Freelancing Fundamentals: Content Mills And Their Role In Brand Building

Freelancing Fundamentals: Content Mills And Their Role In Brand Building

Content mills are nowhere near as simple as they may seem.

Preface - The Short Version

This exposition is a lenghty one, so before I get into the meat of it, I’ll summarize the key points that I’m about to cover:

  1. Content mills can be unreliable for finding steady work, depending on your area of expertise.
  2. Content writing has an overabundance of competing freelancers in the niche due to having practically no requirements for getting started, other than a solid grasp of a major language. Because of this, it’s common practice for entry-level employers on mills to prey on inexperienced writers who don’t know what they’re worth.
  3. By contrast, high demand skills are more resilient to the value-eroding effects of market saturation. These tend to require significant time investment to develop, for example, Programming and Graphic Design. Because of this higher barrier, freelancers with these skills can afford to charge more fair rates. 
  4. Content mills make it easy to commodify skills at the cost of individual value. On a mill, workers are at the mercy of review systems, and even a single negative encounter with a toxic client could result in a permanent mark against the freelancer that makes subsequent jobs much harder to land.
  5. For the aforementioned reason, I strongly advise that mills only be used to get a taste of the pitching aspect of the freelance lifestyle, or otherwise as filler between jobs — never as the lifeblood of one’s career.
  6. By building a proper portfolio (ideally on a website that you own), establishing a working relationship with repeat clients, and putting in the effort to learn how to take advantage of social networking, one can expect to see exponentially greater returns on the time invested into their careers than they would plugging away at a content mill.

Now that you have a general idea of what you’ll learn on this page, I suggest you do yourself a favor and read the whole thing anyway.

If you have any interest in freelancing — particularly as a writer — a wall of text should be the last thing deterring you from learning how to succeed.

What Is A Content Mill?

Throughout the continued growth of Freelancing as an industry, content mills have remained a perpetually relied-upon stream of revenue for newcomers and veterans alike. For many, these platforms enable them to earn a steady living, and are the foundation upon which their identity was forged.

For someone just starting out and seeking to make a name for themselves, however, it can be daunting to do so with no real online identity. That’s where sites like Fiverr and Freelancer.com come into play, offering to bridge the gap between freelancers without client networks and employers needing skilled labor that accommodates their respective budgets.

At least, that’s the promise that mills are sold on. As is often the case, things aren’t nearly as easy as others would have you think.

The viability of content mills, as with anything else in a free market, are subject to the ebbs and flows of Supply and Demand. In layman’s terms, this means that — in the case of untested, inexperienced writers trying to break into the industry — there are significantly more people who need work than there are people to provide it.

This has resulted in somewhat of a ‘race to the bottom’ on mill sites, where the lower rungs or certain niches are filled with relative unknowns undercutting one another, often to their individual detriment. They aggressively bid (Yes, many sites charge a fee for the right to apply for a job) for the chance to maybe get hired for work far below their pay grade. The light at the end of this grueling tunnel of underpaid labor is earning positive reviews that will eventually enable these fledgling freelancers to attract more selective customers with deeper pockets, to whom they can charge fairer prices.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Allow me to elaborate…

A New Kind Of Rat Race

Due to their extremely low barriers to entry, most novices seeking direction will be advised by long-time veterans to cut their teeth in mills. There’s a somewhat generational problem with this commonly touted advice, however, and it stems from said veterans existing in a bubble due to their having started their careers during the early development cycles of the major mill sites. This has rendered them partially immune and often oblivious to changes in the employment climate around them.

Again, sound familiar?

While mills may have been ideal starting points for aspiring freelancers up to around 4 years ago, since then there’s been a steady rise in the amount of effort required to establish a footing on these sites. Nowadays, one needs to meet strict requirements if they even want the right to even bid for work on certain projects. This is on top of paying for the bids themselves. Even for those who make it through the ambiguous vetting process, they are greeted with the challenge of figuring out how to stand out from the ever-increasing swarms of competition claiming to offer the same work for a lower cost.

