How Much Should You Pay For Content?

Underwood keyboardMarketers often ask how they can train engineers and technical people to blog, podcast and otherwise engage in deep online conversations with customers. My advice: don’t bother. You’re better off investing in professional communicators and teaching them what they need to know about your business.

The ability to communicate well in any media demands a certain amount of innate ability and it’s a difficult skill to teach. The technology trade media learned this long ago, and that’s why they have hired professional journalists to fill their pages for the past 75 years. It’s a lot harder and costlier to train  technology experts to write than it is to teach writers what they need to know to about technology.

So if you’re going to create your own blogs, white papers, e-books and such, you should probably use professional communicators to help you do it. What’s that going to cost you? Like most things in life, it depends.

Media Dividend

The rapid decline of mainstream media (more than 45,000 journalists have been laid off in the last five years in the US) has put a lot of good communicators out of work, and many can be had today for pennies on the dollar compared to what they made a few years ago. I recently noticed a bylined article by a veteran Wall Street Journal reporter on a Cisco promotional website. And I’ll bet he was happy to have the work.

The cost variable is the level of technical skill you need. If you’re in a consumer industry where the necessary level of technical knowledge is quite low, decent freelancers can be hired for as little as 25 cents/word, although the norm is between 50 and 80 cents. Demand Media, whose formulaic, keyword-driven approach to topic selection enrages many journalists, is rumored to pay as little as $.10 per word.

A word on words: Freelancers are usually paid by the published word. It seems an odd metric, but it’s the one that’s been used for decades and will probably persist until somebody comes along with a better one. Payment is based upon the published word, not the number of words the writer submits. You should always specify an upper limit.

Many journalists who were making $60,000 to $80,000 salaries working for newspapers a few years ago are happy to work for $35,000-$40,000 today. Any journalism pro should be able to produce 2,500 words/week for you. Do the math to figure out if it makes more sense to hire or freelance, remembering that a full-time employee carries less administrative overhead – but more overhead cost – than a loose staff of contractors. If you’re negotiating for basic, off-the-shelf freelance help, start with a 30 cents/word offer and work from there.

The higher the level of technical expertise you need, the more it’s going to cost you. In the computer industry, which is what I know best, $1 to $1.50 is the going per-word rate for marketing-commissioned pieces these days. I imagine that in a highly technical field, like bio-engineering, the rate is even higher. The fewer options you have, the more you’re going to pay.

Where Writers Hang Out

“I once commissioned a story from a freelancer who had an impressive portfolio of published work, but who apparently had also worked with some outstanding editors. The piece she turned in was such a disaster that I almost cried.”If you’re looking to hire professional journalists, sites like JournalismJobs, WritersWrite and MediaBistro are good places where writers hang out and look for assignments. There are several large groups of freelancers on LinkedIn, including The Freelance Writers Connection with 5,600 members. Search for others.

If you’re more of a risk taker, sites like e-lance,, and iFreelance are places to fish for talent. Try posting your needs and what you’ll pay and see who responds. Be sure to ask any prospective writer for samples of his or her work in your field of expertise. You do not want to pay a freelancer to learn your business on the job.

Hiring freelance help blind is a risky affair. Published samples won’t do you any good. I once commissioned a story from a freelancer who had an impressive portfolio of published work, but who apparently had also worked with some outstanding editors. The piece she turned in was such a disaster that I almost cried. I spent more than four hours trying to turn it into something that was at least publishable, hoping that nobody would actually read it. Moral of the story: ask for raw copy, not clips.

