Moving Past Demand Media Studios

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on October 7, 2011 in Freelance Writing Jobs
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As some of you might know, Demand Media recently emailed their DMS writers about pending changes. Here's what it comes down to.

This business model was hit hard by Google recently -- a big source of both traffic and income for content mills, farms, networks, or whatever we're calling them this month.

Demand realized they have to change things. For example, you can't have repeat shallow content if you want to succeed in the search engine game anymore. Or at least you can't when your company is public, eyes are on you, and Google's playing Big Brother (which, for once, is a good thing).

That means Demand can't keep hiring writers to write on the same old evergreen topics like the seven articles we referenced here previously on how to teach a dog to sit. The "robotic organization" image where they're seemingly only interested in traffic stats and ad revenue (as opposed to readers) just won't fly anymore.

Where does that leave the writers? Well, there will be far fewer assignments available. If you hung your hopes on Demand's past stories about their super-successful business model, you might feel like you've been left a bit high and dry right now.

I've also seen writers' responses to this news. On one hand it's difficult for me to have sympathy when we've spent so much time and energy here helping writers improve their freelance businesses. The information is out there -- not only here, but from many great freelancers such as Lori Widmer, Anne Wayman, and Peter Bowerman, and the folks at Freelance Zone, Freelance Folder, and Freelance Switch. If you want to be a more successful freelance writer, you have seemingly endless information available to help you do that.


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On the other hand, I can't help but sympathize with some of these writers. The news came somewhat suddenly and not long before the holidays. While it's true no one should have been relying too heavily on any single client, content mill or not, I know they'll have a tough road ahead as their own business models are forced into a period of transition.

Plenty of Demand's writers know how to run a more profitable and more stable freelance business. They choose to write for Demand for their own reasons. And that's fine. But many of the comments I'm seeing are from people who honestly do not know where to start. Mill work is the only freelance writing work some have taken on. They've never marketed their own business. Others don't know how to look beyond advertised gigs (and most of the best gigs are never publicly advertised).

It's no secret that I have no warm and gushy feelings for Demand as a company or for the top dogs working there. But I do feel for those writers who feel sideswiped right now, who realize there are better opportunities out there, and who are truly interested in learning how to land those better gigs. For those writers willing to work for it, I'm launching a week-long post series next week.

The series will run Monday-Friday and cover the following topics:

  1. Types of Freelance Writing Jobs You Can Pursue Today
  2. Freelance Marketing - Market Research and Planning
  3. Freelance Marketing - Moving Beyond Job Boards
  4. How to Develop Your Writer Platform and Make Jobs Come to You
  5. Building New Income Streams When Client Work is Slow

I was also contacted this week by a DMS writer who asked if I was available for coaching. Unfortunately with my pending move over the next few weeks and other schedule limitations, that isn't an option. However, I'd like to make an open offer to five freelancers working for Demand and looking for something better.

[Update: This offer has ended as all five spots have already been filled.]

If you email me about your situation -- your specialty area, the rates you would like to be able to earn, the type of clients you want to work for, past credits other than Demand (if any), etc. -- I'll publish a post on the blog with tips and advice customized to your situation. I can't do this for everyone which is why I'm limiting it to five people for now.

If you're interested but concerned about sharing your information publicly, I'm willing to let you remain anonymous or use only your first name if you prefer. I'll accept these requests Monday through Friday of next week (October 10 - 14), and will publish up to five responses during the following one or two weeks.

My hope is that this post series and writer-specific examples will serve as guidelines to help others. In the meantime, I strongly suggest reading the blogs linked above. And if you're looking for more reading material, check out these books:

  • The Well-Fed Writer
  • The Wealthy Freelancer
  • The Renegade Writer
  • The Wealthy Writer

They're all wonderful and comprehensive resources that can help you improve on the business side of being a freelance writer.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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30 Comments

  1. Allena October 7, 2011 Reply

    I offer coaching services!

  2. Peter Bowerman October 8, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Jenn,

    Appreciate the plug for The Well-Fed Writer. I think commercial writing (subject of TWFW) is definitely an arena the erstwhile content-mill writers ought to consider. That said, know that it’s a higher-stakes game. As you accurately point, the best gigs are virtually never advertised; you have to hunt them down.

