should I do free work for the exposure?

A reader writes:

In my spare time, I am a youth event planner. Today, I was contacted by a large event company who found me through a mutual business connection and asked me if I would do an unpaid 20- to 30-minute nationwide podcast explaining how to plan a weekend youth event, so that other planners can learn how to do it too.

It would give me a lot of exposure, but at the same time, I am not sure how I feel about just flat-out sharing my event planning knowledge to the world for free. It took me many years of trial and error to learn how to do what I do.

Should I participate in something like this? If so, how should I go about it?

Do it.

Doing this kind of thing is very common among consultants; these sorts of talks are a typical way to get exposure, which then ideally leads to business.

This company is basically offering you access to a wider audience in exchange for you providing them with a small amount of content. It’s a reasonable deal. After all, value can come in forms other than money. (Half the speakers you see at conferences? They’re speaking for free for this reason. And personally, I used to write in exchange for exposure sometimes, and a big part of why I’m able to insist on money for it now is because I first built a reputation by doing it for free.)

And while I absolutely understand not wanting to give your expertise away for free, you won’t be. It’s not possible to give that all away in 20 minutes. It’s years of knowledge, right? It doesn’t condense into 20 minutes.

What you can do in 20 minutes is give some pointers and insights that will both (a) be valuable to the audience and (b) make them think, “Wow, this presenter knows her stuff. I’m writing her name down because I might want to contact her in the future.”

Also, if you do this, boom, you’re now a nationally presented speaker on what you do. That’s helpful in ways that are hard to predict at the start — it plants seeds that tend to drift back to you.

That said, if you don’t really want wider exposure (which is completely legitimate; some people don’t), then sure, turn it down. It’s all just a calculation of whether what they’re offering is something you find sufficiently appealing.

Now, there are lots of other cases where I wouldn’t advocate working for free, like projects where the promised “exposure” seems pretty minimal, or where the benefits are heavily weighted in the other party’s favor, or anything really time-intensive with no charitable purpose. But a 20-minute podcast that presents you as an expert? Very common, and not an outrageous request.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. The Editor

    Yep. Do it.

    Much of my initial work (writing) has been gratis for this reason alone, and it typically comes back in spades. Typically. The only times I’ve been disappointed was when the group I worked with was not nearly as well-known or distributed as I was led to believe.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Exactly — you want to make sure you know what you’re really getting in return.

      And if I can make this about me again … There’s still one place where I write for free, and even do it several times a day: this blog. And I don’t think anyone would say that I’m cheating myself out of reaping the financial benefits of my expertise by doing that — to the contrary, it enhances my credibility, which then leads to more money via other stuff.

      Money! I like it very much, but getting it isn’t always a straight line from point A to point B.

      1. Jamie

        It so weird, every so often I remember that this blog has such a wide audience and is one of the reasons you’re so esteemed and I see your name pop up in other forums as an expert (by people posting about you before I can!)

        Most of the time it just kind of feels like an awesome virtual conference room where we’re solving all big picture stuff and the meeting is being led by Alison who really knows what she’s doing – this is cool because big picture stuff can get lost in real life when so much time is spent putting out fires. And then I take stuff I learn here and apply it in real life and people think I’m way smarter than I am…but I’m just using the collective AAM knowledge.

        Or sometimes it feels like a break-room with really smart and really funny co-workers, where a couple of laughs makes it easier to head back to the fire putting out.

        And with that sappy sentiment I am heading home early for a change.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Aw. I like that! I tend to think of it as a weird salon in my living room. Of course, that means that sometimes when a commenter is testy, I react like, “What are you doing behaving like that? You’re in my living room!” And then I remember that they’re not.

          1. Two-cents

            Oh but Alison, they are in your space, even if it is virtual space. And that’s why we appreciate your management of the comments and keeping them civil and respectful. That’s part of what keeps us coming back, and I believe it enhances your reputation as a thoughtful and welcoming space for sharing and questioning and learning.

