Marketing is an ever-present reality and you can make expensive mistakes by wasting your money or time on efforts that won't work.

With that in mind, I just got an email from a publisher of DIY and how-to material. It was a canned invitation to join the company's new site and contribute expertise through how-to articles on any subject I'd like. Even though I was told that someone somewhere was "following your blog" and that I was "awesome," the message made clear that anyone could post such articles.

Why offer expertise on this new site? Here are the company's rationales:

  • You get exposure as the site sees more than 1 million people a month coming to it.
  • You can link back to your site to get traffic.
  • The publisher shares your work on social media sites
  • You can earn badges that could eventually, possibly, lead to a paid assignment writing a book.

And what would the publisher get? Oh, they're only looking to build a community to share how-to knowledge.

Would you play poker to make money for your business? Would you give away samples to people who might never be interested in what you do? Would you donate work to a company in hopes that it might eventually offer to pay you for something? Then don't work for free.

The major problem with such offers is that the numbers, which may sound significant, actually aren't. It's like blogging for free on major news and/or aggregation sites. You're hoping to cash in one way or another on the millions, or even tens of millions, of people who go there. By providing expertise, which has real value, you hope to get equally useful promotion.

Unfortunately, the numbers don't work out. Unless your material is heavily promoted, chances are that only a tiny fractional percentage of the traffic will actually even notice that you've written something. For example, I once did an analysis of a major news site with thousands of blogs. Projecting out from the traffic on the top ten articles, it became clear that after 40 or 50, the traffic went to practically nothing.

Say some people do stop by your article. They've now seen your name once and ... what? Nothing. They are unlikely to remember you and even less likely to look you up for work that will pay. As for getting traffic to your site, the statistics on web links and referrals I've seen over the years suggest that if even a couple of percent of traffic that sees a link clicks, you're doing well. Perhaps there is value in saying that you've written for a particular site, but if anyone and everyone can do the same, it's not much of a distinction.

Here's why you don't give your work away:

  1. You devalue your efforts and knowledge by saying they don't rate compensation.
  2. Buying into exposure diverts your efforts from marketing that can pay off.
  3. You invest in someone else's business without getting any return.

There may be times to share your work. An op-ed in well-regarded publication can help promote an idea you support. Writing in depth on a technical topic in your field or presenting at a conference can help build your professional reputation. Or, gracious, you could write something you're paid for so, even if there isn't promotional value, you have something for the time you spent. In any of these cases, you're not giving your work away because there is actual value to what you receive in return.

But when general interest companies come calling, all ready to take your donations, make sure there's something solid in it for you. It's called business, not charity.