A New Low for the Copywriting Profession

June 22nd, 2009 by Bob Bly

Copywriters are at risk of becoming a commodity service provider.

As proof, during a search I stumbled across a pay-per-click ad today offering online writing services.

Specifically, the ad promised “unique custom-written SEO web content.”

What do you think they charge for 500 words of custom content (total, not per word), including optimization of the page?

A–$5,000.
B–$500.
C–$50.
D–$5.

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 22nd, 2009 at 11:14 am and is filed under General, Online Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

40 responses about “A New Low for the Copywriting Profession”

  1. mjmojo said:

    Based on the “Blue Light Special” attitude towards web copywriting I’ve seen in most want ads, I’m guessing D. How do we as writers fix this?

  2. Jodi Kaplan said:

    I’m guessing $5 (gack!). But, it gets worse. A friend reported that someone on elance wanted 200 blog posts (150 words each, unique content, with keywords), written for $100. Not even 50 cents per word, but 50 cents per post!!

  3. Bob Bly said:

    As you guys guessed, the answer of course is D. That raises the question: has copywriting become a pure commodity service?

  4. Joel Heffner said:

    Copywriting is like book publishing. A large business that wants to hire a Bob Bly isn’t going to ask about the guy who offers his services for pennies. This is the same thing as being published by a major publisher. Prestige carries weight. For how long, I don’t know. The other factor will be creativity. If you can write stuff that the pennies guy will never even think of…you’ll get hired. If I were a copywriter, I’d be increasing my rates now! A higher rate, to many, will be perceived as being worth more. The trick is to deserve it!

    Bob…I wouldn’t be surprised is the pennies guys buy some of your ebooks…and take your advice when they write copy. I’d be curious how many of your ebooks go to India, where many of these pennies guys come from.

  5. Jason Curts said:

    And when the quality of these articles are exposed…they’ll think twice about the “bargain” deal they got. Good writing, I think, will hold its market price. It just might take a while for the rest of the world to realize it.

  6. Greg said:

    The answer did not surprise me. I am new to copywriting. I am bidding online about half or even less than the rates I researched in the Writer’s Market just six months ago. I don’t have an extensive portfolio but I do have some decent samples to show.

    I am usually no where close to the winning bid. I think I write fairly fast, and I am trying for $35 or so an hour — and I am no where close to most winning bids.

    I am getting some decent paying work but not online.

  7. Ray Massie said:

    We all lose on commodity pricing. I was listening to a webinar with a couple Guru’s this week talking about how to farm all your writing work to college grads in the Philippines for $4 an hour. Bad writing is an expense. Good writing is an investment.

  8. Kathleen Hanover said:

    I’ve been doing direct marketing copywriting for about 20 years. When I first started on Elance.com in July of 2007, my effective hourly rate was about $35. Having led a relatively sheltered copywriting life, I thought that was pretty good! ;) Even so, I was willing to “lowball” jobs to build up a reputation on the site. As I gathered more and more glowing testimonials, my rates got higher and higher. Eventually I branched out beyond copywriting, simply because I cannot and will not compete against the “word mills” in India and the Philippines. I offer my clients high-performing copywriting PLUS marketing and PR strategy–which frankly, very few people do well. And my clientele–who tend to be solo entrepreneurs and small businesses–are generally clueless when it comes to strategy. You simply MUST offer something beyond medium-quality copywriting to compete. After two years on Elance, I’m now ranked 8th out of 5,010 providers in the Sales and Marketing category. However, I’m only ranked in the top 2% in the Writing category, which is much larger (over 22,000). You must find a niche, and you must perform at a world-class level in that niche. The world is a big place, and you will find people who are willing and able to pay for top quality. (BTW, I no longer charge by the hour because it freaks people out–and frankly, I’m a very speedy writer! But my effective hourly rate on some projects is about 20 times higher than it was 2 years ago.)