      2. Jamie

        “Money! I like it very much, but it’s not always a straight line from point A to point B.”

        I wrote for free for years – I never wanted a career out of it – but besides being fun there was collateral benefits when I was un or underemployed: Deadlines, structure, and editor that was a lot like an awesome boss (who didn’t pay me – so you have to be extra awesome to make up for that) and just a connection to the outside world where there was regular feedback from readers (lord, was there feedback) and just the sense of responsibility of committing to something regularly.

        I don’t know about other people, but when I was unemployed I really craved the structure of getting up and having something to do that had to be done, done well, and pass judgment.

        It’s funny too, because I don’t do it anymore, but every so often someone I know will google me and find old articles and then send me quotes of myself from years ago. Sometimes I cringe and sometimes I forgot I wrote it and it’s a cool feeling when you’re laughing at something funny and then you remember you wrote it.

        Anyway – it is something to keep in mind for people who enjoy writing and are in between jobs, or underemployed, because the structure really can help. It helps with confidence too, because you’re not too far removed from the work world in a weird way – so interviewing is less intimidating.

        And now with that unsolicited advice I’m going home.

      1. Anonymous

        The funny thing about that is that my mom was the one who showed me this because she actually is a graphics person. So if she asked me to do something I’d be like “DO IT YOURSELF MOM GEEEZE”

  2. EngineerGirl

    Just to point out the obvious – this is networking on steroids.

    It almost always comes back in a positive manner if you do it well. And you’ll gain some great contacts.

  3. Heather

    I have a lot of experience with this, both as a photographer and in my last business, and I have to disagree with this advice.
    1. In my experience, once you are someone pegged as willing to work for little or for free, you will have a very difficult time getting out from under that.
    2. Accepting low or no pay for your work makes it more difficult for others who do the same work to continue to charge the same rates. Just look at what’s happening to writers – there are so many willing to work for free or peanuts that it’s very difficult now to get a living wage if you’re writing.
    3. In my last position, my boss accepted several pro bono projects for the “exposure” that never really came back, and neither did any pay in the future. These projects were with major companies you have heard of. I have just never seen any benefit to doing free work, and exposure is a myth.
    4. And the best piece of advice I ever received was from my journalism professor: your knowledge has value. Treat it accordingly. If you give it away for free, you’re cheapening it. Does it mean you must charge top dollar? Absolutely not. But free? No. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever. Charge a small amount, if you must.
    Just my 2 cents!

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Except this isn’t “working for free” in that sense. She’s not providing a product or doing a project; it’s a speaking engagement. This is basically the same thing as presenting at a conference (except it’s a podcast). Speaking engagements are a normal thing that most consultants and solo practitioners do to promote themselves and generate business.

    2. Eric

      I think the big difference here is that OP is not giving away her product. She is an event planner, but she is not being asked to plan an event for free. If she was, the answer might well be different.
      In your case (I am assuming) you were giving away your product for free (taking photographs of something).
      Likewise, in Alison’s case, she blogs for free, but probably would not do individual consulting for free. When what you are giving away isn’t the same as what you are selling, it works out a lot better.

        1. Heather

          My own experiences with all of this are coloring my opinions, admittedly.
          In my photography, yes, I made the initial mistake of working for free at first thinking that there would be a benefit. Not so much! But I was just starting out then. Hard lesson.
          As for my boss in my last position, he was an asset manager and regularly spoke at investing conferences for exposure – so it was not the same thing as what he was selling, as Eric suggested might be the problem – and the benefit was almost never more clients (even though his talks were well received and he was very popular and a big draw). It was more free work and more invitations to speak at even more conferences for free. The exposure was definitely received, but exposure isn’t the same thing as good paying work.
          So, that’s where I’m coming from on this. The OP’s scenario seems in line with this, no? But perhaps my boss was doing something wrong and it’s not an apples to apples situation.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Well, I think there’s probably some variation and probably no guarantees. As a contrast, for me and for The Editor up above, it paid off really well. Again, it’s like what I said in the post — it’s spreading seeds out there; not every seed sprouts something, but they often do.

