Think Twice About Writing for Revenue Share

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on June 24, 2011 in Freelance Writing Business
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This post is based on a comment I recently left on Lori Widmer's "If it Didn't Work with Huffington...."

Writing for ad revenue is usually a bad idea for writers. Some of the big networks have been doing it for years, and the problems have been clear for a long time now. It's easy to justify it though. I've been there myself. I've crunched numbers in any way imaginable to convince myself that it was better to get paid over time. But over time, reality sets in. Even if it might have been a good idea several years ago, it isn't now.

Why Writing for Revenue Share is a Bad Deal for Professional Writers

  1. Visitor claims are intentionally exaggerated. A site, mill, or network may indeed have the millions of visitors they claim when they use that point to suck in writers. Great for them. What they neglect to tell you is that the vast majority of those millions will never visit your specific articles. Many go to the homepage. Others use the site for other reasons. They visit articles written by other writers. Those visitors don't earn you any ad revenue, which is usually based directly on ads only found on your articles. You can often monetize your own site much better within a few months.
  2. You don't have any control over the ad placement to improve conversions. Again, you're better with your own site where you can diversify income streams and optimize your site to improve conversions if you want to make money through ad revenue. The best ad placements can vary for different audiences in different niches. Huge sites with a standard article template can't account for that the same way you can independently.
  3. Every article is a gamble. If they're so confident in their ad revenue potential, they can keep it and pay you a fair market rate out of pocket, expecting to profit through the ad revenue over time.
  4. Relying on 3rd party ad revenue means you also rely on 3rd party marketing. Your content is useless without visitors, and if the site isn't going to heavily promote YOUR content (as opposed to generically promoting their site) to get those visitors and drive ad revenue, that falls on you too. Yep. You're expected to market their site too without any direct pay. Tip: it isn't uncommon for people offering that service to make another $50-150 or so per hour.
  5. Long-term promises don't pan out. Some of these sites try to suck writers in by saying they'll earn ad revenue indefinitely or that it will continue to grow over time. That's utter BS. It happens like that early on. But eventually the ad revenue drops unless you continually create new (relatively unpaid) content. Old articles drop in search rankings and lose traffic. They end up in an oversaturated pool of content on the site as opposed to when the program just began. And many articles eventually become outdated. It's rare for anything to earn forever, nonetheless keep increasing in value.
  6. The online ad environment isn't what it used to be. --  If you've been involved with online advertising for years, you probably know it can be tougher now to survive on a single ad revenue stream than in the past. That's especially true if a site relies on something like Adsense alone, when it's common knowledge that model has been suffering due to social media and changes in online ad models available to advertisers. Keep your content on your own site and invest in its growth for a few months instead and you can diversify your income streams much more effectively based on what works in your niche (another tip: not all niches monetize well through contextual advertising).
  7. High earner examples are also exaggerated. -- Another way these sites draw in writers is by sharing case studies for writers making out well with their system. But what they don't tell you is equally important. Take a look at their about page, press room, or anywhere else they offer info about their site. See how many writers they claim to have. Now how many high earner case studies are there? Back in January one of these revenue share sites inadvertently made their list of top earners publicly viewable. While they didn't share names with the revenue info, here's what you could find out if you took a look: out of the 20,000 "professional" writers they claim to have working for them (another page says 8000 which more likely represents the US / Canada site), only nine were earning over $1000 per month. The highest earned under $2400. Keep in mind that contractor pay is a very different animal than employee pay, and you can see how little this actually works out to for those US / Canadian writers. A beginning writer with an effective marketing plan can earn more with private clients. While things will fluctuate over time, this is hardly a good sign, or the glowing image they try to present to attract new writers.
  8. There's a high opportunity cost. -- Not only did few writers reach even a low full-time income level, but to do so generally means writing hundreds of articles first with little up-front return. Any way you cut it, you're better off getting paid a reasonable rate up front and then investing that money for better returns. You have the money when you need it. You can invest it back in your business for further growth and greater income potential. And in a stable investment you can see consistent gains without the risk of that suddenly stopping as Google algorithms change.
  9. There is no sure future. -- Along those lines, you take another risk when you write for these sites. They're often highly focused on writing for search engines or ad revenue over readers (and any site letting writers write about anything based on how much ad revenue it brings rather than topical knowledge fits the bill). This is why these kinds of sites run the risk of being targeted by search engines like Google which are looking for ways to weed out shallow content and spammy sites. I received an email just a week or two ago from someone about one of the bigger revenue share sites, telling me how they were completely slammed by the Google Panda update (which was its intention). In other words, you can't count on your traffic or income sticking around when you don't control the sites your content is shown on. If it's your own site you can fix the problems quickly and request reconsideration. You don't have that ability with a third party site.