    Plus, the expectations are higher. Not trying to ruffle any feathers here, but writing for content mills and writing commercially for companies are two very different things. The former is somewhat formulaic and the quality of the writing matters far less than its ability, through its keywords, to drive traffic to the site.

    In commercial writing, the writing definitely matters, and yes, often because of its ability to drive traffic, though not primarily through keywords (though depending on the project, that is a factor), but rather through the writing itself.

    The commercial field also takes a longer ramp-up time to profitability because the jobs aren’t the low-hanging fruit you might in the content-mill arena.

    The good news is this: if you’ve been writing for content mills, and have lamented the fact that the writing seems to be somewhat secondary, and you truly love to write, the commercial field will force you to do more real writing and be a better writer.

    And of course, the real payoff is the money. Once you DO get established, hourly rates in our field are, on the low end, $50-60, and go on up to $100-125 and higher. No kidding. I’m working with several clients right now who pay me $125 an hour. Definitely not an overnight thing by any means, but the work isn’t nearly as difficult as you might imagine.

    And since 2002, I’ve been doing coaching as well, for those building a commercial writing practice, though anyone even considering that path ought to read the book first so any time we do spend working together is more productive. All details on TWFW site.

    Good luck to all making the transition!

    PB

    • Jennifer Mattern October 10, 2011 Reply

      No problem Peter. I love the book (currently my favorite on freelancing). So I’m happy to promote it from time to time. :)

      And thanks for providing some additional background for those considering commercial writing!

  3. Anita Cooper October 9, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Jenn, great post!

    I left DS a while ago, and I hope many more writers do as well, however I did (out of nosiness) check back from time to time to see what was going on. The assignments kept dwindling, and the ones that were available were really LAME!

    Thanks to your website, and a great post from Carol Tice re the DS business model, I knew ahead of time that they would eventually start sinking so I didn’t rely on them but pushed myself and my business until I got better paying (and more satisfying) gigs.

    I know it sounds mean to say it, but I get a perverse sort of satisfaction out of their demise. Do I believe they’ll still be around? Yes, but hopefully they will be forced to confront their treatment of their writers and treat the ones who stick around much better, but unfortunately the pessimist in me says they won’t.

    I do sincerely hope that this event stirs those writers who are still with DS into marketing their business to find better paying gigs. The “pollyanna” in me hopes that all writers slaving for DS leave in droves, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great post!

    • Jennifer Mattern October 10, 2011 Reply

      First, congratulations on moving forward in your career. It sounds like you’re in a better position now, and I always love to see that. :)

      As for your perverse sort of satisfaction, I get it. I love seeing a company that exploits writers go down. I love seeing the mother of all MFA sites finally have to change its ways (after how many years of asking Google to do their job on that one?). By no means will Demand disappear overnight. But if these changes aren’t a wake up call for writers there, I really don’t know what else would be. Hopefully they’ll see the opportunity in it rather than harp on the immediate problem of fewer articles there. Besides, the New Year is approaching, so it’s the perfect time to re-evaluate and find new ways to thrive and grow anyway. Throw in the fact that recessions are great times for freelancers who know how to market effectively and several of the worst offenders on the content mill front were penalized recently for their business models, and 2012 might just be the year of the freelancer. :)

  4. Matt October 11, 2011 Reply

    While I really like the idea of moving past Demand Studios you must admit there is difficulty in doing it for people who are just making ends me.

    I just graduated university and the only work I could get was either Demand Studios or working at a local retail shop. Given my writing speed I make more per hour writing for Demand than I would have working at the retail shop even after freelance taxes. Even then, however, I am just barely making the $2,000 I need per month in expenses.

    I want to move into the land of better paying writing but I don’t see a solution. I can’t afford to work less on articles to utilize all the advice of starting a website, sending query letters, writing yet another e-book on writing that everyone else sells. Combine that with a lack of any ‘real’ writing experience I can’t seem to find any jobs in the hour before bed I do look for better work that would choose to hire me over you.