Textbroker’s controversial ‘level’ system (Pictured below) is a good example of this.

Textbroker's level payment system.

This system has attracted much disdain from the freelancing community with numerous reports of having been penalized on the sole word of a difficult client with no avenue for recourse. This is without even mentioning their extremely low cent-per-word (CPW) rates.

Ultimately, your career on content mills will thrive or die based on the reviews you receive. Having just a few highly scored reviews with testimonials will make a world of difference between your selection rates and those of unvetted competition.

“But wait!” You might be saying here. “How am I supposed to earn reviews to help me get chosen if nobody chooses me to begin with?”

See my prior point about mills being a race to the bottom — this is the root of that problem.

Due to the prospect of having to spend months working for what can often be less than minimum wage while competing with other beginners or foreigners for work, it’s understandable why many attempt to cheat the system. It’s far from uncommon for people to resort to underhanded techniques such as buying reviews from friends and family members in order to get a jump-start. Another more legitimate route that some take is providing their services on other platforms (Such as the /r/Slavelabour and /r/ForHire Subreddits) as a funnel to their mill of choice, all for the sake of building that prized portfolio.

If all this hassle seems daunting, you’d be completely justified for feeling that way. Wanting to avoid the corporate lifestyle of unrewarding labor and time-gated raises is often a key motivator for someone seeking to get into the world of freelancing in the first place. Working through a content mill very closely reproduces the flaws of that lifestyle, and that can be a major turn-off.

All this having been said, you can still eke some value out of your time in a mill. As soul-crushing as they can be at times, mills provide the valuable service of aggregating available work into one place (One of several, to be more accurate). This makes them decent for finding clients who you could potentially establish direct contracts with outside of the mill platforms, once you get out of the purgatory that all newbies start off in. The primary challenge is getting chosen to begin with.

Thankfully, there are ways to stand out even as a complete novice, provided you have relevant skills that you’re confident in leveraging.

Portfolios - The Importance Of Showcasing Your Work

Review scores exist to assure potential clients of two things:

  • Your skills are at the level you claim them to be.
  • Your service track record is solid, with work being delivered on time and to specification.

Nobody likes gambling with their money. If you were looking to hire a long-term writer for your business and were doing so through a mill, wouldn’t your first step after typing in “Writer” be to sort the results by “Rating”?

The thing is, these deciding factors are not evenly weighted.

What people care about is their final product, and the less adjustments they have to make after paying for it to be created, the better. It’s for this reason that showcasing your skills should be your top priority when constructing your profile. It’s the first — and often last — thing that a potential client will see from a freelancer when reviewing their options, so make that first impression count.

This is where Portfolios come in.

These are what get that tab with your name on it to stay open while a client is narrowing down their final candidates. If you have a portfolio on display that showcases stand-out work within your niche, and your prices are on par with those of competitors of similar experience levels but with little (if any) samples to back up their claims, you’ll naturally attract the interest of more discerning eyes. This means having clients that are themselves more trustworthy and more likely to contact you for follow-up work (More on this in the final section of this essay). 

To summarize: If you can’t compete through reputation, do so through skill, and the reputation will come in due course.

While it may seem difficult to develop a portfolio without an existing clientbase, don’t fret; all it means is that you’ll have to provide samples based on your own prompts. Whether you’re an artist, writer, or programmer, decide on a fair number of ‘imaginary’ projects (At least 5-10) that you’ll enjoy doing and just get them done

That part about enjoying the tasks is important, as you’ll be setting a precedent for what jobs you’re chosen for. Defining a niche is a core part of your online working identity, and your portfolio is the equivalent of window-shopping for potential customers, so make your samples relevant to your skills and interests.

The Value Of The ".COM"

As an addendum to the note about building a portfolio, a website is among the most valuable monetary investments you can make for developing your brand. It doesn’t even have to be an expensive one if you do it yourself. Of course, if you’re not experienced with CSS and HTML and you don’t have the time to learn, you could always contract someone experienced to build it for you. Personally speaking, I advise not depriving yourself of the learning experience.