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  10. Michael Lockyear said:

    We have a case of apples and oranges here: a $5 service is not comparable to a $5 000 service!

    That said…Americans earn too much! There are many people in other parts of the world who have lower costs of living AND lower expectations …these people are prepared to offer the same quality for less. (sounds like the story of the US motor industry, and probably a few other sectors)

    I am not sure that you can actually do anything about this (other than lower your income expectations or find something else to do – which will eventually be subject to the same pressures).

    PS @Bob – I stand to be corrected, but do you not use a Filipino outfit to build many of your sites?

  11. Bob Bly said:

    Michael: I do use a Filipino company to host and design my landing pages: http://www.hostwithstanley.com

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  13. James Ocliff said:

    Consider this: you can hire a skilled AD for less than $400/month, a CEO for $600/month, a web designer for $300/month…

    As always, you have to know the right people and get the best projects. The more unique your offer is, the less competition you have.

    Here’s a “new economy” strategy for you: Spend some time to build your own offshore business, or JV with someone who knows how to do a startup. Then, spend a year training your staff. After that year, you can scale your copywriting/webdesign/hosting company “on demand”.

    It’s that easy ;)

  14. Bob Bly said:

    James: your idea sounds sensible, and in fact, I have a full-time web master working for me who is offshore; I could not afford to hire a U.S. web master full time. Be aware that it requires a high degree of trust and confidence in the team you hire, since you can’t just drop by their office and chat with them or check what they are doing.

  15. Jennifer said:

    I find it interesting that while talking about copywriting hitting a new low and businesses choosing overseas writers that may not be as good but cheap. You are also using overseas markets to handle some services for you. The problem I see is that it seems double-sided, many here in american command large fees and expect to earn them but are unwilling to pay someone large fees for their services.

    Mr. Bly I have read things that are signed as being written by you touting how much you earn as a copywriter and it seems ironic that you are unwilling to pay decent and maybe even above decent wages to have us firms handle your business.

    I hear people complaining about the fees someone else charge, but I don’t hear those same people complaining about the large fees they are paid.

    Just my thought.

  16. Ken Norkin - Freelance Copywriter said:

    “has copywriting become a pure commodity service?”

    I don’t think so. As others have said in one way or another, the people looking to pay $5 for custom written SEO content are not our market. More important, I don’t think the people in our markets are going to start demanding those kinds of prices.

    My clients need well-written copy that coherently conveys their products’ benefits in a way that addresses prospects’ needs and leads them to buy. They don’t want the type of ungrammatical keyword-loaded gibberish that serves only to bring people to web pages to see ads but not convey any useful information in an understandable way.

    Ken

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  18. Victor said:

    Many of the writing services that offer content that cheaply, are not providing content that will be used for selling or copy writing, but rather, simply unique content to feed the Googlebots whether its for SEO or to please the Google quality score monster on PPC campaigns.

  19. Bob Bly said:

    Jennifer: every customer, me included, wants the best quality and fastest turnaround at the lowest price. If I, as a buyer, can get that here or overseas, I’ll take it — why should I spend more than I have to? Similarly, if marketers can choose from many copywriters, and only those who place high value on copy will hire an expensive writer like me.

  20. Michael Lockyear said:

    @Jennifer: Expecting your customers to pay more than the market rate (for a service / product) of a particular quality level is not a sustainable business model.

    Sadly, “decency”, your ability to feed your family, nationality, etc are simply not relevant factors in determining price…this will be determined by the market.

    In the third world African country, which I call home, there are millions of people whose lives would be hugely affected by $5 per DAY…$5 per hour, that’s nearly middle class!

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  22. Hesster said:

    @Michael

    I disagree about expecting people to pay more than market rate for a certain quality level not being a sustainable business model. People do it all the time, and have been doing it for as long as there has been employment and goods to buy. Copywriting is not inherently a commodity, because people who provide better service can always demand more for their money. Even in the days of $5 article writers, there are content writers that can demand more, and clients will pay it because of how these writers position themselves and the quality those writers provide. That being said, if you handle your service as a commodity and only sell on price, then that’s what clients will see you as. There is always someone out there willing to work for a lower price.