Here's what it comes down to: bad deal for the writer, great deal for the cheapskate site owners. If you're a hobby writer hoping to pick up a few bucks and you have no interest in launching your own site, by all means go for it. The point isn't that they have absolutely no place, but rather that these sites aren't right for most professional writers.

If the exception to the rule is only earning a low full-time freelance income, that should be a hint that you can do better. Even if you think you can match their success, look at the numbers. We're talking about chances like being one out of 1000-2000 writers (depending on which of the site's writer stats you choose to look at -- either way, not in your favor).

Instead, use your content on your own site. Chances are good you won't get rich that way either. But you have full control. And your own site goes much further in promoting your services to private clients -- where the real money will come from for most professional freelance writers.

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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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21 Comments

  1. Cathy Miller June 24, 2011 Reply

    In your spare time :-) could you create a how to monetize (love that word) your site? I’d pay to get your spin on it. :-)

    • Jennifer Mattern June 24, 2011 Reply

      The post could use a little cleaning up, but I actually have something along those lines already. :)

      http://allfreelancewriting.com/2008/10/16/specialties/blogging/make-money-blogging-an-additional-income-stream-for-freelance-writers/

      I can say that my own preference is to earn through value-added information products and services. I’ve found the best return that way. Some niches still do fairly well through contextual ads though ($1.00 or more per click). They’re usually in business, finance, and marketing niches in my experience.

      If you have specific questions, let me know and if I don’t already have something I’ll see if I can put together a post on it. :)

  2. Cathy Miller June 24, 2011 Reply

    Thanks, Jenn. I will definitely check out the post-it came out about the same time I did – from Corporate-LOL! ;-)

    I think I am inclined the same way you are about using value-added, but I promised myself to get educated and have a solid plan in place moving into 2012.

    Thanks again, Jenn!

  3. Sharon Hurley Hall June 24, 2011 Reply

    Yes, yes, yes! Way back when I wrote a post called Ad Revenue Share is NOT a Paid Blogging Job. Even then it was an unreliable income earner and that’s even truer today. Glad to see this detailed explanation of why revenue share sites aren’t for everyone, Jenn.

    • Jennifer Mattern June 27, 2011 Reply

      This is one of those topics that just keeps coming around. And I think it’s a good one to bring up every now and then to expose some of the realities to all of the new blood out there. It was a bad idea years ago, and nothing’s changed (at least not for the better). Of course that does’t meant up front payments are always great either — Demand’s a great example of even poorer pay per piece than some rev share sites. I can see why newbies think of rev share as a good idea compared to something like that. But having a bar set that low to begin with is another problem. Hopefully more new freelance writers will figure out early on that they can make good money without having to crank out thousands of sub-par articles. Only time will tell I guess. The biggest change recently was the Panda update from Google. Not as big of a wake up call as perhaps it should have been, but definitely a start. :)

  4. Freelance Jobs Guru June 24, 2011 Reply

    Not a professional writer per se but I do get the point of why it should definitely avoided. There are better, and much more profitable, options for Professional writers. Being a Freelance writer is a career you’ll never go wrong with actually and it was the first thing that came to mind.

