It would be easy for me to just say “never work for free” and end it at that. I'm definitely not an advocate of working for free. However, I've heard recently that more and more blogger conferences are encouraging that, so I thought it would be helpful to discuss circumstances in which it might benefit you to work for free.
First, when I say “work,” I'm referring to projects, posts and ads for brands, not everyday posts. I'm not suggesting that every post on your blog should be sponsored, or be “paid for” in some way, but I also wouldn't encourage you to post a giveaway on your blog for nothing, publish sponsored content without getting paid, or engage in an active advertising campaign with a brand without any compensation (Julia wrote a great post on warning signs recently). But, doing some work for free can be a good investment in your business if you position it correctly and use that work as part of a larger campaign or as a stepping stone to compensated work.
Also, identify what you're worth to a brand or potential partner before you do any work for free or ask for compensation. Understand your blog's traffic, demographics, social media reach (influence), and how you/your blog can benefit a brand before you even start working on monetizing. Come up with a dollar amount (either per hour or per project) that represents your time and influence fairly and use that as a benchmark for how much you want to be compensated. Use that when determining if it's worth your investment to work for free, or accept trades.
You might want to do some work for free:
When You're just Starting Out
When I started my first blog nearly 10 years ago, I wasn't very concerned about monetizing or turning blogging into my career; I focused entirely on creating content and writing, writing, writing. Once I saw that I was providing a valuable service to boutiques & brands online and COULD start monetizing, I learned that the best way to attract advertisement from the boutiques & brands I wanted to work with was to start driving traffic to them for free. When I had their attention, I prepared a partnership proposal and sent over a media kit for them to look at.
Once my potential partners saw the traffic stats and sales that were coming in from being mentioned on my blog, many were interested in longer term advertising. Things are a bit different now, almost any fashion blogger can join an affiliate program or start monetizing immediately with ad networks, but I still believe that personal relationships have significant value for long term monetization. Post about what you love, then contact the brands to introduce yourself. Send along your media kit and mention your effective advertising and social media promotional activities – it might be the beginning of a lucrative relationship!
You want to Prove a Concept
If you're doing something you haven't done before, or you want to try something new, you might offer to do it for free to prove the concept, but with an expectation that if it's successful, you'll be hired for a longer term project. For example – you've never done a twitter party/chat before, but you want to try one, you could offer to do it once for free for a brand you'd like to work with, while at the same time proposing that you do one a quarter for $X.
As an add-on to an Existing Contract
If you already have a contract with an advertiser or partner and they'd like to add-on more social media promotion or a newsletter ad, a nice perk would be to do it at no charge. I also like to offer existing advertisers and partners that have been with me for several years discounts on advertising packages or a free newsletter ad if they purchase advertising for a certain period of time. Incentives like this work VERY well at keeping partners happy and showing them that you value your relationship. Again, it's an investment in an ongoing and future relationship, and WORTH doing for free.
You Trade Your Services for Product
This isn't exactly working for free, but it's not cash money either! I've only rarely worked for trade with certain partners, but if you gauge the brand/advertiser carefully and you get as much benefit from the merchandise trade that you would from payment, this can work out well. I've always liked trading for product or store credit because I can be stingy with my cash, but if I have the opportunity to “shop for free,” I'm open to being more creative or risky with what I choose, and that always leads to interesting blog content.
If you do trade merchandise for advertising or projects, be careful that you're both benefiting equally. I generally trade for wholesale value, and always work with boutiques or designers that I'd happily spend my money at anyway. I do usually disclose that I received the product(s) as compensation, but I don't think that's required under FTC guidelines.
Overall, use your judgement on when to work for free. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it; if you feel like the company is trying to take advantage of you, or they consistently ask bloggers to work for free or link exchange, DON'T do it.
[Image source: Shutterstock.com]