Having a website with your namesake as the URL — or otherwise a brand or slogan that you can work towards associating with your name — makes you significantly more memorable compared to cut-and-paste mill profiles. You have full control of what goes on your site, and get to decide whether it’ll be a simple showcase of your work or full-on blog, the latter of which can be its own best prompt for content creation. All this adds legitimacy to your brand, because it shows that you’re more than just another faceless mill drone.

One of the biggest perks of owning your own website is having the ability to advertise the rates that you deserve, and better yet; there won’t be any middle-man between you and the client to demand a cut.

What Rates Should I Set?

Figuring out what you’re worth is a stumbling block I frequently see newer freelancers struggling with. Almost invariably, their question can be summed up as the following:

“Can I really get away with charging this much for my time?”

The issue with this approach to the question is that it focuses on being paid for time invested, when instead you should be charging for results.

Let’s say you have a writing task with a deadline of two days before the first draft is reviewed. If two writers of identical skill write an identical article for this task, but one does the job in one hour while the other takes three, does this mean that the latter should receive triple the payment? Conversely, does this mean that the writer who got it done in one sitting rather than staggering his workload is entitled to more than his competitor, even though they both put in the same amount of overall effort?

The answer is ‘No’, on both counts.

Unless specified via contract, this isn’t a salaried profession where you’re paid by the hour. Rates should directly reflect the value you place on your work, and your job is to assure your clients that these two elements are aligned. Remember that, as a buyer, the price of a product is often directly associated with its quality. If you undervalue yourself as a writer, clients will as well.

When it comes to informing clients of your rates, there are numerous Psychological techniques worth employing. At the risk of going off-topic, I’ll only focus on what I consider to be the most important one for negotiating rates:

Remember that price is always relative.

This relativity doesn’t simply refer to what others may be charging, but what the client will get out of the investment versus what it costs them.

It goes without saying that if a product has a net positive return on investment (ROI), then it will have inherently higher value than one that generates no returns whatsoever. Ergo, the profitable product will seem less expensive despite potentially costing more up-front. This means that once you can assure a significant ROI relative to your price, you won’t ever have to worry about hard-selling your services.

Of course, you can still opt for cheap (or even free) introductory services for the sake of self-promotion. In this case, don’t worry about low initial rates too much (Though try to avoid dipping below 1 cent per word at the absolute minimum). It’s common practice in almost every niche within this industry to enter a working relationship at a low, provisional rate, and raise rates to a self-determined baseline after a set amount of time has passed — usually after the expiry of the initial contract.

On the topic of contracts…

Owning Your Work

This relates almost exclusively to content writing. When it comes to entry-level work on mills, many clients will explicitly deny authors the right for a byline on their work. What this means is that content will not be attributed to the original creator, but instead the person purchasing the finished product. This is known as Ghostwriting.

For creators that offer graphic design or programming services, they have the benefit of being able to list their mill work on their portfolios alongside their privately contracted creations. If their prior clients go on to do great things while using these commissioned logos, applications, or what-have-you, this is a good thing for the original creator, as their names are now associated with brands that have weight and recognition.

When it comes to content writing, on the other hand, being able to claim authority on a subject begets consumer trust, and this is the driving force behind sales for countless online and print publications. This is why, on top of typically low contracting rates, content flipping clients will disavow any ownership of the finished piece by the writer. In this manner, it’s easy for mill writers to find themselves looking back on months of work with scant few real samples to add to their portfolios.

Don’t let this be you.

Ghostwriting is a perfectly fine niche to have, provided you’re being adequately compensated for it. If not, you’re doing yourself a disservice by delaying your long-term growth for minimal returns. Take a hard stance on which jobs you accept while you’re just starting off, as you’ll find it very difficult to build your career if you give up rights to everything you produce.

Moving On Up

Throughout this introduction to content mills, I’ve emphasized the importance of managing what you invest into them. Always bear in mind what you’re looking to get out of the mills, and compare those goals with other, more efficient avenues.

Are you looking for an impression of what it means to pitch, to be rejected, and the process of handling a job once accepted for it? That’s all well and good. First-hand experience is never a bad thing to have.

