Sunday, November 10, 2013

...about giving it away.


“Hey,” the email started, casually enough, one "girl" away from a Ryan Gosling meme. “We're looking for a couple designers [sic] to put together a couple of boards for us to feature on our homepage re-launching soon. Would you be interested in making a quick board for us?” 

It went on... 
"Digital design boards are super easy (my emphasis, not theirs) to make. I'm sure you've made a bunch before. We will credit you as the designer / artist and refer people to your blog or website. It's good publicity.”
It’s the kind of request with which bloggers and designers are quite familiar. But this particular request sent by email, (to me, and unfortunately, mass-mailed to over 50 recipients, all listed... talk about not feeling valued, from the start), got a swift reply from one angry recipient:
“Thanks for your email and for thinking of me.
 You are correct, I have a wealth of experience putting mood boards and working with brands to promote their social media activities...
 However, good work deserves to be paid. Time spent on a project deserves to be paid, bills that we all have need to be paid and while I'm hugely grateful for the amazing publicity working for free will give me, I do not work for free.”  
It, too, went on...
“And I think companies like yours, should stop thinking that bloggers do not require to be paid on the basis that you provide 'good publicity' because let's face it, it's complete bollocks and I sincerely hope that any of the designers, bloggers, creative people copied on your email will take pride in what they do and turn down your 'very attractive' offer to focus on paid work or quality time with their families.
Warm regards...” 
(For the record, it wasn’t I who responded. I wouldn’t have hit “Reply All," for one thing... but ANYwho...)

That response touched off a virtual volley of high fives, Amens, and you-go-girls among the many on the list who received it, who might not have responded that way were it not for the sudden empowerment of this virtual Norma Rae's "Reply All." 

We’ve all heard the pitch... “It would be tremendous... (wait for it... wait for it...) exposure.”

Exposure. Any blogger and most writers know the “e-word” all too well. Some days, it seems the most popular form of currency. Actually, some days, it seems the only form of currency.

That email response to the e-word wasn't the only recent backlash against the “no-pay-to-play” offers that beleaguer the blogosphere. Charming chum and well-connected designer-blogger Christopher May had a say (including some staggering financial statistics about one of the ones doing the freebie-asking) over on his blog Maison21, as did a recent piece in the New York Times

Maybe I’ve seen Les Mis one too many times recently on HBO, but suddenly, I hear a faint chorus of “Do you hear the people sing?” off in the distance.

Is there a revolution afoot?

In print and on the Internet, even with the ease of Pinterest and Tumbler (two vehicles, I think, that have somewhat diluted the value of blogging) content is still king. And ultimately, content, for somebody, is cash. So how come fewer and fewer people are offering actual cash for it?

Because somewhere along the line, content also became a commodity. So many people said yes to getting paid with exposure and nothing more that it’s become acceptable to be asked to do something for nothing. It made me wonder why we bloggers give it away. Especially when blogging itself is not making anyone rich, anytime soon.

It’s sometimes funny to hear the heated discussions about minimum wage happening now... if you spread out the work over the time it takes for blog posts, even for reputable, highly trafficked sites, suddenly $7.25 an hour doesn’t look too shabby. It's not unusual to spend 30+ hours for less than a $200 yield to source, scout, photograph, interview, write and build a post, for sites with clicks and visitors in the MILLIONS.

Of course there are perks to blogging: great invites, goody bags, prestige, priority seating at certain events, press access, and more... but so far, my landlord doesn’t take “goody bag” on the first-ish of every month.

The hope for many or most of us with blogs is that they’ll eventually lead to the kind of traffic numbers that finally bring in ad revenue through sponsors and advertisers. Or, that the blog and the audiences they build will ultimately lead to other deals: books, product lines, licensing, as some bloggers have done, the talented Jeanine Hayes for one, Ronda Rice Carmen and coco+kelley some others.

But all this made me wonder: why do so many of us, myself most certainly included, do so much for so little? I’ve said yes, on a regular basis, to freebies (or “e-bies, to continue the “exposure-as-currency” analogy).

Is it ever good (or at least, appropriate) to “give it away”?