    Why do people pay more for a Mercedes-Benz S-Class than for a Kia Amanti? Both are the top level sedan for their respective automakers, both will get you places in comfort, but the Mercedes also costs about three to five times as much. Is there really that much difference between the two? No. Why do people pay it, then? They want the perceived status and quality that comes with owning a Mercedes. To someone that’s looking for an S-Class, an Amanti is just not going to do the job. They’re happy to own their Mercedes. To people who buy an Amanti, they’re happy they saved all that money on a luxury car.

    While in your country people can get by on $5 per hour, the reality is that most Americans cannot, unless they happen to be living in a very cheap area and don’t have to worry about bills like a rent or mortgage. My basic expenses are around $1,400 a month, not including food. I don’t even own a house, I rent. On $5 an hour, I’d be out on the street.

    As far as direct response copy goes, I wouldn’t trust those $5 writers to even get NEAR any product of mine if I were a client. Would you want a sales letter from the person responsible for this site?

    http://ruledating.com/

  23. Bob Bly said:

    Hesster: When it comes specifically to writing services, clients will only pay a premium price to hire an expensive writer if (a) the more expensive writer truly provides superior copy and (b) having superior copy is important to their business model (e.g., they are a direct marketer and if good copy boosts their conversion rates it makes them 100X more than they paid for it).

    If both those conditions do not exist, the client is just as happy to pay a lower price for a lower level of quality, as long as it meets his needs.

  24. Hesster said:

    I’m just saying that someone who is going to pay $5 for an article isn’t someone who is going to pay $500. At least, not unless they get burned a few times with junk.

    It’s the same as looking at the number of entry level cars that get sold and bemoaning that there’s no money in selling more expensive cars anymore. Two different markets. In any case, writers don’t have to put themselves in the position of trying to sell a Mercedes to a Kia buyer.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m a writer, but seeing sites like the one I mentioned gives me absolutely no incentive to buy from the person. I also question whether using cheap, keyword stuffed SEO junk to drive traffic via ads is a sustainable business model in these days with browsers that grow ever more sophisticated at blocking them. I use Firefox with a plugin called Adblock Plus, and I can’t even remember the last time I saw an ad.

  25. Jennifer said:

    Michael: Feeding my family and paying my bills doo determine my fees, if it didn’t we would be on the streets. What I am saying is I expect a decent price for my services and I suspect that many others do also. I don’t think it is fair me to expect to pay bottom prices when I am not willing to accept bottom prices. I don’t compare Africa to America, to me its like apples and oranges. $5 a day would have homeless and starving. I am sorry but I am not going to chose someone from Africa just because I only have to pay $5 and if they are good then whether they live in Africa or America they should charge a decent price that reflects their value.

    Ken and Hesster: I agree

  26. Bob Bly said:

    Jennifer: customers are going to outsource to vendors in other nations as long as they can get the same quality they get here for less. The reason I do not outsource WRITING to other nations is that, virtually without exception, I have found that writers in most other nations (exceptions: Canada, Ireland, Scottland, England, Australia, a few other English-speaking countries)cannot write in natural, smooth-flowing American style prose. Their writing sounds stilted and non-American and does not work for American readers.

  27. Robert Beverly said:

    I’m sure it was $5. I recently had a local guy ask me to write 30,000 words for $300. His expectation was set by online bidding sites. Perhaps also by an ad like the one you mention. I told him “good luck.”

  28. Ken said:

    I just started writng articles out of necsessity (and joy of writing) I would have to say my clients, and potential clients, just do not have the funds to pay higher prices. Now in my particular case, I can do the writing for much less as I too am in a learning curve. With that said though, I do strive to give my clients strong, quality articles.