    How do I get a leg up?

    • Jennifer Mattern October 11, 2011 Reply

      I’m going to give you some of the same blunt thoughts I’ve given folks in your situation before Matt.

      1. No, that isn’t the only work you could get. It might have been the easiest writing work you could get, but not the “only.” In the end, it’s just the work you chose to take.

      2. Stop thinking in terms of speed, and think instead about quality. No writer can do their best work while worrying about how many articles they can cram into an hour to make ends meet.

      3. You’re trapped in what we frequently call a “low pay rut” — where billable hours suck up all of your time just to get by, and you aren’t left with time to grow your business. This is exactly how content mills work — they suck writers in with promises of what they might make per hour (misleading info deserving of an entirely different post), and then you realize to reach those goals you have to write at burn out levels. For a new writer, if you don’t have at least half of your time going to non-billable hours (like marketing and admin work), you’re probably hurting your growth. That can change down the road when you have steady clients, incoming referrals, and a solid platform attracting new clients. There is no way around this other than making up your mind to do it.

      4. No one said you have to write an e-book on writing. In fact, as someone admittedly struggling in the industry you would be hard-pressed to convince other writers to buy one from you. E-books are wonderful, but you’re thinking in terms of colleague audiences rather than clients. What’s your specialty? If you don’t have one, start there. Do you plan to keep writing Web content or do you want to do something else? What is your degree in, given that you just graduated? You have specialized knowledge in some topic, whether or not it’s tied to your formal education. You just need to pin point some options based on your experiences and interests and then figure out if there’s a demand for writers in that niche.

      5. I used to work for content networks (similar to the pay-per-piece mills like Demand). Do you know how I got my first Web writing gig after leaving that crap behind? I asked for it. I stated a rate. It was accepted. There’s no better feeling as a freelancer. You just have to get out there and do it. It’s not easy. Running a business isn’t meant to be easy. It’s work. But it can be the most enjoyable work around if you put in the effort. That might mean working ridiculous hours in the first few weeks or couple of months to get off the ground. It’s not necessary, but you would be far from the first to take that approach.

      6. If you’re “looking for jobs” stop. Of all the successful freelancers I know, the most successful don’t sit around trolling job boards, classified sites, or bidding sites. The best gigs simply aren’t there, and you lump yourself into the low paying markets. It’s a waste of time, and it sounds like time is very precious to you. I also wouldn’t put marketing off until before bed. It won’t be a priority until you treat it like one. Try reaching out to people first thing during your work day instead.

      Other than a financial target, I don’t see any goals here. If you email me before those 5 spots fill up, I’d be happy to consider you for more customized advice. But I’d need to know more about your situation — what you want to earn per article, what topic(s) you can write about in an authoritative way, what kinds of writing you want to pursue other than Web content (if anything), what experience you have with blogging or managing a website, how many hours per day you intend to work while you grow your business, etc. Help me figure out your situation and I might be able to help you come up with a plan.

  5. Jennifer Mattern October 11, 2011 Reply

    Just a quick note to let everyone know the offer to help 5 writers with more customized advice is over. All spots have been filled. Check back Monday – Friday next week to read my suggestions for those writers’ unique situations. You just might find something that would apply equally well to your own goals.

  6. Allena October 12, 2011 Reply

    Jennifer, the advice you gave Matt there, the 1-6, that is SOME OF THE BEST WRITING ADVICE I’VE SEEN TO DATE!

  7. Zachary Fenell October 14, 2011 Reply

    Personally I find the idea of this announcement being “sudden” a misconception. As I mention in my own blog post reacting to Demand Media’s email (http://www.zacharyfenell.com/Blog.html?entry=reaction-to-demand-media-s), for three months I failed to find anything I could write for DMS. The writing, pun not intended, was on the wall and the email to writers and editors only made the inevitable official.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 14, 2011 Reply

      Thanks for the added feedback Zach. I’d heard similar things — that assignments had been slowing down for a while. But it seemed a lot of people were still holding out hope the assignments would increase again until this official announcement came out.

