Friday, April 16, 2010

The Freelancer and the Corporate Model

I started to write for web clients in late 2007. At first, most of my clients were smal-time entrepreneurs--individual people just like me who were trying to earn a living by setting up websites and selling products on them or generating ad clicks.

I wrote articles and product descriptions for these folks, wrote landing page copy, 'About Us' copy, and all sorts of other short content pieces for actual  human beings from all over the globe. It wasn't a great way to get rich, but it was interesting work and I met a lot of interesting people doing it. And it did pay the bills, which was very nice indeed.

I also joined a couple of revenue sharing sites when I first started writing online. In the beginning my intent was just to showcase my work so I could refer potential clients to it, and possibly even get new clients in the process. That worked out well, and after a year or so it became clear that ad revenue was a real possibility at some of these sites too, so I began to take that more seriously.

The web has changed a lot since 2007 though.

The first change is that private clients are  harder to get now and many of them are struggling. Secondly, the number of revenue sharing sites has mushroomed. (I currently belong to six or seven of them.) Earning actual money through revenue sharing has gotten a lot more difficult and most people now use these venues for social networking or to drive traffic to blogs or to their own personal web sites.

Google and other search engines are much more focused on finding a way to separate crappy content from good content and advertisers are not spending what they once did. The brief window of opportunity that allowed revenue sharing sites to profit by consolidating uncollected pennies from gazillions of amateur Internet writers is starting to close. 

Enter corporate content providers like Demand Services and Break Studios who apply the corporate model to distill what is most salable from web content, buy it from freelancers at a low but still competitive rate, and then sell it at as large a profit as possible to quality sites.

The involvement of corporate 'content farms' in recruiting web freelancers has already produced its first revenue sharing casualty: E-How.

E-How now only accepts content through Demand Studios. So, if you want to write for E-How, you have to apply to Demand Studios, be accepted, follow their stringent, productive-as-hell editorial guidelines to the letter, and start pumping the stuff out on their terms at their rates. Lots of people are mad about this, but for now it does have its advantages.

A few of the advantages:

  • If you get good at it, you can make a decent hourly wage. At least, for now you can.
  • They do pay you. Getting paid is not nothing in the world of online writing.
  • The per word rate is about double what you can drum up at the job boards. 
  • You can currently work as little or as much as you like. 
A few disadvantages and concerns:

  • Most people who get into freelancing are attracted to it because they never want to see another cubicle for as long as they live. This new trend feels a bit like being stalked by the corporate cubicle you just left. (It feels like that because it is that.)
  • The relentless focus on productively leaves little room for excellence, in depth analysis, or personal voice. Writing of this sort is always needed, but isn't much fun to read or to produce. 
  • The pay is good only if you are used to horrible pay, which most freelancers are. 
  • This trend will surely kill off better-paid subcontract work that can sometimes be found by approaching corporate public relations departments directly. Why pay a freelancer thousands of dollars when you can get the work for a fraction of that cost from a content farm?
  • Why should corporations ever create new jobs, real jobs, when they can farm out creative projects online for pennies and skip wages, bennies, retirement packages, and the like entirely?
Over the course of the last two years or so the freelance job boards have become the refuge of third world hopefuls who may not even speak English very well let alone write it well, and for sleazy web-preneurs who may or may not actually pay the teeny per word rates they initially promise.

Revenue sharing sites, which used to be kind of fun, now seem to be the disreputable lounge where all of these desperate people hang out and torment each other when no one will pay them five cents to write an article on toe fungus.

Much of the rest of freelance web writing is currently being taken over by corporations. Corporations have learned from watching freelancers that they really don't need employees at all. Temporary work, subcontract work, and freelance work is the only kind of work that is really growing in the United States right now.

It isn't just about freelance writing either. I watch the state employment site in MI and the regular job postings too, and I've noticed that even call center work and billing are now almost entirely run by staffing agencies. No one seems to hire anyone directly anymore for much of anything.

Already jobs that should be compensated as real jobs are being categorized by corporations as subcontract work in order to circumvent labor laws, unemployment insurance, and so forth. It is such a big problem right now and such a major trend that President Obama has gone after it specifically--although, considering the general political tone in the U.S. lately, I'm not expecting much.

Someone asked me just today in a forum if it is still possible to earn a living by freelancing online. The best answer is yes and no. 1) No, not a a very good living and not an easy one. And,  2) yes--and it might just be the only living available pretty soon if current trends continue.

It's ironic that a medium that started out being hailed as the ultimate in grass roots fairness and the province of the small-time entrepreneur is now falling to the same forces that gave the world call centers, cell phone contracts, and credit default swaps.

Think you are freelancing?

Think again.

Maybe you just traded your plasterboard cubicle for a virtual one.

1 comment:

Bizilady said...

hey this is a good article as always. i am following you on hubpages as well.
As far as eHow is concerned,demand studios(appropriately named) demanded so many rewrites from me that the final straw came when an editor demanded a complete re write of my bio!
i can't write for these 'farms' anymore or more like online "sweatshops".