    The $5 article market though is just pathetic. Business owners, especially those starting out, need to realize they are not only purchasing a product but a service as well. You do get what you pay for 99% of the time.

  29. Bob Bly said:

    Robert: while I can sometimes get decent ghostwritten material for a dime a word, the local guy you mention wants to pay a penny a word — and I can guarantee him that the only ghostwriting he can get for a penny a word is pure crap.

  30. Ken said:

    I just started writng articles out of necessity (and joy of writing) I would have to say my clients, and potential clients, just do not have the funds to pay higher prices. Now in my particular case, I can do the writing for much less as I too am in a learning curve. With that said though, I do strive to give my clients strong, quality articles.

    The $5 article market though is just pathetic. Business owners, especially those starting out, need to realize they are not only purchasing a product but a service as well. You do get what you pay for 99% of the time.

  31. Michael Lockyear said:

    @Jennifer: What is pretty “decent” for someone living in Bangalore, Manila or East London (the little African city where I live!) probably represents a poverty wage where you live.

    In the past the limitations of presence and distance meant that your market was effectively restricted to local competitors…those days are over, or soon will be.

    There are a stack of sites which allow your customers to find less costly service providers in other parts of the world. Now, while I agree that someone who charges $5 000 probably should not be too concerned by the idiot charging $5, what about the guy charging $2 500?

    @Hesster: America does not have a monopoly on quality. If foreigners (in what were once third world countries and in some cases still are) can figure out how to make your shoes, cars, computers AND finance your national deficit, they can probably learn to write copy. It does not have to be as good as yours, just good enough.

    I suspect the solution is probably to be like Bob…multiple income streams, global market (first learnt about Bob when I bought one of his books in the Mid East) and 4-sentence blog posts which inspire dozens of comments!

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  33. maggie said:

    I’ve been reading this thread with interest. And dismay.

    The ‘new economy’ strategy James suggests – excellent idea! Here’s how I see it playing out:

    1/ set reasonable rates for your work
    2/ be consistently undercut by someone from another country willing to work for 2 or 3 dollars a day (yes, a day!)

    3. grumble and complain about how you can’t compete

    4. Opt for building an offshore company that, essentially, takes advantage of those who are forced to work for low wages (and actually encourages lower paying rates)

    If enough people do that, there won’t be decent paying jobs for any of us!

    Granted, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, but I’m of the mind that being competitive shouldn’t necessarily extend to chewing the legs off our own neighbors.

  34. Karla Whitmore said:

    Five bucks an article is GOOD money on bidding sites. It makes me angry. SO angry…

    We should all flood bidding sites and bid only what we’re worth — even on projects that say outright that they will only pay $1 for 500 words.

    The best ones are those that request “U.S. only” and then tell you they want 10 to 20 articles a day for up to a whole $2 each (that, by the way, is by no means the lowest rate)! Of course they want perfect grammar and highest quality. Ugh.

  35. Roy Hunter said:

    It just isn’t writing that is taking a hit from global competition, it’s everything. To achieve economic balance one society must rise and one must fall. Unfortunately we have been at the top of the heap for a long time. Eventually we will see prices starting to fall because no one will be able to afford to pay rent, eat, etc. That is just economics. Supply and demand. Right now there is still the demand to support the prices but as soon as everyone can only get a job at wall mart and make $7 an hour… If businesses want to survive they are going to have to set prices that people can afford. 2% of our society (the rich) can not support our economic system. Something has to give. At the moment, businesses are in the process of raising prices to compensate for lost sales but that is a means to an end. It’s a temporary fix, not a lasting one.

    What is the solution? There isn’t one unless you opt for a closed society but all that will do is invite extreme inflation…

    Perhaps the real solution is developing a skill that can not be imported. That will probably involve using your hands… House cleaners make $20 an hour… “Good enough” writers can be had for $5… Amazing, scrubbing toilets pays better than writing… Mark Twain would roll over in his grave… FYI, He was paid 7 cents a word in his day….

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