      I’m not sure if you’re comfortable confirming anything, but I’ve read that Demand blatantly threw excuses like tech glitches and people being on holiday at contributors, saying more gigs would be coming soon. Did you see that happen, or was that likely an issue with individual editors rather than official excuses coming from the company?

  8. Christine Lebednik October 16, 2011 Reply

    Hi, Jenn:

    I’m not Zachary, but since I happened to be looking around on a Sunday morning and noticed his post and your response, I thought I’d reply to your last inquiry following this first in the series.

    I wouldn’t call what happened at Demand “blatantly threw excuses” but the reality is there were many contradictory signals pretty much throughout 2011, but really heating up more starting around the end of April.

    There had been several brief title “droughts” during that time, and two rounds of their program to evaluate writers for continuing suitability . . . coordinating with the end of the last two financial quarters.

    Prior to this “sudden” post, there was indeed another official post [by a different staff member] stating that the title slowdown was temporary. I checked the date of that for posting here: that came out on July 18.

    Technically, there are contradictory signals even as I post this. Through the end of the month one of the groups in the five or six categories of title generation are on bonus pay status for exceeding a certain number of titles in the course of a week or two weeks.

    And mid-to-late this past week, Demand staff posted a link to a new “training” resource for novice writers. And, although as some said, existing ads may be on auto-rotation, there are recruitment ads out there and some indication Demand has hired some writers even since this announcement.

    Writers there wouldn’t pay much attention to the potential of a glitch impacting the workflow, since glitches there are common though those affecting the writers and editors typically get corrected within minutes or hours at the most. But, yes, that, too has been given as a part of the reason but so my understanding primarily affecting those with Livestrong writing permissions. [I believe there was a very short-lived glitch that was supposed to have prevented potential work orders getting to those who do the title creation functions, of which there are five or six separate roles.]

    Whether the July 18 post was blatant misdirection or Demand itself truly believed it would continue to with many writing assignments going forward is unclear [and there was a pick-up in available, decent titles just around start-of-school-year time], but in overall answer to your question: there definitely was a mid-July, official posting in the Demand forums Studios News section that the title drought was temporary and things were expected to return at least close to previous levels.

    So, in that sense, there was contradictory official information that made the announcement a week or so ago ‘seem’ to be sudden: in that in the context of the July 18 statement, the more recent announcement blindsided a lot of folks. I do think a lot more people would have paid far more attention to adverse evidential indicators had that July 18 official reassurance not gotten posted.

    The general sense is one of betrayal that Demand posted that in mid-July and a couple months later, the next true official pronouncement, came out an reversed its position to say ‘we’re going in a totally different direction now.’

    Christine Lebednik

    • Jennifer Mattern October 17, 2011 Reply

      Christine,

      Thanks so much for sharing some further insight into what was going on behind the scenes. It always helps to have some context to put others’ comments into. That’s truly sad that Demand made those kinds of official claims when the slow down was starting to happen.

  9. phone number lookup February 7, 2012 Reply

    Demand medias last hurah was with ehow. After that it has been a downhill struggle.

  10. CJ McKinney February 9, 2012 Reply

    Though this is a great series of posts for former DMS writers, I really have to comment on the “blunt thoughts” to Matt and maybe show another side of the story. Quite often on the freelance writer sites (including this one) it’s said that people shouldn’t work for the “content mills” when many other higher paid opportunities are available — and there seems to be a certain smugness in telling someone that they “choose” to do that. I was a DMS writer too. I lost my job and was struggling with caring for an invalid at home, and frankly, $15 a pop from DMS for an hour or so of my time without a commute really DID trump anything else I was able to find for a quick paycheck — while I was trying to build a platform and market my services. Did I choose? Certainly, but those higher paying jobs weren’t there to pay for my groceries and I would have earned less at anything else locally I could find to do. Some of us are a little more “nicheless” than others and it takes a while to find and get those better opportunities. I don’t deny that those opportunities are there, and better for us all as writers. But please, don’t condescend in the guise of “blunt thoughts.” There are many reasons for working for DMS and for some of us it’s been quite useful.

