Start off writing for free to get your name out there using other people’s reach. – Sounds good, right? In this story, I’d like to tell you my experience with freelance portals for writers and with bad clients, so that you can hopefully avoid them.

As a writer and blogger, I’ve stepped into every dog-doo imaginable while acquiring customers. Let’s step into the time machine and have a look at the biggest debacles, shall we? Careful, it’s not exactly G-rated.

Also, I should note that I’ve started mostly writing in German. So, many market places weren’t part of the equation for me yet. Just keep that in mind. The German market – as far as I can tell – is to this day far behind the anglophone ones. Still, some of the advice I can give you looking back may apply to your situation, whether you’re a native speaker of English or not.

The axis of evil: Freelancing portals

Since you can find testimonials on portals like freelancer.com and Upwork throughout the blogosphere, I’m going to assume that I’m not alone here.

Like so many writers before me, I – in my first euphory – thought that these markets and portals were designed to approach freelancers’ needs and that they selflessly simplified customer acquisition. Of course, without ripping us off or slapping miserable work conditions on us. Like angels descending from commission Olympus, handing us a magic potion dispersing all ailments of acquisition.

I know, the world looks different through the enthusiastic rookie’s rose-colored glasses.

In the hope of winning more customers, I even worked through tests. Mind you, after I had already graduated from university. So here I was, poor devil of a writer, punching answers into an English test after finishing a master’s thesis and a dissertation, so that the portal would allegedly send more lucrative jobs my way.

It turned out that these tests didn’t lead to better customers, let alone higher income. At least not for me. But in the meantime, a couple of “markets” earned their fair share of membership fees.

Leaving aside the fact that freelancers have to pay for some of the so-called “tests”! So that was the moment when that little guy in my head who keeps asking skeptical questions in my dad’s voice, kindly requested to know whether I knew what I was doing.

Let’s really savor this one slowly. You join a freelancing market and start offering your services.

The market demands that you take additional tests that will testify the exact same thing as your university’s certificates, and that will also be completely worthless on the next market.

Meanwhile, you’re paying for your market stall and, of course, for every test in new market segments in which you might be interested.

Sweet, isn’t it? Why didn’t I think of that? Oh right, I have a soul.

If I had chosen to start with the membership fees and the initial rates offered to me, I could only have covered the necessary hours by outsourcing my tasks to an Indian village.

First lesson: Don’t invest money into markets that don’t appreciate your work financially.

At least some portals seem to target copywriters exclusively. My line of thinking: “So this is going to be different. After all, copywriters won’t pull other copywriters over the barrel.”

Besides, there weren’t any membership fees so I could handle contacting and acquiring future customers any way I wanted. Nobody told me to do any of this within his or her network exclusively. Basically, a job fair as you can find them in many places, be it on Indeed, Facebook, or on niche websites.

And I actually had my first pleasant experience here. Through a call for bids, I won my first customer! It turned out; he would be faithful to me for months to come.

What was different about these copywriter portals?

Initially, I had to settle for lower rates, but that wasn’t considered to be natural. On the contrary, the admins of the first website I published on – besides my blog – offered a little expense allowance while I was getting used to their standards, procedures, and writing style.

Many copywriters wouldn’t have accepted such an offer. They would have turned and left.

But at the time, I wasn’t accustomed to acquiring customers, so it was logical to me that the copywriter had to learn the ropes and to prove himself first. Coincidently, the lower rate already surpassed the ludicrous offers I had received in several freelancing portals, marketed as “exceptionally good conditions.”

Today I can reflect on the emails with said customer, which already deviated from the ones I had received earlier.

Right from the get-go, the admins had precise guidelines for copywriters in their editorial calendars and example copy.

The procedure for my acceptance trial, if we want to call it that, was structured from the start — one pilot run, feedback by the other team members, then the regular rate.

All this information was in the first two emails. Even later, when we negotiated a new rate, working with the admin was always objective and unproblematic. I never heard him moan about a startup’s financial problems or their marketing budget.

What’s different about Brainy Smurfs?

I could think of many names that I want to call certain “clients” who unfortunately are way too common. So let’s call them Brainy Smurfs for convenience. They believe to be smarter than everybody else, after all.

