How writers can use content mills to their benefit

A few months ago I read an article from a colleague who wrote about making a six-figure salary by writing from home. Though what separated her from others touting the same is that the author wasn’t selling anything. She was only relaying her process, her obstacles, and how she went from an office job that she was laid off from to writing from home. What I found interesting was that her path was nearly identical to mine. She experienced the same obstacles, scoured content mills for work, met the challenges of working with clients, and figured out scheduling, pricing, and how to better evaluate clients. Her concentration was that, yes, you can make a very good living as a writer, but you must put in the time, constantly learn, and utilize your experience. These are things that most online “How to make a six-figure salary writing from home” courses won’t and can’t teach you.

The one thing that stood out most to me was the author’s use of content mills because her and I have the same interpretation. That is, the majority of work on content mills will not be for people seeking a flexible and full-time career. However, with a good approach, you can find excellent clients and long term work that pays well.

In this post I want to help you understand content mills and how you can use them to your benefit. If you don’t know what a content mill is, a Google search won’t take long, but in short these are sites for freelancers of all kinds, and typically global sites that allow people to post jobs and freelancers to go through a bidding process. The names you’ve likely heard are Freelancer.com, Upwork, and Guru.com though there are many more. They are called content mills because the employers are often looking for the most output from a writer with the least amount of cost. This is the big reason many full-time writers will tell you over and over in their blogs to never use them.

Understand what a content mill is

The biggest problem that writers face with content mills is they don’t understand what they are getting into. This is especially so for new writers. I’ve already provided a little description into what a content mill is, but another important thing to understand is the “content mill trap.”

The content mill trap is when you begin to work for hire on these sites for bottom dollar prices just to beef up your legitimacy and reviews on that site. What happens is that you can become easily trapped by doing so much work for an employer that you are afraid of stepping outside of that employer or taking on too much work. It is good for you to have work, but generally, the fear of not going beyond what you are doing means you will be paid very low rates for work.

I’ll give you an example. I was working with Guru.com and had an employer who was paying me $40 per article for top ten lists He was initially paying $40 per 1,000 words, and after about 50 articles raised that amount to $40 for 1,500 words, and then later $40 for 2,000 words. My mindset when I started was that .04 per word was fine. Then it dropped to .026 per word, and then .02 per word. I understood (and investigated) that yes, the company my employer was selling to were changing their requirements, resulting in my lower pay. So, my direct client wasn’t doing anything wrong and was honest when he said, “I’m really sorry, I will find you better pay elsewhere.” The thing is that this happens a lot with content mills to the point where you begin to accept that .02 per word is okay. It likely, is not.

Some say, just leave. Well, the problem is that these clients provide so much work that in your mind, leaving means starting over which can be difficult. So, even if you have a higher paying client, you may be hesitant to leave your lower paying client.

How do you manage this? You manage this problem from the start. Set a price you are willing to work for, and stay firm to that. Once you go lower, you’ll find yourself trapped.

Content mill stats matter, but only for the site you are on

I think one of the best/worst issues with content mills are that customer reviews, how much you make, and tracked stats all play a big role in whether an employer hires you or not. I’ve often heard from people who say they are never hired because they can’t compete with writers in Bangladesh and India who can afford to work for less. It’s true and that is why you need to be clever about how you beef up your stats to find the good clients.

A few tricks are to find a client who pays well and is willing to pay you after each project has been completed instead of once a month or every two weeks. When you receive more payments in a week your overall income grows, but you are also being hired for more jobs. In addition, ask your employer to leave a review for every invoice paid.

By splitting up long-term projects into shorter pieces several times a week you can improve your stats and to future employers provide the appearance that you have been on the site for a long time.

Another option is to take a couple small jobs that pay a little less, with the understanding that these will be short term projects you can step away from rather than getting caught in a content mill trap. I would advise that you only take these projects to bolster your stats and don’t look at them as income. These projects can serve you as well as writing sample blog posts and articles to provide clients before being hired.

Pick one content mill and stick to it

This is advise that I was given early on from a friend and I fully support it. Every content mill focuses on the stats above and those play an important role in whether or not you are hired or even seen by potential employers. The number of freelancers on these sites is huge and if you are not focused every day on improving your ranking on these sites and reaching out to as many potential employers as possible you can get lost.

It was easy for me, when I used content mills, to focus my time with Guru.com. Admittedly, my first project 17 years ago was a disaster, but over time things worked out. Guru offers a lot of positive features that benefit your ability to market yourself, they have an easy user interface, provide stats, and will pay daily instead of other sites which pay only weekly, or even monthly.

Naturally, I learned the tips on this list by experiencing them. These tips also allowed me to eventually step away from content mills and become more successful than I could have ever been working with a content mill. While my book writing business continues to do well, the content mills taught me a lot about online content.

So, I suggest Guru.com as your go to if you want to use a content mill, but the others are fine too. Remember, the goal isn’t to make a content mill as your only income, but rather use them to benefit you. Focusing on one will improve your stats, help you become more visible, and make your time worth while.

Understand how search engines work

One problem with content mills is that when someone searches online for writers, the ads and top search engine results always lead to content mills. So, when I see writers say that you should never use a content mill I do have some problem with this theory.

If you Google where to find a writer, and you are brought to a content mill, then where do you think those good clients are going? What you need to know is how do you weed out the content mill clients from those good employers who stumbled into a content mill.

  • Investigate clients. Most good clients will list their company, and many will already mention the budget and exactly what they are looking for. If you think a client will fit your needs send a bid, if it doesn’t work out you aren’t obligated to take the job.
  • Ask questions. Remember, interviews are to find out if your employer suits you as much as you do them.
  • Talk on the phone. A phone doesn’t remove all concerns, but if someone refuses to talk on the phone, Skype, or Zoom, you can guess they are not being forthcoming with you.
  • Shift your client focus. Focus on applying to businesses you can find online and investigate rather than individuals.
  • Take your time. A random guess on my experience is that there were about 5-10 good employers for every 100 bids I put in. Good clients are out there, they are just a minority.

The important thing to remember is that there are a lot of good clients, but you need to be patient and investigate potential employers. Being impulsive can lead you climbing an impossible mountain.

Keep your profile updated with contact info

Content mills may not like it, but good clients who have learned from hiring the wrong people on content mills will go to profiles and reach out to you elsewhere. It is important for you to keep your profile updated and make sure you include contact information such as your website, blog, email address, and social media pages.

A good employer will research you as well as you should research them. That often means a good employer will have an understanding of your pay requirements, the type of work you do, and other information that they should know. So, if they contact you those obstacles you find with content mills usually don’t exist.

Treat content mills as a tool, not an employer

The ease of content mills and the number of projects regularly posted are the reason that many people find a comfort zone and never leave. However, if you look at content mills as a tool or resource rather than your employer, you will be able to maintain a balanced writing business. What I mean by using content mills as a resource is keeping your profile updated, your contact info up to date, and set yourself a schedule of reviewing projects posted on content mills, but don’t use them as your primary source of income.

Understanding how content mills work, and how they can work for you is important. By setting income goals you can stick to, patiently waiting for the right employers to come along, and investigating those employers, you can utilize content mills successfully. Remember to ask potential employers relevant questions to you and schedule a call or video chat before accepting any project.

I am a full-time freelance writer and have been writing non-fiction, personal histories (memoirs and biographies), novels, blogs, and other online content for two decades. If you are looking for a writer please feel free to contact me.

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