In some instances, I still think yes. And here are a dozen reasons why.

The Gilded Stag - "Design on a Dime Details"
1) As a Thank You
Landon Shockey, the gentleman’s gentleman behind the Arkansas-based The Gilded Stag, volunteered to donate his gorgeous (and 100% custom) Shaftesbury Bar Cart to last year’s Design on a Dime without hesitation. So when he also asked me to contribute a piece about the event to his blog, no hesitation from me either. Plus, it helped me further promote the event (and, let’s face it, myself, too). And because the Design on a Dime story was one I loved to tell (and had done so several times over when courting donors) it was also very minimal time commitment. Speaking of which...

2) When Time Commitment/Expectation is Minimal
Sometimes, I’m cheap when it’s easy. When I get a request to answer a question, and the deadline is not “today by five,” I’m happy to lend my name and ideas to a discussion or article, since it’s part of my own brand strategy to be a tastemaker and go-to “voice” on the topics of interior design, small spaces, color and art consulting. But there is a difference between providing a quote and writing (and building) a blog post.

Bubble & Squeak "Ski Lodge Mod"
3) When You Love the Vehicle
I loved the gorgeously presented content by the boys over at Bubble and Squeak the very first time I saw it, so when they invited me to do a guest post, I said yes in a heartbeat. I love what they do, love how they do it, and it let me flex my creative writing muscle a bit more than usual (they have a lovely narrative format with all their perfectly-crafted blog posts), while bringing a long-term trend concept, “Ski Lodge Mod,” to vivid life. Win, win. 

They also offered me a giveaway opportunity to grow both of our audiences, and they built the blog post. Win, win, win. And Eric Retzer, one half of the Bubble & Squeak partnership, brokered my first Design on a Dime exchange with the wonderful folks at Pagoda Red, so this was also pay-back (the good kind).

Huffington Post Gay Voices
4) When it Helps Promote Something You Feel Strongly About
If you only know me through AskPatrick, you only know me as an interior design writer/blogger. But if you know me through Facebook, you know I also contribute to the LGBTQ website The Bilerico Project, another gig for which I don’t receive compensation. Same deal with Huffington Post Gay Voices.

But while neither pays (no, not even the wildly-read HuffPo.), my writing for both has allowed me to add my voice (and attract a new audience) to some issues about which I feel strongly. And the personal nature of some of the pieces, whether about break-ups, family loss, or marriage equality and gun control have proven strongly cathartic. So even though freebies, I get plenty back from both.

The Bilerico Project
Aside from reining me in when I go all CAPSLOCK, Bilerico founder and editor Bil Browning gives me a very long leash and tremendous freedom when it comes to timing, frequency, and subject matter, things worth considering when asking for free content from others. The less they pay, the more (reasonable) freedom they (or you, if you’re doing the asking) should extend.

This kind of writing is highly rewarding, and has also led to some remarkable friendships, an invigorated social circle, and even the occasional comped theater ticket. Plus, “published work” (and this counts) is what they ask to see once you do grab the attention of a paying publisher.
I love print shelter magazines, so when I had the opportunity to contribute to New England Home magazine’s blog, I jumped at the chance, (actually, I think I asked them if I could contribute, when they shared a roster of upcoming guest posters on their Facebook page.) It put me on their radar and is a potential door-opener to future in-print possibility. (important distinction: that was my hope and not their pitch.) 

They are also remarkably sensitive to asking for free content. They limit the number of pieces they ask for, spread it out judiciously, and are also remarkably open to kind of post, topic, and length, which also indicates they have a true appreciation for the value of content.

Magazine editor Kyle Hoepner has made it clear that he understands the benefits have to be mutual, and that’s also an important distinction... the Asker needs to understand—and acknowledge— that there is real worth and value to what’s being requested of the Askee.

Plus, the connection to NE Home also gets my name out to a region where I could also potentially do design work. And as a RISD grad, I still hold a soft spot in my heart for all things New England.

An important distinction, too... the NE Home blog is a support community to the subscription magazine...  and nobody’s asking for written content for free for the magazine itself. Which leads to...