    Or… You could also just start your own blog! Sky’s the limit when you have the talent and the dedication actually so thanks for pointing this out Jennifer!

    Cheers from the Freelance Jobs Guru!

    • Jennifer Mattern June 27, 2011 Reply

      Absolutely. Dedication is the big one. Blogging isn’t a get rich quick scheme. But you can make great money if you know what you’re doing and you’re willing to work hard. The mistake is in thinking it’s easy or “anyone can do it.” Most can’t. As writers we have an edge when it comes to content strategy and development for blogging, and that’s a big part of making it profitable (although hardly the only part). Even if we don’t earn directly through ad revenue or product sales, blogs are often highly profitable in that they drive potential clients to hire us. In my experience, the ones who hire that way do so because they want to get a feel for someone’s personality before working with them. What better marketing tool could you ask for than one that’s all about letting you be yourself? :)

  5. Lori June 27, 2011 Reply

    SUPER post, Jenn! (and thanks for the shout-out) I get push-back on this idea of ad revenue = bad deal a lot. No one has ever been able to show me how it’s a moneymaker for anyone but the people who own the sites. I’ve said it before – if you have to whip out a calculator and some math equations to prove it’s a decent gig, it really isn’t.

    • Jennifer Mattern June 27, 2011 Reply

      I’ve come across a couple of people who make $500-2000 per month. And that’s great for them…. just not when you could be making several times that much for less work, have to churn out 4000+ articles first (as some boasting about their earnings had), or want any semblance of a reliable career. I’ve seen too many others get burned when sites disappear, get sold, change their revenue models, etc. They can promise all they want into eternity. The simple truth is that they won’t be around forever. Your work is used now and bringing them income now, so you should be paid now. That’s all there is to it. No matter how you try to manipulate the numbers (and I know how that goes — been there, done that), it doesn’t work out. You’re always better off charging professional rates, getting paid up front, and using that money to either pay down debts with accumulating interest or invest it. Plus, you have that up front money to cover your regular living expenses. Nice little thing about getting what you’re worth every time, right?

      I think a part of the problem is that people want to call themselves professionals when they take these gigs, but they don’t look beyond amateur hour $15 articles as a comparison point. They justify revenue share by saying “but I’ll earn more per article than such-and-such-a-stupid-mill pays” and think they have a point. When you compare those earnings to pro-level markets you see a very different picture. Professional blogging (what these articles are often the equivalent of) often pays $100 per post on the low end for people who know how to go out there and get the gigs. The numbers just aren’t comparable. You would spend years “paying your dues” to get to a comparable level. You spend so much time churning out quick pieces that there isn’t much left over to pursue better markets those other writers already have a hand in. They can write much less to earn the same amount, and have plenty of billable hours left over to double or triple what you’re earning (or more). They earn more. You keep playing with your calculator and hypotheticals. Even then, anything comparable is assuming you continue to earn indefinitely for every article you write. And that’s something anyone involved in Web publishing for more than 2 minutes can tell you is far from reality.

  6. Corey Freeman | Writing Whale July 8, 2011 Reply

    I wish I’d read this post before I read the clients one! Now I’m officially swearing off of revenue sharing sites. You’ve convinced me. Instead, I have a new idea…

    Writers could take their articles that they would use on revenue sites and use them as guest posts for blogs in their niche. I mostly have a lot of topics about blogging that I don’t necessarily want to cover on my writing website, but I could easily use them as guest posts and build a name for myself in the community.

