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Copywriters – should you do free trials?

Being a freelance copywriter often means being thrown the odd curve ball. One of these challenges might be requests to do free trials.

This is a difficult one, especially if you’re a new copywriter trying to build a client base. Do you give up your time and do the trial, or do you turn it down and spend that time marketing your services to a client who actually wants to pay you? Ultimately, it’s your call, but please at least read this before jumping in with both feet.

Wearing my copywriter’s hat, this happened to me quite recently. I thought it would make a good blog and recalled having seen another copywriter writing about the very same thing. So, after some digging, I found Alastaire Allday’s blog on free samples. I agree wholeheartedly with his advice and there’s no point in repeating it. Instead, I’m going to explain what happened to me quite recently …

Out of nowhere, I got an email saying …

“The reason I’m contacting you is because I’m looking for copywriters interested in collaborating with us on an ongoing project and I believe that your profile fits our current needs.”

Unless you’re a sceptic (like me), your first reaction might be to feel flattered and to think, ‘Hey – out of all those copywriters, they’ve chosen little old me – I’ve arrived.’

But what of their request?

“I’d like to know if you’ll be willing to take a test of 1-5 pages in order to start working together. After taking and passing the test the first project would entail quite a large volume of work, since the catalogue has approximately 160 pages, and most likely a long-term collaboration with us because we would need your services again in the future for similar projects. Subject matter is retail/consumer products. I would appreciate it very much if you’ll include in your reply an estimate of the cost for this project and how much time would it take.”

1 to 5 pages of what? This could amount to a day’s work or more. I have no idea what they actually want. A 160-page brochure, eh? Sound tempting? It’s meant to – they’re dangling a carrot here. But they haven’t told me nearly enough to make a decision about a trial, let alone give them a quote.

I had no intention of doing the trial. And I certainly wouldn’t quote for a job unless I knew exactly what was involved. But for the sake of a potential blog, I thought I’d put them to the test.

I replied saying it was not our policy to offer free trials, but I would consider a paid trial if I had a proper brief. Much to my surprise, they replied saying they would consider it! Oh! But I had just three days to do it.

The next line in the email went on to ask …

“Have you done this type of work before? Could you possibly send us your portfolio?”

Remember, they approached me. They had already said, “I believe that your profile fits our current needs.” So why, if they had done their homework and I met their criteria, were they asking these questions?

Incidentally, their proposed free trial involved three versions of four different pages of a brochure (12 pages?). That could have amounted to a couple of days of my time that no-one was going to pay for. They would have had the benefit of my skill, knowledge and experience without paying a penny for it. What would you have done under the circumstances?

So when this happens to you (and it surely will), remember this blog. Check out Alastaire Allday’s advice too before making any decisions. And tread carefully.

Blog post by Joy McCarthy

17 Responses to Copywriters – should you do free trials?

  1. I completely agree with your approach. That’s an enormous amount of work to ask for as a trial, it could constitute a whole project for a paying client.

    In general I think any serious freelance copywriter should have a web-presence and a portfolio that makes the idea of trial writing redundant. They can see what you’re capable of already, if they’re willing to look, and the fact that they replied asking you to send a portfolio shows they didn’t. A clear sign that they weren’t after a demonstration of ability!

    Excellent article though, it’s something well worth drawing attention to.

  2. This blog made me laugh as I had a very similar email about a year ago – in fact, their brief was exactly the same so I reckon they do the rounds every year, these people. It’s so crafty – they’re clearly scamming copywriters into writing for them for free. Hopefully anyone else who gets the email will think to Google it, then they’ll find this blog.

    Great site, by the way! Keep up the good work!

  3. Thanks for your comment Phil. If you also see Nick Jones’ comment (thanks Nick), it sounds like this was a bit of a scam and a way of getting free copy – something all copywriters need to be aware of.

  4. Bizarrely enough I clicked on this article via twitter not knowing it referenced my own blog post!

    Even more bizarrely, I had the exact same request come in myself – down to the wording, so I know it was from the same people. They fish for as much free copy as they can.

    Naturally, I turned it down, for much the same reasons as you have found out!

    Great article, and thanks for linking.

  5. Thanks for your comments Alasaire. And thanks for your post too which made such a great link and saved me writing it myself!

    This blog seems to be turning into an exposé. It will be interesting to see how many more copywriters we can turn up who have had the same request. I wonder how many have done the work and never been paid?

  6. It’s interesting because if it keeps turning up then presumably someone out there is actually going along with it. Would be interesting (and upsetting) to find someone who’s actually written for them!

  7. Not had that one, but have been asked to do free trials before. But this has involved only one article that has been quite short. That’s been the only things I have consented to. Saying that I have had other unreasonable requests which I have turned down, or ‘job offers’ which have turned out to be unpaid work. One person advertised work and interning. I sent my CV in and they wrote back which I was applying for (obv didnt read my CV). Then it turned out both were pretty much the same, unpaid thing.