By this time, I have received one or two emails by Brainy Smurfs promising “particularly enticing conditions,” “great volume,” or other marketing bling-bling.

Let’s have a look at why this works differently so that you can hopefully avoid that kind of wannabe-customer and react appropriately to their audacity.

Shiny, shiny, bling-bling-bling

I just noticed something while skimming several emails by Brainy Smurfs:

Their need to pose as particularly successful. No matter whether they already are. They know the scene, the market, and, of course, the usual conditions.

One Brainy Smurf, for instance, felt the urgent necessity to embed his Ph.D. not only in his email signature but to add the “Dr. Brainy” above it additionally.

Very professional. Too bad when you forget that your signature is already set up in your email client.

That first impression was only amplified through emails overloaded with business lingo, as in ROI and shares.

I know, not very technical, but keep in mind that I received these emails in German. The little copywriter devil popped up on my shoulder screaming: “Why can’t Dr. Brainy Smurf write his awesome copy himself? He could obviously write a thesis…”

Even in university, I liked the professors the least who attached great importance to being addressed with their title in every single sentence. That didn’t change after almost having published my dissertation.

In that particular case, it seemed as though I, the pleader, should please understand what an honor it would be to work for the esteemed Doctor. But why exactly, he couldn’t clarify.

Another Brainy went down the same path. For some reason, he wanted to be seen as the poster boy for digital nomadism. So now, the email didn’t end with “Dr. Brainy,” but with “Regards from Bucharest,” or the Philippines, or Cyprus. It changed every week.

Sure, the image of the digital nomad has gained in popularity over the last couple of years. And yes, I decided to freelance mostly because I wanted to work location-independent and to determine my own office hours.

Still, I’m only moderately impressed when a customer sends me an email from another airport every week. I’m a big fan of efficient email communication. And the information that you are sojourning in Shanghai or on Bali doesn’t contribute to successful customer relationships in my book.

Mention it in your email as soon as it’s relevant to me. To let me know when we should skype, for instance. Otherwise, I prefer only to receive this kind of information when friends and family send postcards to tell me what beach they’re currently lazing around on. Thanks, next!

“So many applicants…!”

Perhaps you’ve experienced this, too. By now, it’s grating on my ears. The go-to excuse, especially for those who later on don’t have a marketing budget, implies something along the lines of an incredible amount of bloggers jumping on the job like crazy.

“So please understand that we cannot pay you more than the average wage of a Pakistani goat herder, even after you have successfully passed our probation phase. Of course, while managing a workload that might well take up your entire week. We want to avoid that you could win other customers and possibly live off of your money, after all!”

I’m sorry, but the number of applicants is only interesting to me when it determines the application’s timing. Not when it serves as the client’s excuse for lousy payment.

It doesn’t pass as a valid argument that someone will do it for less money. Everything we achieve with that is a race to the bottom.

I am not work-shy, and I have worked the most different kinds of jobs, from teaching to wrapping bread in an industrial bakery. Of course, I understand that not every customer can pay the same for certain services. But still, to me, the first intern who worked for free deserves to be lapidated.

So don’t be naive and don’t sell yourself short. If someone doesn’t value your work now, he won’t do it in the future. Don’t talk yourself into that belief. In the end, you don’t appreciate your work if you accept offers by these unprofessional “experts.”

I kind of like what you’re up to, … and stuff like that.

The standard praise is the most obvious red flag you can find in a Brainy’s email. To say nothing of the impudence not even to take the time and research a copywriter’s name and to, therefore, start an email with “Hi,” hollow words and empty phrases are at the top of that list.

So if the next Brainy Smurf thinks that your work is “pretty nice,” or if he praises your “awesome blog,” turn around and run Forrest, run!

We have a saying in German:

“Nice is shitty’s little sister.”

Those who have done their research and who know why they’re looking for a good copywriter will ask about his or her knowledge within their niche. It’s not for nothing that the niche is the first point on a copywriter’s to-do list.

Copywriters who “can even write super-long texts super-quickly” (I’ve actually seen that kind of advertising) haven’t understood that mass doesn’t matter. It’s vital that you know your subject matter. On the other hand, a customer who just finds your blog “awesome” doesn’t show the necessary appreciation for your future tasks.