    Another random thought I just had are putting together content packages. Perhaps you write unique articles on a certain subject and sell them via web forums or an online store for a premium price. Could be an interesting way to make some coin…

    • Jennifer Mattern July 10, 2011 Reply

      It’s amazing how good they can make it sound, isn’t it? ;)

      I used to do something similar to what you’re talking about — PLR article packs as opposed to single-sale ones. I don’t think the PLR market is anywhere near where it was then, but unique ones might work as an introductory kind of offer. I know one of my best regular clients now is someone who purchased and published one of my very old PLR sets. So maybe it would be a good low-cost intro for them, but more control (and the ability to write those on your own time ahead of time) for you. :)

  7. Alex S. January 23, 2014 Reply

    I have to weigh in and argue against some of the things being said here about revenue sharing. First, however, I have to make sure to acknowledge that adsense revenue channels by themselves are likely not a good revenue source for anyone. The 21st century web that Google envisions is based on high quality content that has a low bounce rate and plenty of internal linkage to ease the search process. This is good for both the website, but also the writers whose quality content can have an extended lifespan. The new model of revenue share has to be equitable and the only way to accomplish that is with small teams (no more than 10 authors ever) who all can share, all sources of income! Not net profit, but gross income. The operational costs must always be carried by the site’s owner. There is more to it, but that is a discussion for our contributors and I.

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern January 23, 2014 Reply

      It sounds like what you’re talking about would be more of a partnership arrangement and not the kind of business model we were talking about here — where the revenue share is with a team of independent contractors on a commission-style basis. No matter what their revenue streams are, the companies with these pay models will never change them to offering a percentage of gross earnings. I’m also not sure how you’d decide what’s “equitable.” If a writer wants to earn more, the only real solutions are to hand-pick your clients (where you’re traditionally paid per project) or earn through your own publications, where you have full control over the revenue streams. What you’re talking about might work for smaller online publications set up as a sort of collaborative project. But it wouldn’t likely work for the larger companies, which are the ones bringing in the bulk of the revenue (although thankfully, since this was written, content mills have taken some major hits).

  8. Alex S. January 27, 2014 Reply

    I am a big fan of Google’s split of 6832. It is always wiser to follow a proven model than one that’s unproven or flawed. Ultimately, moving toward massive arrangements with larger companies is the ideal way to monetize any blog. In order to get there you need content and backlinks, which are only realistically possible by working in groups. Telling authors that such things as earned equity andor revenue splits are all worthless, is a flawed statement. There are arrangements that can raise all authors to prominence.
    Alex S. recently posted…The Importance of Taking it Easy: What Training my Dog Has Taught MeMy Profile

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern January 27, 2014 Reply

      I fail to see how your comment relates to the issue at hand here, which is writing for revenue share from content mills / content networks (Suite101, Demand Media Studios, etc.). And in that case, the only proven model is that these kinds of sites and their revenue share pay models repeatedly fail and the writers are the ones who get screwed over. Suggesting any writer take a deal like that would be irresponsible.

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern January 27, 2014 Reply

      I assume what you’re really talking about is your cut from ad networks when monetizing your own blog. That’s an entirely different animal, and blog monetization is something we’ve covered on this blog as well.

      Are you able to clarify what you mean by “massive arrangements with larger companies” though? I’ve known quite a few highly successful bloggers, many earning significant full-time incomes. But I don’t know a single one who used a model that sounds like that. So without knowing what point you’re trying to get at, I can’t see how it would be “ideal” as a way to monetize a blog. It sounds like it would involve relying on a larger third party, which generally is not a great idea (it’s how bloggers get in trouble relying too heavily on single sources of traffic and revenue, like Google).

  9. George Stone March 7, 2014 Reply

    You are wrong. What’s the difference if your content is sitting useless on your hard drive? The answer to every one of your “reasons” is that it is better to be earning something than nothing.

    No one is saying that if you can get a better offer or you are in such demand that you can get paid up front – that you shouldn’t do it.

    You are giving advice to writers who are already being marginalized and commoditized by “content spinners” and the like – NOT to compete and to hold out for something that you yourself say is diminishing.

    No, the answer is to generate revenue any way that you can – it doesn’t matter if it is your site or a rev share – in reality, practically everything you give as a downside happens whether you are in complete control of your content or someone else is – just make sure you are actually getting a revenue share and that they provide you with some kind of accounting.

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