Going the Full-Time Route

Ginny Skalski

Cree Lighting blogger and former newspaper reporter Ginny Skalski

If you can afford to hire a full-timer, I highly recommend it. Journalists are quick learners by nature and their time to productivity is short. Staffers turn out more content per dollar than contractors, and you don’t have the overhead of legal documents, busted deadlines and flaky freelancers who simply disappear in the middle of the night

If you choose to hire a journalist as a corporate blogger, you’re in good company. Among the brands I know that do so are IBM, HubSpot, Eloqua, JetBlue, Cree Lighting and Sybase. I’m sure there are many more. Every single journalist-turned-corporate blogger I have met is happy to be out of the burning building that is mainstream media and into something with a manageable lifestyle and a boss who isn’t a screaming maniac.

If you prefer to go the freelance route, stick with a small group of reliable freelancers rather than playing the field. They’ll learn your business and require less hand-holding the longer you use them. They’ll also go the extra mile for you when you need them. Freelancers treasure steady work more than high pay. Most would rather work for a handful of reliable clients then constantly bid for the highest dollar. Paying within two weeks, rather than the corporate-mandated 60 days, will make you their best friend.

Final Note: Be Reasonable

I’ve been writing for BtoB magazine for nearly six years, some of it paid and some not. Like many media organizations, they pay less than any of my commercial clients, but I always put BtoB at the front of my priority list. Why? They’re just such damned reasonable people to work with.

Freelancers know that $2/word is no bargain if they need to produce 8,000 words and four rewrites over three months in order to get approved and paid. BtoB and I work so well together at this point that there is very little waste in our interaction. I actually make more money per hour working with them than I do with some corporate clients who pay considerably more.

The moral: The easier you are to deal with as a client, the better deals and favors freelancers will cut with you. This doesn’t mean dropping your standards, but the next time you’re ready to ship a draft back to the writer for a fourth revision in order to move two paragraphs around, you might consider just making the change yourself.


16 thoughts on “How Much Should You Pay For Content?

  1. Content is king. Production of good content is now key to not only onsite SEO but also offsite without good content it will be lot more difficult to acquire some good links, or promote a corporate blog. and it is true that it is faster (way faster) to teach your business to a copy writer than to teach how to write to an engineer or even a sales guy.

  2. Hi,

    Interesting piece. I am a former tech journalist – formerly well-paid, anyway – and I have some thoughts about your thoughts:

    I can tell you from personal experience that too many corporate types believe that writing, as such, is actually a relatively worthless task. They believe that in fact, everyone is able to write – well enough, anyway – and that therefore this kind of work is not worth paying so much for. After all, it’s now so easy for anyone to start blogging about this technology or that, so why pay for “real” writing about same? Most corporate blogging jobs are simply a way to get copy to appear online under the byline of some busy executive. It’ s less about “communicating” than it is about showing the flag, gaining attention for the brand, feeding Google, keeping a hand in the game, showing that the company is hip to social media, offering a target for others’ links, etc. etc. Very few eyeballs are anticipated, only other machines. Sure, some corporate blogs actually matter, but lots of them are fluff. Or, they use some journalist mainly for his or her name and reputation, not what they actually have to say or how they say it.

    That, or the corporate marketeers expect their writers-for-hire to be instantly up on some complex new technology, and even more important, on all of its related jargon and all the nuances of how to employ that jargon. Again, this reflects a deep misunderstanding of what truly good writing is.

    You might be interested to know that at 10 cents a word, Demand Media is paying high! I have discovered a content farm called Interact Media that pays as little as seven tenths of a cent per word -$0.007 ! – for anonymous blog copy and evidently, there are more than a few scribes willing to work for such micro-peanuts.

    Of course, this radical commodification of the journalistic word could have been predicted long ago by anyone reading Karl Marx. Capitalism gets its way with every form of production. Soon enough, we can be sure, robots will be writing – and no doubt consuming, too, on behalf of extra-busy execs – more or less stylish texts (with all the right keywords and SEO blah blah). Indeed, they’re already doing a great deal of copy-editing. And we all know what happened to type-setting.