6) If it’s NOT for a Paid Subscription
I will most definitely draw the line if someone is asking for an article or ongoing writing when the end vehicle is a paid subscription, print pub or e-zine, selling basically words and pictures. And yes, that request has crossed my radar.

Ilevel
7) As a Showcase for a Skill Set You Feel is Underexposed
Speaking of my RISD roots, I’ve always loved fine art and art collecting, so I’m always looking at ways to work myself into those kinds of conversations. I had two separate chances, one for iLevel and another for artist Todd McPhetridge when he himself was guest blogging for Lori McNee’s Fine Art Tips.

Lori McNee's Fine Art Tips - "Art Buying Secrets fromTop Interior Designers"
While it may seem like giving away industry knowledge for free, I think it helps give you back referral points when leveraging your identity in a specialty niche. It’s also why I gave up my time and insight several years back when asked to sit on a panel of art collectors for the annual :scope art fair. And I don’t see too much distinction between being asked to write an article for free, or being asked to moderate a panel at something like the Design and Decoration Building’s twice-a-year Market events... or being asked to lend your voice to an interview or blog post.

Here in This House - "Creative Types"
8) Mutual Admiration Society
I loved the ladies of Here in This House the very first time I met them, so again, when they asked me to tell their readers about me, I said “Tell me when.”

They made it very easy, they built the post, and gave me plenty of time... then they also actively promoted it, another key criteria for knowing when to say yes. The timing was also perfect: pre-Design on a Dime, so it wasn’t just about promoting me, it was also about promoting the event.

I’m sorry they’re no longer publishing, and I miss their real and virtual presence here in Manhattan. If they ever fire up the blog again, I’d contribute again.


9) If it has True “Cash” Value
There are some things you just don’t say No to. When House Beautiful and Valspar approached me to be part of their series of designer-featured advertorials, I think I might have paid them. The end result: a full page advertorial (the content of editorial, the real value of paid advertising). As a starting-up designer, it’s going to be a while before I can afford a full-page ad in House Beautiful, so this deal (including a professionally shot, edited and packaged video, and an online e-zine feature) had real the real value of cash, not just cachet.


10) Backing a Brand (and Doing What you Love)... with Something to Show for It.
I was asked by my friends at JanMacBrands and Lenox to style a tabletop for the Lenox Tumblr page, and while it took some time and (initial) money to do it, four things made me say yes: 1) Lenox is a great brand with which to be aligned. 2) There was a reasonable budget and I was reimbursed for all out-of-pocket expenses, 3) I LOVE all things tabletop, and 4) (perhaps most importantly), the gig was professionally shot, shots to which I’d have access (which, as in the House Beautiful gig, has an actual value attached).

I’ve heard more than one interior designer on dais or panel say, “Always shoot your work.” And while this wasn’t an interior, it was something I do include in my portfolio of services. So this one, although “unpaid,” had a definite pay-off, among all the other less tangible benefits, and without going into my own pockets to do it. On this one, the shots were the clincher.

11) Staying Busy... and Creating Content
I will admit, when design work was slower, I was more apt to say yes to a freebie request, and as I’ve become busier with paying work, I’ve been more cautious about giving it away. But I’ve also found that, for me, “busy creates busy” so there were times where I welcomed the work mostly for the energy and forward momentum it created, even if no monetary value was attached.

But that led to another breakthrough, of sorts: when I want to write for free, why was I writing for free to add value to someone else’s brands? So now, if I have the time and want to create some of that momentum for myself, I write a blog post on my own blog first (even if it's about one of those brands), and entertain outside offers second.

12) You Want Something New to Promote
And all these examples gave me something to talk about through social media, gave me something to leverage, and help build my brand buzz.

I realize it's not all one-sided, in this merry old Land of Blogs. Exposure does count, and some sites and brands who ask for something do deliver in return: wider audiences, traffic spikes, the start of a long-term partnership... but all of that starts from mutual respect. Every arrangement should feel like a partnership, not like you're being milked dry so someone else can bring home the bacon, to mix my barnyard metaphors.