If you’re planning to use mills for more than just that introductory experience, however, then ask yourself the following questions:

Do you intend to use mills as your primary form of income?

It’s still entirely possible to do this, but bear in mind that unless you’re entering a low-competition niche, then you’ll be facing a saturated job market and have your work more than cut out for you climbing the ranks. There’s a reason that for every content mill success story you find, there are scores more complaining about career burnout.

So long as you keep your expectations in check, proper marketing backed up by a trained skill-set can enable you to earn sustainable income on a monthly basis, and with far less time invested than a traditional day job. Just be prepared to be in it for the long haul if you want more than that using mills as your sole source of revenue.

Do you plan on using them as a stepping stone to individual contracts?

This is in my opinion the ideal approach when working with mills long-term.

If your final destination as a freelancer is to earn a living while being unburdened by traditional employment and the culture that comes with such arrangements, your end-goal within a content mill should be to eventually transition from gig-hunting to a client-focused approach. You’ll only be able to accomplish this by utilizing a personal network of clients which you’ve curated, and time spent in a mill can quite often be leveraged to work towards establishing this network.

This is the true value of content mills: They simplify networking.

Long-term working relationships are the bread and butter of most veteran freelancers, and if you can secure one or more direct-service clients that provide regular work, you’ll be that much closer to financial freedom.

Deciding which mills to join

That Wasn’t A Typo.

Mills. Plural.

When I first took up freelance writing, my initial investigations on the subject and where to get started resulted in Google steering me towards mill sites. Near the top of the first-page results were Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com, just to name a few. One major misconception I developed from taking all the advertising at face-value was that I’d have to decide on a single mill and commit to it, making it my sole base of operations for finding work. 

I wasted no time in trying to narrow down which one had the largest clientbase, what requirements (if any) existed to becoming accepted, and what percentage of my income would be taken as a cut. Once I had my answers, I’d go all-in with that platform and making a name for myself there.

Thankfully, before I’d gotten too far with this misguided pursuit, a friend of mine who’d been freelancing for years longer than I have stopped me in my tracks and gave me some simple but — in retrospect — obvious advice regarding how to approach mills:

When hopping on the content (tread)mill, join as many as you can. Limiting yourself benefits nobody but the mill.

Think about it: As someone shopping around for the right person for the job, you’re unlikely to just stop at the first site you come across. Why should the person selling their service do the same?

There’s nothing stopping you from applying to as many platforms as you can juggle. The vast majority of your engagement with a platform will be during your initial application/account creation. After that, the only difference which mill listings you’re browsing will make is the color of the respective tab you have open.

In that initial search for your first job and subsequent review, your chances of getting noticed at random will be significantly improved by throwing everything you have at every wall you can find. After you get that critical first job, you can decide whether you want to invest more time into a single platform, or keep your feelers spread wide for other opportunities.

Closing Comments

A word for those of you who are here because you’re considering freelancing as a career, but are still unsure of which niche to focus on:

If you have multiple talents (Or are otherwise a blank slate looking for an in-demand skill to teach yourself), you can get an idea of what’s in demand by looking at the affiliate marketing rates of mill platforms. These reflect the average earnings of the general categories of freelancers. By extension, higher pay indicates less competition, so having some degree of expertise in more exclusive fields can be a valuable asset, even if this is limited to purely theoretical knowledge.

This is the internet. You can learn practically anything here, provided you invest enough time into it.

Having said that, I’ve written an introductory essay on the world of Freelancing. In it, I discuss a number of evergreen careers worth considering by those who’ve yet to settle on a path. It should make for a decent starting point for making up your mind.

Whatever your goal; figure out what you want to do, apply the strategies discussed in this article, and approach these platforms with an understanding of what they are. I’ve laid out all the potential risks and how best to mitigate them — it’s up to you to decide how you put that knowledge to use.

Further Reading

This marks the conclusion of my exposé on content mills. I hope it proves helpful in deciding the direction of your career.

If you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve written about, the “Articles” page contains every educational piece on this site, organized by category.