Debunking the myths about ‘content mills’

The best of times, the worst of times for copywriters

The best of times, the worst of times for copywriters

I’ve worked in the copywriting industry for a little over 5 years now. I’ve been a staffer at several online marketing agencies, a freelance copywriter, a contractor, and in my last full-time role, the SEO content guy for a retailer. I’ve earned very good rates and I’ve also earned peanuts. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two along the way…

These days, when I’m not badger baiting or seal clubbing, I help to run what is known by some people as a ‘content mill’.

What is a ‘content mill’?

Coming From The Mill - L.S Lowry

Coming From The Mill – L.S Lowry

The term ‘content mill’ was originally used to describe companies like Demand Media, who churn out high volumes of content based on common search engine queries such as: “How do I tie my shoelaces?” These pages are monetised by Google Adsense and other forms of advertising.

We’re not a publisher of this type of content, or a supplier for that matter, but somehow we managed to get tarred with the same brush.

Content mills polarise opinion. Some people love them, others, like the newly-formed Professional Copywriters’ Network, think that they’re exploitative and even immoral. I’m hopefully going to debunk some of the myths that surround them.

There isn’t a need for content mills

Been scraping? You will get Googlewhacked

Been scraping? You will get Googlewhacked

Take the following scenario – you run an ecommerce business selling central heating systems. Because you’ve nicked all of the copy on your pages from your manufacturer’s websites you’ve been Googlewhacked. Your site isn’t getting any traffic, which means you aren’t making any money, so you need to get tens of thousands of product descriptions on your site re-written, and you need it done yesterday.

So where do you go? If you talk to a freelance copywriter, they’ll probably tell you that they might be able to start in a few weeks and it will take about 7 years for them to complete the lot.

You might go to a traditional copywriting agency, but even if they’ve got an in-house team of let’s say more than 10 (unlikely) it will take them several months to complete, and at an hourly rate of £100 it’ll cost you more than your annual turnover. You’re going to have to shift a lot of boilers to see any ROI.

Thanks to Uncle Google, we are getting loads of requests like this at the moment and as far as I can see, content mills are the only businesses that are able to service them.

Content mills are cheap

Copify is cheap in comparison to the rate card championed by the Professional Copywriters’ Network, but then these prices have been drawn up by people who are living in a dream world.

Hands up if you think this is reasonable. Anybody?

Hands up if you think this is reasonable. Anybody?

When deciding on our prices we examined the marketplace to come up with rates that would allow us to pay our writers a fair amount and make a decent profit margin, without (and this is the key) being prohibitively expensive for our customers.

We’re not the cheapest content mill around, nor the most expensive. In this list, compiled by Tom Critchlow, we are classed as ‘mid-range.’ Tom is head of search marketing at Distilled, one of the most respected SEO agencies in the world, so I think this speaks volumes about attitudes within the industry towards pricing.

The ‘per word’ model doesn’t work

Some copywriters argue that charging per word is wrong, but they’re not looking at it from a client’s perspective. There is a good reason why we chose this model, and it’s because our customers like to know what they are getting up front. They aren’t willing to pay for an indeterminate amount of words.

A lot of our customers, particularly in the SEO community, like to stick rigidly to a certain number of words on a page as they belief that this will help them to rank higher. It’s a simple principle, lots of words = lots of information = better content. As with ‘keyword density’, I believe that this is hokum, but I’m more than happy to service the demand. Who am I to tell them that they are wrong? If you want to run a successful business, you have to live by the principle that the customer is ALWAYS right.

Content mills produce low quality content

Member of the Professional Copywriters' Network?

Lots of people have claimed that content mills produce inferior, shoddyor low quality content, but I’m yet to read a negative review from someone who is completely impartial on the subject.

Our neighbours at NuBlue completed a comprehensive review of copy delivered by us, other content mills and a freelance copywriter. If you read this, you’ll see that it’s pretty objective, but of course being in the same building as us, certain people raised questions about conflicts of interest.

So we conducted a blind test on our own blog and the consensus was that the £15 Copify-written piece was better than than the £150 piece from a freelance copywriter.

Copywriting agencies aren’t bothered by content mills

Bothered?

Bothered?

The Professional Copywriters’ Network claims that they ‘aren’t too bothered‘ about content mills, which I’d believe, had the founders not spent the last 2 years trolling us and then launching a site to deal with the threat.

A lady who runs a well-known copywriting agency in London recently told me that she was ‘horrified’ by our business, and she’s right to be. The last time I saw a quote from her firm, it was for twice as much as the nearest competitor (we’re talking six figures here). Guess who won the contract?

 

‘Professional’ copywriters don’t work for content mills

We’ve got just over 300 writers, among them qualified journalists, marketing professionals, novelists and graduates of prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Several of them are even members of the Professional Copywriters’ Network :-)

Most of our writers use the site to supplement their income from full time jobs or other copywriting projects. Why do they work for us?

  • They don’t have to prospect or pitch for work.
  • Jobs are there for them if and when they want them.
  • They don’t have to send out invoices that never get paid.

They’re happy, we’re happy, our customers are happy.

meetings are toxic

Meetings are toxic

You need to have meetings

If you want some copy, give a copywriter a brief detailing your requirements. This should include guidelines on the audience, purpose and style of the piece. The more detail you can provide, the better the outcome.

You don’t need to have a meeting. Some copywriters will tell you that you do, but bear in mind that they are probably billing you for the time.

Content mills exploit copywriters

Like most copywriters, I didn’t grow up with dreams of writing about laminate flooring or central heating, copywriting was something I fell into. I wanted to be a journalist, but I hadn’t bargained on how competitive it would be. When I graduated from University I begged the editor of my local rag to let me do some work experience, I even wrote a piece that they published, but they still wouldn’t let me. So I became a copywriter instead, but I still had to work for nothing for several months before I got my first paid gig.

Michael O'Leary

“If this is such a Siberian salt mine and I am such an ogre, then why are they still working?

Copify gives talented graduates the opportunity to build a portfolio and gain some valuable experience. They get paid to do it. 5 years ago, I’d have given my left arm for that sort of opportunity. We’re also giving established writers the chance to earn money by writing as and when they need it.

We have never claimed that we are offering people a living wage, but I can tell you that we have several writers who have regularly withdrawn a 4 figure sum from the site in a month. That’s a healthy contribution to anybody’s income.

Yes we take a cut, and yes we make a profit, but we’re not exactly dot com millionaires.

being cynical is easy

Being cynical is easy

It’s easy to be cynical about it, but I don’t see the founders of the Professional Copywriters’ Network doing anything to really help anybody but themselves.

Getting real

The demand for content mills reflects the priorities of our customers, namely cost, speed and scale. Usually in that order. If you don’t listen to your customers you will struggle at the best of times, but in a recession, you will die.

I think our argument can be summed up neatly by a conversation I had with a potential client a few weeks ago. He needed thousands of pages of duplicate content rewriting as soon as possible. We quoted for the work but we were turned down in favour of another supplier who agreed to take on the job for a quarter of our price. That’s £0.0075 (three quarters of a penny) per word. You guessed it, he sells boilers. I wished him good luck and told him that if he ever wanted to do it properly, he knew where to find me.

For what it’s worth, I really like the concept of the Professional Copywriters’ Network. The copywriter in me is rooting for them, but until they get real about pricing and the state of the market, I can’t see them doing much more than massaging their own egos.

Copify has been trading for just over 2 and a half years now. In that time we have supplied over 3.2 million words of copy to over 300 customers. Surely we must be doing something right?

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