But freebie requests aren’t just limited to design sites or style writers. A friend passed along a call for writers from a site for which I have tremendous respect, The Good Men Project. I was excited about the possibility, until I read their own pitch, striking in its matter of fact nature and prioritization of cold, hard fact:
“Answers to FAQs: a) unpaid b) 2 month minimum commitment c) you can always link back to your own blog d) the majority of your posts will need to be unique content e) you will upload and format your posts, however, we will have final editorial say f) yes, we work with many large media companies and will help push your work outward.”
But it’s not just bloggers who are getting asked to provide content for free: some of them are doing the asking. One prominent blogger, when asked what the compensation was for designers to be featured in a new book, answered, “Notoriety.” We’ve got a ways to go, inside and out.

Next time someone asks you to do something for free, see if it’s worth your while. Actually, see if it’s worth your worth. And make sure it’s on your own terms.

So what do you think? Valid reasons, or guilt-assuaging hindsight justification? Is it ever right to give it away, or are we just undermining our own talents when we do it? I’d love to hear from you! and I KNOW you have opinions on this one!

7 comments:

  1. About "ad revenue". The New York Times is probably the most sophisticated and knowledgeable publication regarding ad revenue, and *they* couldn't make the numbers work without charging viewers. Ad revenue pays nobody -- or, almost nobody.

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  2. WOW Patrick!! Not only can I see why you were nominated for Best Writing blog, but in my mind - YOU WIN! So many valid points, and my fave, "Busy creates busy".

    For me, I've noticed an increase in request not only to blog for a company or create an online design board, but also to pin for them. When requests first started to come my way, yes - the want or need for exposure came to mind. One thing I've learned to do though if it's a start-up brand: Google the person sending the request along with the company - look at their online brand representation -- If it doesn't match mine, I decline.

    For other more reputable brands, at first I had accepted compensation as a gift card, but when I saw the TIME I spent to pull together a board + a post (not to mention the back links) I started to decline as well and stopped giving myself away. A new acquaintance here in AZ lent me a book to read, and it's a great reminder: "Worth Every Penny" - adding to the increased vocabulary of saying "no thank you" and clicking the delete button.

    Thank you for taking the time to so eloquently express and validate the value of designers and design bloggers (without a rant).

    Lynda

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  3. You ARE truly fantastic! Your words are thoughtful and thought provoking to be sure.. and of course I could not agree with you more.
    I think the only distinction I would offer, is that you never really gave it away for "free" at all. Free and Business just do not go hand in hand.
    If it isn't a mutually beneficial endeavor 1) you won't offer your very best service 2) you will always feel as though you are not appreciated, and again, not produce to your best capability while becoming resentful of the very brand that is trying to reach out to you and your readers.

    I Love that Christian, Meredith, among others have begun the conversation more publicly, but in truth I dont think we should be yelling at the messengers (so to speak) but instead until we all support one another and begin to establish a value that we can all live with - no brand, or PR company etc ever will.

    Would an interior designer simply offer a floor plan for free? What good would that offer the client? They lose their own instinct about size, scale and what they like, and begin to rely solely on this map which we provided but without a compass.. We would know to automatically alter and tweak as the project progressed but they don't.
    I Value YOU, and think that anyone that would want to associate themselves with you and your brand should do the same.
    Your friend, Jennifer (aka Diana)

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  4. You hit the nails on each of their respective heads, Patrick. I'm a big believer in the power of abundant thinking, and when I discover another believer I will do whatever I can to help them. That involves doing things for free sometimes - it's sowing seeds into someone's life, and those things ALWAYS bear fruit. Thank you for the thoughtfulness you put into this.

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  5. I actually added your blog to my favorites and will look forward for more updates. Great Job, Keep it up. Interior design Ideas

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  6. Thank you for taking the time to so eloquently express and validate the value of designers.You ARE truly fantastic! Your words are thoughtful and thought provoking to be sure.. and of course I could not agree with you more.

    Praveen
    http://india.dialus.com/businessdetails/Bangalore/Interior-Designers.html

    ReplyDelete
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