I have a bone to pick with you – and I’m looking at you, content creators and creatives.
There is always talk floating around about the right rates to get paid as a content creator, but lately, I seem to be hearing a lot more of it. How much should you charge? What is fair, and how can you make a living as a freelance creative? Yes, I know it is tough, and it takes an immense amount of juggling different projects and a whole lotta hustle (see my post here on how to get paid as a travel blogger). But I have also been on the brand side of the story – pitching creatives for various opportunities – and let me tell you, there are certainly two sides to the story. So yes, please bear with me, but I do believe that sometimes we should work for free.
At the risk of contradicting myself, I do want to start this blog post by saying that (most) content creators absolutely need to raise their rates.
On average, as a freelancer, you should be charging 30-40% more than what someone in a salary position would be earning – you are responsible for your healthcare, taxes and about a million other expenses that you need to take care of on your own. If your rates are not high enough, your life is not sustainable, and eventually, you’ll feel drained out rather than empowered by your creativity. As freelancers, we need to stand together to set standard industry rates – especially in a space that is rapidly changing and we have the power to set the tone for.
I know that it can be scary to ask for a higher rate at the risk of losing a project. But please ask yourself, Why are our competitive rates so low? It becomes more and more difficult to sustain our lifestyles if we are constantly undercutting ourselves. The truth is, there is always going to be someone out there who is just starting out and willing to work for free, even if just to build out their portfolio. So our rates should be based on our skill level, experience and professionalism – and brands should understand why they are making that investment (hint: it’s up to you to tell them). So please, for the love of God, stop charging $100 for that blog post that you know will take you six hours to put together.
With all of this in mind, I need to be clear and open and let you know: I will absolutely work for free – when the right opportunity arises.
Because I spend time working as both an influencer/content creator, as well as a representative for brands (doing influencer relations), I understand that each opportunity is different and needs to be treated as such. Content creators – yes, you should get paid, but please remember to think of how you come across to a brand who reaches out for a collaboration opportunity, and your first response is basically, “You wouldn’t ask creatives to work for free, amiright?” I understand it took a lot of hard work (and tears) to get to where you are. And I also understand that you receive a lot of emails and need to sort through opportunities efficiently (I do too), but I think that frequently, content creators are unaware of how brash they can come across.
Regardless of whether I have a budget to pay you, that sort of response just leaves an icky feeling – I wouldn’t reach out on behalf of a brand if I didn’t believe in the brand, and I would hope that there’s some alignment with the brand and yourself that makes you excited to want to at least learn more about the opportunity. An email that 1) conveys your eagerness to collaborate / why that collaboration makes sense through brand alignment, and 2) contains an inquiry on whether there is a budget, takes about two seconds to write, and also makes me excited to want to work with you. (And pssst – it’ll make me remember you for future projects as well.)
Here’s the thing: If you’re building your own personal brand based on what you love and your recommendations (hello, you travel blogger, you), but your knee-jerk reaction is to ask for compensation (often without necessarily understanding the project scope), doesn’t that technically mean that your personal recommendations could actually just be based on who has the biggest wallet?
Yes, there are about a million and one brands out there who don’t understand how to work with creatives. Yes, I know they suck. I have received far too many emails from brands requesting that I work for free for them (social media posts, blog posts, you name it), which offer the opportunity (lol) to maybe (also lol) receive some free product (how kind). No, not all emails warrant a response, and not all brands are right for you, but if there’s some sort of alignment, take a few minutes to consider the complexity past a dollar value.
I promise you, there are awesome opportunities out there to work with brands who believe in you, but they just don’t have the budget to pay for a sponsored post. Take the time to investigate these opportunities, and if these brands are something that you truly align with, find ways to get creative so you can collaborate. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t ask if there’s a budget for sponsored content (you should!), I’m just saying that if an opportunity feels exciting to you – whether it’s paid or unpaid – you should take the time to see if it’s the right fit for you and manage your time accordingly.
If you understand realistically how long something takes you to complete, how much money you need to live the lifestyle you want (and what rates you should charge to do so), then you should absolutely have the flexibility in your schedule to take on some passion projects that are the right opportunity for you.
Every content creator is different, every project is different – decide what’s right for you, and communicate all of this in a professional manner.
Here are times when I (personally) will work for free, and I will be clear by saying that I will only work on a project (paid OR unpaid) that I absolutely love:
- Press trips, especially those curated by start-ups I believe in. But please note: the content I craft will often be paid for by an outside outlet. Get creative with how you manage your income and opportunities. And remember, whenever you take something for free, communicate beforehand expectations for each party involved.
- Feature opportunities that promote me/my brand, with minimal time investment from my end. Learn to balance your time and understand which promotion opportunities will benefit you long-term.
- For myself! Most of the time, I’m not getting paid to write on my blog, but investing my time into this site allows me to build an audience and ultimately increase my value/rates. By working on projects I love, I’m investing in my wellbeing.
- For opportunities that I know will lead into paid partnerships. Sup, networking. I pick and choose these wisely, but often, some of my most valuable, high-paying and long-term clients come from me doing something small for free and showing them how that will help their company thrive. There’s no such thing as wasted energy – put positivity out into the world and that will come back to you in unexpected ways.
One of the biggest lessons I learned my first year of freelancing was that if I took every opportunity that seemed like a good fit, I would be constantly working. So please understand that while I’m telling you that there are some good, unpaid opportunities out there, you need to know how to take care of yourself before you take them.
Before you take on ANY projects for free, you need to understand exactly how much your regular rate should be.
If you haven’t done this yet, decide what your ideal salary is. Don’t be shy here. If you want to make six figures, write that out – it means you have to make roughly $8,500/month (before taxes), or around $2.5k/week (I rounded up). Hold onto that number for a moment, and now, I also want you to chart out all of your basic expenses. I’m talking rent, food, insurance, bills, student loans… basically everything you need at the very minimum to survive. Take both of those numbers (your dream rate and your ‘survival’ rate) and divide that by the amount of hours you can realistically work. I set my rate based on a 30 hour work week, because even though I work about 40 hours/week, I know that a lot of that time is spent invoicing, sending out proposals, marketing, taking classes, networking or working on some sort of free project that I know is a valuable investment. And from there, you have a range for how much you need to earn, and how much you want to earn. Understanding these numbers is the first step to living a successful, sustainable freelance career – and is also a great way to understand which passion projects we have the ability to take on.
As content creators, we have this awesome opportunity to set an industry standard for how we want to be treated. Let’s hone our craft, manage our time effectively, only take on opportunities that we are excited about, communicate clearly, and work with professionalism, grace and integrity.