            1. Jamie

              “Again, it’s like what I said in the post — it’s spreading seeds out there; not every seed sprouts something, but they often do.”

              I was reminded of this when I posted on the other thread about the book “I Hate People.” I won an autographed copy of that from a contest on their site of submitting a work anecdote or something. I don’t even recall what I posted.

              I had no intentions of buying the book – but I loved it when I read it. Since then several people have read my copy and I know at least 4 were purchased for other people based on my recommendation (and the funny title, which I’m sure had a lot to do with it. IT people are always trying to make a subtle point in a way which won’t get us fired.)

              Anyway, my point is whatever it cost them to send me a free book they more than made up for in the four other copies sold and at least 12 people who checked out their site and now know who they are.

              A small thing, absolutely, but I’m IT not a book reviewer for the times. The point was seeds sometimes take hold and you get a little payback – sometimes a lot – sometimes none.

              And this comment was submitted without being part of a contest or to win a book. :)

        2. JT

          The distinction Eric made is great.

          I’ll add that one thing to do in cases where you do give away your core service is to still bill for it, but indicate that the value is donated. “20 hours design work @$45/hour, Total $900 Donated. Total Due $0”

          You’re not valuing your work at zero – you’re giving away value.

          And also in your agreement to do any work be explicit how you must be credited.

  4. Grey

    Think about this…. People pay Allison Green to review their resumes despite her years of sharing resume tips for free. This blog is the reason why they do.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes! Exactly. No one would be paying me, some random Internet stranger, to review their resume if I hadn’t first established credibility and readership by providing advice on that very subject for free through this blog. And no one would be buying my “how to get a job” e-book from me either, without the free blogging I do on that subject.

      I give away tons of free expertise on these subjects in blog posts all the time — but people still buy more of it, because the free advice here is what has convinced them it would be worth their money.

      (Although for the record, I’d blog for free all the time even if I never made a dollar off the site. And in fact, for years that’s what I did. It took me a long time to realize that the site could turn a profit. I am apparently slow in that regard.)

      1. Eric

        I’m curious, if you are willing to share, do your ebooks sell well? I never would expect them to be worth the time, money wise.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I don’t know if its sales would be considered good by industry norms (I don’t know what those norms are), but I’m really happy with the sales! It wouldn’t support me on its own, but it’s not insignificant, and it keeps increasing every year.

          The cool thing about an ebook is that once you write it, the work is completely done and all your sales after that are pure profit. You have to have an audience who want to buy it — that seems to be key — but if you do, once it’s written, it just generates revenue without you doing any additional work. (And I am forever indebted to Ben Eubanks at Upstart HR, who pushed me to do it and led me through the process.)

          As an interesting comparison, my “real” book (the hard copy one for managers, which has a real publisher) has made more sales, but earned me less money.

      2. Catherine

        The other thing is, when Alison reviews a resume for a charge, it’s personalized attention. The blog is more general. So yes, you can get a lot of great advice for free from the blog, but if you want individualized, personal attention and suggestions on your resume, you pay for that.

        Same thing with the speaking engagement. They aren’t asking OP to plan a specific events…just share some general tips. It’s up to everyone else to actually implement the advice. I’m sure most people are more than willing to pay OP for customized advice or actual event planning.

  5. Dan

    Alison is dead on when she talks about exposure. There are so many cliches floating around about spending money, most of them indicating it’s easy to rip people off: “Buyer beware”, “caveat emptor”,”you get what you pay for”,”there’s a sucker born every minute”,”a fool and his money are soon parted.”

    If you want me to part with my money, you have to establish yourself as worthy of it. That does mean giving out free or reduced cost samples. But once you’ve established yourself as an expert and worth the price tag, then you can get paid. It’s really hard to get people to want to part with their money unless they know what they are getting in return, and even then, have to be convinced that it’s worth it.