    Someone, I read, already has developed a program that automatically writes local sports stories for newspapers; it’s able to make sentences about the facts of this run and that basket and by comparing them to historical stats about the team and players come up with a reasonably engaging narrative. (I am not sure what input it requires, but nothing, I am sure, that a reasonably attentive teenager could not supply.)

    How long can it be before tech stories, especially, get written this way? After all, if we’re honest about it, the golden past we all pine for was really one of writing essentially the same story over and over: “XYZ Corp. last week unveiled/promised a new computer/gizmo/product/system/component that is faster, smaller, and cheaper than others. Deliveries are planned to begin on Date-TK. Competitor A looks most threatened while competitor B dismissed XYZ’s product as missing Features 1, 2, and 3. “This could be a real revolution,” said analyst/consultant-TK. “But only time will tell.”

    In short, we’ve all been gleefully riding the curve of Moore’s Law, the larger consequences of which have finally bitten us in the rear.

    Disintermediatedly yours,


  3. The Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA) represents more than 340 veteran journalists – writers, editors, videographers, photographers, film producers, copywriters, bloggers and more.

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    Contact POMA for writer recommendations. E-mail lldovey @ professionaloutdoormedia . org

  4. Agree, we still need them. They are well-trained communicators. To teach another person how to communicate is waste of time compared to hire a professional one.

  5. Great article, Paul. As a freelance writer who has survived in this atmosphere so far, let me offer my two cents.

    The proliferation of content farms and the decimation of the journalism profession has indeed created a buyer’s market when it comes to writers. But I insist on being paid a decent rate. I’ve spent more than 25 years covering technology, business and public policy, and have won many editorial awards, so I have a strong case for selling my expertise. My job is to find the people who really need my expertise, rather than just a writer, and to convince them that they get what they pay for. I’ve also spent more than half of my career as an editor, so I know how valuable a good freelancer can be. A good freelancer not only writes well and follows the specific directions she is given (as an editor, I was always astounded at the inability of some freelancers to follow basic guidance), but she also needs to be able to do the opposite: work with vague, general assignments from editors or marketers who either don’t know what they want or are not very good at communicating it. She needs the background and experience to know how to gather and digest information and to be able to shift gears (in consultation with the editor/marketer, of course) if the information doesn’t fit with the original notion (if there was one). This is one of the most valuable things that I bring to an editor or marketer. I’m not an automaton spewing words, I am an expert researcher and analyzer of information with a real talent for presenting that information to a particular audience. I’m really an editorial consultant. If they aren’t willing to pay for that, then they need a different writer.

    I blogged about this for the American Society of Business Publication Editors: I’m not making a fortune, but so far this approach is paying the bills.

  6. I appreciate your comments, John, and you’re right that search engines have, to a certain extent, devalued quality journalism. Operations like Demand Media and Interact Media are simply responding to an opportunity in the marketplace, but I wouldn’t view them as a harbinger of things to come. The type of work they do didn’t even exist five years ago.

    Your point about automation is also an interesting one. I’m sure that technology will make it possible for formulaic information to be reported by robots. One local newsweekly in Connecticut last year experimented with producing an entire issue written by hired hands in India. Most of this is stuff that interns and low-paid stringers produce now. Technology and outsourcing will displace the low end of the market and we have to accept that. However, that doesn’t mean good writing will be any less valuable.

    I’m optimistic. With so many people now producing content, the challenge (and cost) of creating great content that engages the reader is greater than ever. I made this case in my BtoB magazine column early this year. It’s not enough just to have a blog any more. You need to have compelling, creative, engaging and original content to rise above the noise. I told marketers that they should prepare to spend more on content in the future because quality is going to be the new battleground. I firmly believe that. Good writers will have plenty of opportunity in the future, and very good ones will be able to make more money freelancing for corporations than they could on the staff of a newspaper or magazine.

    Don’t give up hope!

    This won’t save journalism as we have known it, but it should present opportunities for good writers to earn a decent living.