  8. From the other side of the fence, as an occasional employer of copywriters, I have often set real projects as trial pieces. BUT… I always make sure that the triallists are aware that it’s real work that we will be paid for, and that if the work passes muster they will be paid for it, at the same rate as any other sub-contracted writer.

    I have actually given someone a trial once, even though her website and portfolio looked good, and the results were awful, clearly not fluent in written UK English. So I believe trials are worthwhile.

  9. Thanks for your comment, Chris. Funnily enough – real, paid-for trials are the subject of another blog post coming soon. Watch this space!

  10. As someone who employs copywriters regularly, I can indeed confirm that trials are NEVER needed. Ever.

    The scenario Chris described above is simple to deal with – if the work is sub-standard, you refuse to pay for it (usually the final 50% balance) until it is up to scratch – which is easily comparable with the work in said copywriter’s portfolio.

    Contractors are always in the power position here, even when paying 50% upfront – they still receive 100% of the work before they’re expected to fork over 100% of the cash. You may lose the 50% deposit payment at first, but that is almost entirely your fault for not checking the suppliers’ references and credentials. You can’t go on portfolio alone.

    And that is exactly why trial writing is bullshit. As is trial designing, trial dental work, trial construction, trial 3 course meals, and trial housing. And I say this as someone who sub-contracts. Don’t do it, ever. The more of you that do – the more acceptable it becomes. The design community has made some good headway by rallying together on this point:

    http://www.no-spec.com

    In an age when we can see people’s portfolios, references, linked in network/recommendations, cv, testimonials, and work in the wild at the click of a mouse, there’s just no excuse.

  11. I recently got one such request for a freelance design project. I work through oDesk and I have a portfolio with plenty of examples from my previous projects but somehow I was still expected to do a free trial.

    When I looked into the client’s history on the site, it turns out that out of 45 projects that he has posted, he has awarded only about 15 to the bidders.

    I clearly stated my price and terms twice at the beginning of our conversation and he didn’t mention any trials in the job description but later he acted shocked when I requested a standard milestone payment before starting with the project. He said something along the lines of “yeah, right… I should pay for work that I might not even want!!?”

    He then told me that I shouldn’t be “crying” about doing several hours of free work (+ the money I should spend on stock photos) and that he has several people already doing the trials and that he has no time to “argue with me” and also basically said that I was foolish to pass on a great opportunity to make money. Basically, the few minutes talking about a project was a big waste for him but the investment that I was expected to make was no big deal.

    I was very polite with him, I didn’t argue nor “cry,” I simply stated that those terms are not acceptable for me and that he should find someone else for the job. His rude behavior certainly didn’t make me feel like I was passing on a great opportunity. Afterwards he rejected my bid on the site, calling it “spam” – spam bids may get a contractor’s account blocked.

    That was very unusual and reminds me to always check that the project that I bid on is for a client who’s history shows that he almost always awards a job to someone when he posts it.

  12. I agree with some of the previous comments that a trial project should mean that it’s just a tiny paid project to build trust before moving on to bigger paid projects.

    When you already have shown them examples of your work, then there is no reason to ask for any free trials. You don’t go around asking for free haircuts, cab rides and restaurant meals, saying that you are trying out several offers and that if you like what you’re getting you might actually pay them next time.

  13. Agree with all of the above. We are often on both sides of the fence. We trust contractors (almost always designers)to deliver good work. Sometimes, the end result is way off mark, but we would never try to avoid payment. We work with them to discover why the design isn’t on brief and to bring about a satisfactory outcome for all. But not paying them is just not an option. As for the copy we write, we pride ourselves on making sure the client is more than satisfied with our work, only then do we invoice. I suppose ultimately, it all comes down to trust and respect.

  14. I do free trials on MY terms. I write one para, maybe two, spending half an hour, max. Looking at my samples folder, I’ve won 65% of them – jobs worth over £20,000. I’d say it was pretty much worth knocking out those one or two paras, wouldn’t you?

    You know, I don’t blame prospects for asking for a sample. Copywriting standards vary enormously (most freelance copywriters, if we’re honest, are crap), it’s completely unregulated and the client is being asked to part with lots of cash.

    This isn’t accountancy – it’s creative. A good parallel is an actor doing auditions. The director needs to know the actor is right FOR THAT PART.

  15. Only just read this article and thought I’d just check my old emails as it rang a vague bell.

    Sur enough, I was asked in last 2012 to do exactly the same, with the exact same wording. When I asked them for an approximate budget they wouldn’t give me an answer. Needless to say I passed. Scamming little shits.

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