  6. fposte

    Another agreement with Allison here. A lot of this kind of speaking people do for free at high levels as well as low (so you can aspire to be not paid by national news!). And in another comment on “And while I absolutely understand not wanting to give your expertise away for free, you won’t be. It’s not possible to give that all away in 20 minutes”: you almost certainly underestimate how much of what you take for granted is news to the less experienced. It is quite possible that the most useful stuff here would be information you would consider too basic to bother telling anybody, and you wouldn’t even feel like you’re sharing secrets–yet you’re getting a tremendous profile bump from putting this knowledge out there in easy terms.

    Think of it as somebody offering to produce a half-hour ad for you for free.

  7. Kat M

    I blogged for less than free (paid for hosting, so I was out money) for a year and a half, when the blog in question landed me the best-paid job of my life as a copywriter. Never interviewed for the position, never asked for it, just got an offer.

    I still blog for free. I write as a volunteer for a couple of organizations I believe in, and I sometimes write for exposure, too, but with my eye on the prize; I don’t do it for just anybody. I consider it a marketing expense.

  8. Anonymous

    Do it! This isn’t “working for free.” This is sharing your expertise and best practices with a wide audience. I am the marcomms manager for a consulting company and these types of opportunities are gold. Speaking opportunities and contributed articles are some of our most effective marketing tactics. It’s a third party validating your expertise (not you bragging about yourself or your company in an ad) and an easy way to get in front of a captive audience. You don’t have to reveal all your tricks and trades, either. This might sound terrible but we try to reveal just enough info to make the listeners/readers understand our process just enough for them to realize it’s too hard for them to do it on their own so then they have to hire us. :)

  9. Original Poster

    Hi everyone, this is the OP. Thanks for all of your great input. There is such an overwhelming vote for doing the podcast that I am going to take your advice and go ahead with it. I do like the idea of revealing just enough so that the listeners realize it’s not that easy to do, and will want to hire me. :)

    I actually think I was hesitating about this for the same reasons that poster Heather above suggested, because similar to her experiences in the photography field, my full-time job is in the graphic design field and we often do not get any return for free work.

    But this case is different, and it’s true, I can’t possibly give away 10 years of event planning experience in a 20 minute podcast. And I feel after reading your comments that it could open up more opportunities for me.

    Thanks, all.

    1. Josh S

      I tend to agree with the consensus–you can do unpaid work that highlights your talent/skills/experience/expertise, but you will want to consider doing unpaid work that’s your actual work. For you, I would highly, HIGHLY advise against planning an event unpaid (the only exception being if you were to plan a wedding for a good friend as your wedding gift, or possibly as an ‘in kind’ donation to a favorite charity).

      But doing a podcast or conference isn’t giving away your expertise for free. You’re giving insights into how you operate. Even the best advice and direction in the world still requires a recipient to execute on it in order to make it work right. And that execution is something that comes with experience.

      In the meantime, it gets you face time.

      Be sure that the ‘large event company’ links from their site to your site (or otherwise offers your contact information) alongside the link for your podcast, for as long as they offer your podcast. Better yet, have it link to a feeder site (or have some java stuff go on…I’m no computer expert) so you can track when paying clients come to your site from theirs. That way you’ll know if/how it pays off.

    2. Yuu

      I would even go so far as to say you should say outright, “There’s no way I can squeeze 10 years of experience into a 20 min podcast, but…” I also agree in making it very easy for people to find you – mention your website, reference examples of your work, etc, to make it easy for the people who might hire you to find you!

  10. Katie

    Just FYI, there’s actually been a bit of a kerfuffle in the music world over this issue. Specifically, some union musicians have criticized Amanda Palmer for requesting volunteer orchestra musicians.