For comparison: The admin I mentioned before could tell me right away that he’s looking for a technical copywriter. Accordingly, I sent him fitting text samples for his niche, and we came to an agreement. Let those clients who are just searching for “simply awesome writers” brows around freelancer markets.

And in case you don’t want to specialize in a particular niche just yet, at least try to go meta and focus on specific text genres.

You could, for instance, make email marketing for small businesses your niche, and still be more successful than with writing anything and everything.

Unprofessional guidelines

Okay, during this paragraph, I’ll have to check my blood pressure a couple of times. Just as the standard praise, unprofessional and imprecise instructions within briefings – or no briefings whatsoever – are a warning sign that your client doesn’t think about your responsibilities and his own.

If he’s a small business owner who doesn’t know anything about copywriting or blogging, that’s not a problem. You can’t expect that every one of your customers works out a briefing for you. But if you’re dealing with a Brainy Smurf who tries to impress you with the volume of orders and his impressive reach, you should be wondering how he achieved that reach without an exact plan, shouldn’t you?

Here are a couple of excerpts from emails the last Brainy Smurf sent my way:

“First of all, SORRY! for the late answer. I’m so delighted with your email, but during the last weeks, I moved to Cyprus. Apart from that, so many cool people applied for the job. I also like what you’re doing very much!”

Yep. Glitter, glammer, bling-bling-bling. Onwards…

“Please write an article for us on “topic XYZ.” We have already defined the attached keywords through several analyses. Please aim at especially building the strong ones into the text often, but reasonably.”

Because that’s precisely what copywriters and bloggers are. Typing keyword chimps. Okay, moving on…

“We have already set up the structure for your text. Please use the headings you’ll find in the attachment and fill them with life.”

Life… Okay. Should I write it formally? Informally? Florid or business style? Well, at least I have some formal guidelines. I’m not working my way through the darkness, right?

“For now, I don’t want to give you any guidelines on word count, but please make sure that your content is on point.”

Genius, isn’t it? On point, but we didn’t actually think about your content’s length! I was inclined to send back an empty page with one bullet point. But it gets even better.

“To avoid misunderstandings: We’re working with several copywriters who are writing work samples for us, to see whether it’s a match for us. And for you, of course. So feel free to give us feedback anytime!

Compensation will only take place once we can actually use the work sample. It has to be seen whether we’ll compensate you and to what extent.”

I sense Brainy Smurf.

“So great that you also want to battle for cooperating with us. Understandable, too, since we’re so mega-ultra-successful. Whether we’ll pay you depends on our mood and good old chemistry. Don’t feel like it? There are a thousand other copywriters behind that door, eating each other over that job in my fantasy!”

It says a lot whether a blogger or copywriter shouldn’t be bothered with a piece’s style or length at first.

Who cares, after all, that you need to edit and rewrite it four times painstakingly? You’re working for free. We don’t have a clue who our target group is, and we’d just like to occupy you for a week, to begin with. Obviously, free of charge.

Such unprofessional guidelines are a sign for you that your client doesn’t have a clue about editorial routines. So whoever claims that he or she can offer you vast reach and, at the same time, doesn’t even know whether you’re addressing a young informal readership or a formal business crowd, doesn’t know what he’s doing.

If such a briefing never happens, ask up front whether you’ll get one. Otherwise, the same goes as before: Run!

“Let’s see whether the chemistry is right.”

My absolute favorite – my stomach is already churning. You probably already noticed that sentence in the example above. I admit that I fell for that scam a couple of times because the first indicators weren’t obvious enough for me.

What’s the safest guarantee to leave a copywriter to stew in uncertainty and dependency? – Right, conditioning your compensation on the chemistry.

Quite often, these clients pair this statement to vague complaints, as in this case:

“Informally addressing the reader is totally fine since we’re aiming for a young TG.”

Some input, after all. But were you really too busy to write the word target group? Anyhow, let’s move on.

“For that reason, the article could use a little pep languagewise.”

Laudable. At least, we’re thinking about style. But what would that look like, exactly? Are we addressing teenagers or readers in their mid-thirties who can’t grow old?