  7. You’re going about it the right way, Tam. For one thing, you have a specialty, and that automatically raises your value. For another, you help your clients to make smarter decisions. Marketers aren’t editors, and their ideas for a blog entry, e-book or white paper can often by improved with the help of an experienced writer who understands approach, voice and packaging. Many marketers these days just want words, and they can buy those more cheaply than ever. A few – and I believe a growing number – realize that words are no longer enough. Freelancers can learn from your advice.

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  9. Paul, I often agree with what you have to say. Heck, I’m even using your new Social Media to Business for my Marketintg & Ecommerce class as WPI this fall. Nice work! But I have to speak up on this one. I agree there’s a problem with undervaluing good content. But you’re not helping matters here. For highly technical industries, you’re misleading people by recommending a pure journalist. I’ve spent over 20 years marketing to the technology, manufacturing, & automation markets. We’re talking complex systems here: smart sensors, real-time data acquisition systems, CAD software, specialized materials, etc. all being sold to engineers & researchers. I’ve learned the hard way — from past hires and misfires — that you can’t put a journalism major into this kind of white paper writing role. When you’re selling to techies, you have to talk at their level. It takes knowlege of the markets AND the customers AND an ability to write well to pull this off and truly add value.

  10. Hey Paul, how are things? It has been a while. I am a little late to this party.

    I have advised companies about another approach that works well for those people with expertise but who are not good writers. 1) Have someone interview the in-house expert and record the audio of the interview. A good interviewer should be able to tease out some great content in a half hour conversation. 2) Then have the audio transcribed. I use a service which is about $30 to transcribe a half hour conversation. 3) Then, working with the expert, have a skilled editor work with the word file of the transcript to make an interesting blog post. Several interviews can be made into an ebook.


  11. As a freelance B2B IT copywriter who used to be a tech journalist while working for the Man your post makes some good points.

    I agree with another commenter that writers are not given the respect they deserve. While I don’t have any personal experience yet I have heard countless stories of other writers who bemoan this fact.

    As writers, we can’t really change that. But if we bring other skills to the table we can tip the balance in our favor. With content marketing becoming even more ubiquitous I believe that writers will need to become content marketing strategists. We need to know what works in marketing and what bombs. We need to be familiar with buyer personas and the sales pipeline. We also need to keep up with new communication platforms and the business environment of our clients.

    If we reduce ourselves to merely turning out copy based on client guidelines we can’t really complain about being replaced by cheaper writers or software.

  12. I agree. Specialization is key, whether it’s in content or marketing strategy. Understand SEO, keywords, content syndication, packaging. Those are all skills marketers need and will pay for. Simply turning out words is no longer enough.

  13. Hi!

    Thanks for the post. It really can be tough to get great SEO content written at a price you can afford. I had been freelancing on-page SEO for a few years and including content as part of a package, charging 0.12c per word. This included extensive keyword research and content written by an ex-journalist and published author.

    SEO certainly is my passion now, which is why I started up SEO Content Strategy. I now have a team of six expert SEO copywriters that produce content, still at 0.12c per word. All of it is edited and moderated by myself and we’ve had glowing reports. A few larger full service internet marketing agencies have switched to us from their run-of-the-mill content writing services.

    Check us out at!

    p.s. Thanks a lot in advance for allowing the follow link. I will reciprocate if you like. Please contact me at the included email address!

  14. 50-80 cents per word? So you’re saying that the “normal” cost for a qualified writer to create a 2 page blog post is $250-400? I have an English degree from a reputable university, and what I’ve been seeing is that 10 cents per word is a “good gig”.

  15. @Saturday: Sorry to hear that. Freelance rates continue to spiral slowly downward but I haven’t heard of any that low outside of the content farms.

  16. Rates tend to change depending on the market demand but now, some lowly writers offer work at a very low price, affecting those that ask for a higher rate because they provide quality content for clients. This led to fewer offers to good writers and the depreciation of content quality on the web.

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