    An article about the situation can be read here:
    http://www.avclub.com/articles/musicians-and-unions-brassed-off-after-amanda-palm,84867/

    And Palmer’s response (which for the most part mirrors what has been said on AAM) can be found here: http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/20120913/

    It might be worthwhile to read some of the comments there. Many musicians feel this is exploitative.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Hmmm, this is interesting. She’s not even promising exposure, just “merchandise, gratitude, beer, high-fives, and hugs.” If someone is willing to make that trade, why shouldn’t they? She’s being up-front about what she is and isn’t offering. She’s not even making vague promises that it will lead to something better. Where’s the exploitation?

      1. Katie

        Again, I think the comments are worth reading to elucidate this, but from what I can see, it’s exploitative in that (a) she’s replacing musicians who would otherwise be paid with volunteers, (b) she’s deriving more benefit from the exchange than the volunteers are (think intern regulations when I say that). Her tour is a profit-making venture, and not a small one at that – she was the first musician to raise over 1 million dollars for her latest album on kickstarter – so professional musicians feel they are getting the short end of the stick here.

        I really like Amanda Palmer, and I think the new album is great, but she’s not a start-up musician anymore. She can afford to pay people, and she’s not. And musicians get upset when they hear “this is the future of music,” because it means there is no future for them, professionally.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Okay, I can see that. It seems like it might be less about exploiting those particular musicians who are playing for her (because I can’t call it exploitation when they’re willingly signing up), but more about generally doing something bad for the industry.

        2. Jamie

          I don’t understand why she should be morally obligated to pay for something if she can legally get it for free.

          If I bought a new house, I can afford to pay professional movers – but if my husband’s buddies are willing to do it for beer, pizza, and appreciation (no hugs, unless my husband wants to do it) I don’t think I owe it to the professional moving industry to hire them.

          Even though the situation is different – I don’t see why she would be any more obligated to pay people if she doesn’t have to. Your service (in this case musical ability) is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

            1. Eva

              Here’s the thing though. This phenomenon only ever occurs in fields where the supply of labor is much greater than the demand. Market wage is market wage, no matter how low it goes. Encouraging employers to pay for labor that someone out there is willing to supply for free (for the sake of exposure, experience, or maybe just plain fun!) is the equivalent of expecting employers to pay ‘fair’ wages, a notion that you often wisely discourage people to shake. People who decry the practice of free work are really decrying the fact that their chosen line of profession is so popular. But that’s life. They could’ve prioritized differently and chosen a less fulfilling, but better-paying line of work instead.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Logically, I agree. But from what I gather, musicians are very much a community, and one where people succeeding often pull up others along with them, and I think that’s playing into this.

  11. Katie

    Right, and it’s not like she’s asking these musicians to make a 20 minute video on how to play parts of her songs, which would give them exposure to a wider audience that might hire them for paying gigs. She’s asking them to perform a full-length concert. This seems more in line with what some creative industry types have posted here, i.e., that giving away creative work for free can affect your ability to get paid for creative work in the future.

    And Jamie, your moving example is a good one, but I don’t think it’s equivalent to what we see here. Your friends help you move because (a) they’re your friends, but also (b) they need moving karma for when they move. It’s hard to say whether Palmer would befriend these musicians, or help them with their musical endeavors in the future. If she did this kind of networking, then maybe the role of volunteer musician could be a viable one. If not, I think these musicians end up feeling like the Joads, repeatedly taking low paid or unpaid work simply because no one’s offering an alternative.

    1. Jamie

      You’re right, and the more I think about it the less apt that analogy is. You can’t compare friends to performing your professional work for free.

      Then I thought that it was more comparable to open source software where programmers/developers work on projects for free…but that falls apart as well, because as you say she’s making money from the endeavor and open source software is typically offered for free.

      I guess it would be more comparable to Microsoft using open source developers without payment to create software they would then sell. Which would be hard to defend.

      I think the question is do non-participants have a right to tell participants they shouldn’t do it pro bono because it hurts an industry. On one hand people have a right to put $0 value on their work, if they want to. On the other hand if some IT ninja was running around Chicago doing my job for free making people balk at paying my salary…can’t say I wouldn’t be mighty pissed.

      It’s a really fascinating question and you bring up great points.

