In my role as a creative strategist with an editorial background, I often consult with clients on planning and launching new content-driven ventures, or retooling existing publications. Because “content” is so prevalent online these days – who doesn’t have a blog or at least a Twitter feed? – many managers that I collaborate seem to think that it should be easy to acquire content for free.
The problem is that no one likes to do something that seems like work for free. Or, at least not for long. In my years as a managing editor at various publications, I’ve never seen an unpaid writer stick around for long (unless they were an intern physically sitting in the company office). They may be eager to work for free at first, but quickly enough they stop returning your emails or you start to see a decline in the quality of their writing – if it was even good in the first place.
When I was recently working with a client that runs an online trends publication, I analyzed their roster of contributors and noticed that about 90% of the content was coming from 10% of the writers – yes, the paid ones – while the editor was spending the bulk of his time managing the unpaid writers.
What seems like “free” content often turns out to have a pretty high cost: it’s just an indirect one. Instead of spending money on writers, the cost is passed onto editorial in time spent on: recruitment (due to the high attrition of “free” writers), management (chasing the writers for their contributions), and copyediting (to bring their unpolished writing up to snuff).
Of course, other incentives than cold hard cash can also be used for “pay,” but to create a robust plan for publishing legitimate editorial, there must be some incentive. It could be writing an event listing in exchange for tickets, or writing a travel piece in exchange for free accommodations at an exotic location.
Typically, assuming we are talking about online content, it doesn’t take a lot of money to build a reliable staff of contributors. But if you want accountability – which tends to equal efficiency when you’re managing a team of remotely-located contributors – there needs to be some true exchange besides a byline. Not just for the writer, but to keep your own costs in line.
***This article is adapted from the research and writing of Jocelyn K. Glei, a creative strategist with expertise in editorial, design and publishing. She regularly collaborates with Scott Belsky and the Behance Team, who run the Behance Creative Network, the Action Method project management application, the Creative Jobs List, and develop knowledge, products, and services that help creative professionals make ideas happen.