensate them for their time and effort. It is not the same as young freelance writers being asked to write for free (or at 6 cents/word, darn close to it) without getting author credit. (And I maintain those authors are vastly underpaid!)
Ultimately there is a tradeoff of value and where that line is will change over time and by publication. Even when I worked as a professional freelance writer, I realized there was a hierarchy: the more boring the work & the less the recognition for it, the higher the pay. So writing technical manuals can pay pretty well. Writing fiction often ends up paying nothing but can still be deeply satisfying for the author.
I would still argue with money being the measurement of value. Young freelancers working at 6/cents a word or darn close to it are building a resume and honing their craft. I didn’t make any money back when I was a young professional either. As you work on your craft and become better, you become more valuable. I used to work at a newspaper where designers were treated terribly and made horrible wages, but the opportunity taught them to hone their creativity, productivity, and learn platforms they never had exposure to in school. Those skills made them much more competitive in the workplace and they were able to find incredible jobs.
Just because you’re not getting paid today does not mean that you’re not building value and will be paid for that value later.