      1. Katie

        I totally wrote a paper on OSS and capitalism in grad school, but I’m not opening it right now for fear it will be obnoxious (blah blah blah manufacturing consent…blah blah blah Eric S. Raymond…blah blah blah commodification of leisure…it goes on and on).

        You can make the argument that OSS is exploitative – I mean, Linus Torvalds is rich as shit, and he only wrote 2% of Linux’s code – but people tend to participate in those projects because not only do they get experience and earn a reputation, they can choose the extent to which they participate and they help create a functioning product which they themselves would use. In Palmer’s case, the musicians can’t choose the songs they play, when they play them, or for how long, and they don’t get much in return once they’re done.

        Your IT ninja example is (though I’m not a labor expert) pretty much the reason why unions and labor laws exist. Sure, people can put a $0 value on their work, but people don’t tend to do that unless they’re desperate and disempowered. I don’t really call choosing to work for free because you have no other options a choice. Now, I don’t know whether or not the Palmer volunteers are in that position. It’s entirely possible that they’re genuinely stoked at the opportunity to play with an artist they really admire and don’t need the money. But if that’s not the case, it suggests that this industry is undergoing deprofessionalization similar to that of other creative industries (writing, photography, teaching, etc.)

        1. Jamie

          I actually read through a lot of those comments, because I find the subject really interesting – although I have never heard of this artist before.

          If the union were to succeed in stopping people from donating their time and talent as they see fit it would be akin to a (thankfully non-existent) IT union stopping me from helping a friend with a business by offering my expertise without charging. Because if IT people couldn’t help out friends and family without charging it would drive people to paid tech support…which would benefit those businesses, but by imposing their rules on what I can and can’t do with my time and talent.

          Sure, that would free up zillions of man-hours for ITs everywhere fielding calls from everyone they know (and everyone they know) about computer problems – which would be kind of restful – but the intrusion of my personal right to do what I want with my professional skills would be horrifying to me.

          After a couple of misses I think I finally got the analogy that fits.

      2. NewReader

        Katie has summed it up well.
        Unions jump in because their job is to protect other people’s jobs. So anything that looks like a threat to income stream is going to be of interest to them. Not making any political statements here- just saying that is the function unions serve. We can expect union statements on issues regarding pay.

        Perhaps it is New Age Stuff? Karma? That whole school of thought is the opposite side of the argument. You get out of something what you put into it. That side of the coin says “Yeah, do the freebies. Expect good things.”

        I think the one element we have to draw forward is that the person giving the freebie service MUST commit to looking for paying opportunities. This can be as simple as meeting new people with leads. Or it can be a little more complex- such as securing some sort of advertising, promo, etc. But the key part is the person donating their time/service should have a deliberate plan in mind.
        Otherwise, as one poster mentioned, it becomes a case of doing one freebie after another, with no end in sight. That could be because of circumstance, location, or any number of things. In that case, the giver does have to take the bull by the horns and stop.

        Some people might need to figure donated time by using numbers. “For every 100 hours of paid work, I will let myself do 5 hours of unpaid work.” Other people can just decide to go with the flow and be okay.

        One thing that is a pet peeve of mine is when people decide how a person should spend their money. Yes, she received $1M but maybe she is also supporting great aunt Helen who has medical bills of around $9K per month. Perhaps she has a cause she donates to HEAVILY. It’s nobody’s business how she spends her money.

        I think in the long run, people who donate professional services are no threat to others in the profession. Our society is just too diverse. There are too many people who will not donate time/service or do limited donations. In the case of freeware -some people will never use freeware. They feel that the only good software is the kind you pay for.
        We are just too diverse a group of people for any one movement to take over and dominate. Everyone has their own ideas and their own way of doing things.

  12. Jack

    Hey! A late-late question for this article but maybe someone sees it : )

    My problem is that I did some free photoshoots for an acquaintance of mine. But now I would like to get something back. How should I inform them that I can’t do free work every time and ask for money?

    I understand that this is a difficult situation.

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