    • Jennifer Mattern February 9, 2012 Reply

      If it worked out well for you and you honestly don’t think you could have met your goals in a “better” way, then I’m truly happy for you. But this site caters to freelance writers who aren’t in it as a hobbyist, to earn a few extra bucks from home, or even those looking for temporary quick options due to a more desperate situation (something I’m never happy to see anyone face).

      Advice here will always target those writers trying to build their professional careers. And content mills are not a great option for those folks, even as a stepping stone. While I’m sorry if you felt offended, we’ve gone out of our way here in past posts to point out that we do think these sites have a place for some groups looking for work — just not the bulk of writers we cater to here.

      Demand Media’s reps have outright lied to writers (well-documented in another post here). And under no circumstances will I ever sugarcoat my feelings on the issue of working for them. Again, I’m sorry if you find that offensive. But I find it equally offensive when I see people support a company that so openly and blatantly has exploited writers.

      We don’t have to see eye to eye on the issue. I’m happy it worked out for you.

  11. Lori February 10, 2012 Reply

    CJ, I hear what you’re saying. You were stuck in a situation where DMS may have seemed like the only option. It’s quick money, it’s not brain surgery, and it pays on time. But I think Jenn is right in saying it wasn’t the only option, and it was a choice. Hear me out.

    I lost my job suddenly. I sort of saw it coming, but that didn’t soften the blow of being terminated with no unemployment benefits, no health care, and a child at home to raise by myself. I had to get working, and fast.

    What I did was turn to editors. In a few days I had article assignments. In a few weeks, I had checks from those articles. They didn’t pay $15. They paid $750. Sure, I may have waited an extra week or two for the cash, but it was worth the wait, and the payoff was a ton better.

    That was my choice. I knew the payment wasn’t going to be immediate, but I knew the direction I wanted to take would require some hard work. That’s not saying you don’t work hard. I’m sure you do. What I mean by hard work is knowing my choice had a higher payoff but a longer wait between checks. Believe me, when you have thirty bucks in your wallet and the rent check is coming due, that’s a damn hard choice.

    I don’t think niche writing is necessary to have a great career. I know a good number of writers who don’t have niches and who have damn good incomes. I know one writer in particular who markets herself as a generalist, and she’s never out of work.

    I think your choice was the one you felt you had to make. That’s fine, but I don’t think someone saying you had other choices is necessarily condescending, nor is it wrong. We all have choices, and we make the ones that fit us at that time. I think in Jenn’s original post, she even says something akin to that: ” They choose to write for Demand for their own reasons. And that’s fine. But many of the comments I’m seeing are from people who honestly do not know where to start.”

    Then she goes on to tell us how she’s going to help those stuck in that cycle to break out of it. If there’s a perceived smugness, I think it’s coming from something internal. I don’t see that pointing out the choice and saying it’s fine to make that choice is condescending.

  12. Jennifer February 16, 2012 Reply

    Thank you so much for writing this informative post. This post has been a life line for me as I made the transition away from Demand Studios. After much learning, I am finally about to launch my blog: http://dreamingofjune.com/

    Do you have any advice for obtaining quality photos for blogs? I still have much to learn, but building from the ground up on my own terms is infinitely better than article mill work. I appreciate what you do here and will not hesitate to refer other writers to you!

    • Jennifer Mattern February 16, 2012 Reply

      Thanks Jennifer! I’m so happy to hear that the site’s been helpful to you. :)

      It looks like you’re off to a good start with your blog. Congratulations!

      As for photos you can use in blog posts, I often buy stock photos. My favorite two sites for that are Fotolia.com and BigStockPhoto.com. But you can find free images with Creative Commons licenses as well. Flickr is a good place for that. Since you run ads on the blog, I’d suggest sticking to ones that are licensed for commercial re-use. You can find them by using the site’s advanced search options. You can also do a Google Images search. Again, use the advanced search option and make sure you check the appropriate re-use licensing. That way you don’t risk violating anyone’s copyrights. :)

  13. Jennifer February 16, 2012 Reply

    Great, thanks!

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