The Burning Question for Writers: Should I work for content mills?

Getting paid to write on the Internet – sounds like the best gig ever for some people. And I’ll admit: there were times when I really, really did feel like I had it all. I could set my own schedules, and everyone I worked with was behind Skype and/or email (no one used Slack in those days… I think).

As a budding copywriter, I needed somewhere to hone my skills. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first place I started was at so-called “content mills” or “content farms”.

To be honest, I don’t really like the sound of the name. They sound a lot like “puppy farms” or “kitten farms”.

puppies white background bone
And no, puppy farms are not as pleasant as this picture. Look them up if you have too… I won’t be held responsible for the ensuing tears.

Tell us this much then… what are content mills?

In the broadest sense, content mills are money grabbing bastards who suck honest workers dry a business that makes most of its money selling content. This could be content for SEO, press releases, advertising copy, blog posts… You name it.

In essence, the business model is pretty sound. The client pays big, fancy monies for a batch of articles – the more well-written they are, the better. The company then gets money and, of course, pays the writers. Some many content companies/agencies that also hire writers full or part-time and given them stable hours and pay. How nice.

But this particular breed of company, known as a content mill, will almost exclusively outsource all of its writing to freelancers. Not necessarily a bad thing.

But then we get to a rather touchy subject…

How much do content mills pay?

Yuck. The truth is, the vast majority of these word farms (in my experience) pay very, very little. It’s pretty normal to be paid US$3.50 per 500 word article (bear in mind, these articles are churned out one after the other… And fast. Although I don’t do it anymore, I could still easily churn out five or six basic, 500 word articles an hour).

So, in theory, I could be making US$10.50 per hour. Convert that to euro and I’m getting… About 8, almost the same as “minimum wage” jobs.

I’ve also written for platforms which paid upwards of 12 euro (yes, euro!) for a 500-word piece.

And of course, it depends on the content farm itself.

A decent few pay pretty well – but normally at the higher levels (depending on the score you get in their test… which many will give you). Often these companies are more than just content mills, though. They usually have their fingers in many pies.

So, should writers work for these companies?

Let’s phrase the question differently. Ask yourself: What will I get out of it? This is business after all, and you’re a business if you’re looking to do freelance work. If there’s a healthy supply of articles most of the time and you can do them with an average level of effort… Go for it. When I started getting real clients, I kept the content mills for slower times (interspersed with TEFL training work).

The real danger of content mills comes from when you’re earning all your income from them: and have no time, space or energy to find other clients/jobs. But that’s a danger that goes far beyond copywriting – all freelancers are prone to this trap.

I work full-time now, but I run my own projects on the side and pick up the odd bit of freelance work here and there… When I have the time and energy. I would absolutely do some work for a content company again – but only if it were a bit of easy money for a few hours work here and there. Never again will I write for $3.50 an article.

Ever.

Content Writing… And Where It Can Lead

Probably one of the most common remote jobs out there, online content writing has been around since people realized it was necessary to make $$.

Much like customer service and IT, writing is one of those fields that has translated quite well into the digital world. In fact, a lot of content nowadays is primarily produced through the medium of the Internet. Other channels are often seen as “secondary”: radio, television, billboards (although, not in all cases).

With countless online shops, landing pages trying to push lead generation, social media managers trying to expand their reach… Online content writing is actually at the core of it. Some digital marketers will craft their own content – but for the most part, many will defer to someone who can actually write.

That’s where the job of the content writer/online copywriter comes into play.

Being hobby writer as a teenager, I soon fell into a career “writing for the Internet” (Note: I was desperate, needed money and this was the best way of making some quick cash). I actually really enjoyed it but back in those days, I wrote a lot.

A lot of the texts I wrote were simple, keyword-optimized pieces of content. In fact, I can actually still remember the very first SEO text I wrote. The only instructions I had to go by was the keyword itself: “steampunk buttons”. To this day, I still have no idea where that text ended up. Probably on an eCommerce sit. Or maybe a fetish site (you honestly never know…).

I continued that way for the next year or two. My client list grew, as did my assignments. I went beyond simple SEO texts to things like landing pages, ad copy, press releases and more. At the very beginning though, I earned mere pennies (my clients were too cheap even to pay me in steampunk buttons).

steampunk buttons
Glorious, intricate, shiny: All I ever wanted were those precious, steampunk buttons…

Naturally, I had to explain my job to people. How was I sitting at home most days, but still able to pay my rent? What sort of job title was I supposed to give myself? Admittedly I was quite young then and didn’t fully understand how a lot of things worked. I could’ve given myself any kind of title.

For a while, I stuck to “content writer”. The problem was, that particularly description didn’t fully express what I was doing.Why? Because the truth is…

’Content writing’ is an astoundingly broad and varied field.

Online Content Writers – Copywriting for the new age

The Internet is powered by content. Articles, videos, images, blog posts, product descriptions, forums, rude words, keyboard warriors, trolls… Much of that content is informative with an eye to either educating or selling (in many cases, both) or simply annoying people. Online content writers literally just do that: they can write on a wide range of different topics (YES, some people are literally paid to be annoying).

When talking about the “types” of content written, it can come in a range of styles. For example, here’s a list of the types of content I’ve written over the years:

  • In-depth reviews of products. Some of these were for ecommerce, others were for informative purposes with an eye to generating leads (reviews of online dating sites, for example).
  • Advertising copy across a wide range of paid advertising networks (Facebook, Gemini, Taboola, Outbrain).
  • Press releases for different companies.
  • Product descriptions
  • Blog posts like this one for others, of course (in these cases, I was essentially a ghostwriter).
  • Content for landing pages, the majority of which needed to be optimized with keywords. Interestingly, there are many cases where clients often don’t want keyword-optimized texts. These are often for paid landing pages.

As a content writer or a copywriter, you’re literally selling your skills. You may “specialize” in writing online content. It’s still possible to write more than just online content.

Simply being a “copywriter”

A copywriter in the truest sense of the word is someone who simply writes copy. Plenty of media is online now, so most writers are “online” copywriters in some form. BUT… even in the early stages of my writing career, I wrote print advertising copy for some place in Texas. Seriously. Just because a client of mine had them as tasks. I’ve never even been to Texas. Or the States, for that matter.

Copywriting, expertise and specialization

Any literate person can do basic online content writing jobs. From then on, you can simply build up your skill and branch out into different areas. The mark of a truly skilled copywriter is not just someone who can write. It is someone who can adapt and change their writing style depending on what the client wants. In this sense, it’s essentially what a commercial copywriter will do. They’ll want to sharpen their skills with an eye to improve their personal profitability.

But it’s also possible to specialize and become known as an expert writer in a specific niche. Journalists are of course a classic example: they also research and report, both online and in real life. Financial writers may be heavily involved in investment strategies or banking. The list goes on.

What does it lead to?

Online content writing isn’t a job you have to do forever. For many, it’s a foot in the door. When I originally began freelancing, writing was the only real “skill” I had in this field. I soon learned a lot about online marketing, from what my clients wanted to simply doing a lot of research myself. My freelancing led me to a job in online marketing which involved far more than writing.

These days, copywriting remains one of my core skills. But they’ve expanded beyond that: I’ve been a press manager, a content manager, a SEO and am now one of the main creatives brains working for a profitable online advertising agency.

So, if you’ve got ambition and are willing to learn, there is a whole host of different things it can lead to!