“Your article is very extensive, which is good in principle. But for our use case, it’s too extensive.”

Isn’t it awesome when your client comes up with his guidelines during the release? Didn’t you say that you don’t care about length one email ago?

“You can tell that you can research and write and that you like what you do.”

Isn’t that cute! Thanks. Someone who didn’t know his target group and didn’t consider a briefing necessary thinks I’m capable of doing what I’ve been doing for years. That’s soothing.

“The question remains whether we match stylistically.”

Ah, there it is! Why didn’t you say so before, Brainy Smurf?

“In the end, your text would have to be fundamentally rewritten, so you’d have to do the same work again (without getting money) and without a guarantee that we’re going to book you as a copywriter in the future. It’s important to me that we’re clear on this.”

It would be important to me to talk about the conditions at all. Ah, my mistake. There is one: No money. Without guarantee. Doesn’t any copywriter wet himself given such an opportunity?

“If you’re cool with that topic, it would be awesome if you could resent the new article once you’re done editing.”

And finally, shoot from the hip, totally smooth and cool, dude. Kudos! Bind them through intimacy. Good, Brainy, good.

Here’s my problem: To some extent, your style will always shine through in your work, and that’s the way it should be. At the same time, complaining about style is so comfortably slick and intangible, especially when your client doesn’t have a clue himself and mixes suggestions on form with those on structure or length.

To condition your contract closing on style is the most secure way to shuffle out of responsibility. Clueless copywriters and bloggers don’t know their style well enough yet and will possibly search for it their entire lifetime due to such impertinent statements.

“Let’s see whether it’s a match.” – That’s a nice idea for a blind date, for your acquisition, it’s a catastrophe.

Imagine calling a plumber and asking him to have a look at your blocked sink. But you’ll only pay him if the chemistry is right and if you’re pleased with his style. It could be, after all, that he’ll hold the pipe wrench at an angle that your tender soul just cannot stand!

But it’s essential to have a look at the details here.

As I said, I don’t have anything against demanding thorough and neat work. The problem comes up once you’re facing statements that don’t give you any possibility of improving or of knowing when your work is done.

Your client doesn’t give you any qualified feedback and therefore no opportunity to learn from mistakes. Leaving aside the fact that conditioning payment on chemistry is simply cheeky and distasteful. Whenever I meet customers like that, I love to answer with the plumber comparison. In most cases, that solves the problem right away. So feel free to use it!

“But we have such a high volume of orders!”

If only I had ten cents for every email in which an “expert” tried to lure me into a contract with the promise of high volume – I would never have to think of fair payment again.

Here, too, you can use the craftsman comparison: Try it, I dare you! Walk up to a mason and ask him to build a wall for one buck an hour. And if he starts complaining, kindly inform him that you’ll need several walls, each a couple of miles long. Of course, only if the chemistry is right.

Do you see the idiocy behind this argument?

It’s mundane that a client has a high volume of orders. That’s why he is looking for a copywriter or a blogger! Only very few entrepreneurs have the necessary time, let alone the qualification, to write their own copy.

A Brainy Smurf binding you to work on his ebooks for minimum wage as a ghostwriter is no happy chance. Fate is not knocking at your door; it’s pure exploitation. So let Mr. Entrepreneur manage his masses of copy himself. He doesn’t work for free either, after all.

When it’s still okay for me to “work for free.”

All these examples could make you believe that I won’t lift a finger if I cannot sponsor my next gilded Montblanc pen. The opposite is true. I still think there are cases when it’s acceptable, maybe even advisable, to work for free.

But there’s a difference between a client who expects free work (forever), those who want to get an impression first, and those who really can’t afford you. Helping out someone in a pinch can feel awesome, slaving away for someone who neither respects you nor your work will crush your soul.

So, here’s my last piece of advice for you to avoid just that.

Clear rules for yourself

For me, it’s crucial to set up standards these days. It’s natural that customers outside my circle of friends will pay me. Perhaps for you, it’s the timing, the place where you’ll be writing, or the amount for which some customers will ask.

But set up some rules right at the beginning so that you won’t find new excuses and explanations for lousy payment.

Otherwise, the Brainy Smurfs will eat you alive!

Have a great day! We’ll read each other.

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