By all accounts, I’ve had a successful freelance writing career. Though I’ve mostly left the freelance world behind for a stable staff position in continuing education media, I had the good fortune of doing client work for a lot of big companies and media organizations, with my byline viewed by millions in some cases. (Like the time a story of mine got syndicated by the now-defunct Yahoo! Shine). But I’ve had my share of bad experiences, too. A career in media/technology has its ups and downs—-or rather, its spectacular ski jumps and horrific subway collapses. Because when things go wrong in tech and media, they tend to go REALLY wrong. While painful to endure at the time, these bad experiences serve as valuable lessons for the future—and excellent cocktail-party conversation. Here are two of my favorite examples.
When Content Marketing Goes Snake Oil
I’ve done a lot of “content marketing” over the years, which is a fancy way of saying that I wrote keyword-optimized articles that were designed to drive traffic to websites. Those articles made money for the publishers one of two ways—-1) driving more traffic to websites so that those websites could sell more advertising; or 2) to help generate sales leads from the traffic that came to the sites (it was hoped that readers would click on something that captured their email address). Sometimes it was a combination of both. It was a common business model in the mid-2000s, but it’s started to wane in recent years because the value of online ad impressions keeps dropping, and it’s hard to convert any content website’s visitors into paying sales leads. The steep obstacles don’t stop a lot of companies from trying to make it work, though most companies these days have moved on to “branded content,” also known as “native content” (which I’ve also done. It’s basically targeted ad copy made to look like a magazine.)
A year or two ago I spent about six months writing healthcare content for a website that helped generate sales leads for insurance brokers around the United States. They wanted to set up a comprehensive content-marketing portal that covered all kinds of topics—ranging from healthcare to personal finance to fashion—and hired reputable journalists like me to do the articles to ensure high content quality. (The insurance brokers sold all kinds of insurance and wanted to attract a wide audience demographic of affluent 30-50somethings with discerning tastes.) I was hired based on my two decades’ experience creating vetted healthcare content. I did stories on topics ranging from how to choose a pediatrician or a chiropractor to why it was a good idea to get a flu shot, always quoting credentialed medical professionals and using scientific evidence to support the articles. My editor loved how this kind of high-quality, professionally sourced copy got rewarded by the Google search algorithm and helped drive traffic to the lead-generation site. I was paid well for the work and did it for several months, always earning praise from my editor, who (bonus!) always paid me on time. (Anyone who has ever freelanced knows that low-maintenance, kind editors who pay well on time are the Holy Grail of the publishing industry.)
Then all hell broke loose.
My longtime editor suddenly announced she was leaving the company. (I learned later that she’d been fired). She was replaced by a “brand strategist” who wanted to quintuple site traffic in only two months, and start selling way more ad impressions on the site to boot. She called me up one day and informed me that I needed to stop writing “biased” medical content (She apparently thought that interviewing actual licensed physicians for medical articles was a disservice to the “alternative medicine” crowd) in favor of schlock copy that promoted juice cleanses, “vitamin cures,” and encouraged people not to vaccinate their children because it was so much safer to just use homeopathic remedies instead. (Because, apparently, there is big money in online ads for all of this snake-oil stuff, and Miss Brand Strategist wanted a piece of it.). Not only that, Miss Brand Strategist informed me I was going to have to quintuple my already full workload in exchange for—-wait for it—-greatly reduced pay. When I politely explained that as a science writer, it would be unethical for me to do any of that—-and I certainly wasn’t dumb enough to do five times the work for one third of the money—I summarily got cut from their list of freelancers.
Which in retrospect wasn’t much of a loss. (I wouldn’t have my very good job right now had I put my byline on that kind of garbage, for one thing; I could never look at myself in the mirror again, for another.) But in the short term, it was a painful loss of income. Still, I know it was the right decision. I stayed in touch with my former editor who had been so good to me during her tenure, and she later told me that the lead-generation company ended up in dire straits within about a year of the “brand strategist’s” implementation of her snake-oil ad-sales strategy. (Go figure.)
The Disappearing Job Offer
Around that same time, I got a job offer from a small California-based company that did lead generation for a chain of drug-rehabilitation hospitals. They wanted to do what a lot of companies were doing at that time—-create an online magazine that would theoretically drive traffic to their company site and generate patient leads. It’s a common business model in healthcare marketing, and I had a lot of experience with it, so I accepted the offer. Most of the staff there were under 25 and didn’t have a clue about how to start a content-marketing portal (in retrospect, that should have been my first clue of trouble ahead), and I was supposedly going to have full leeway on how to run it.
However, the job offer was rescinded shortly after I accepted it.
Apparently, the company had been sold, and the buyer decided to cancel all the new hires before we’d been on the job for a full week. The company even tried to get out of paying me for my few days’ work by saying that a job offer had never been extended, and that I’d been hired only as an unpaid intern. (I had a signed offer letter, a salary agreement, and an email trail though, so I managed to leverage that to get what I was owed.) When I told some longtime colleagues of mine what had happened, they told me that they’d also had similar experiences with lead-generation companies doing bait-and-switches, sudden job offer cancellations, nonpayment for provided labor, and the like. (Another common occurrence is the practice of tech startups and media companies asking people to do an “interview project,” where you provide several days’ worth of free labor to see if you’re “good enough” to be hired. Oftentimes, the people never got hired because they weren’t “good enough,” even though the companies still used the work they did for free.)
Apparently, building in labor costs into your business model doesn’t make the VCs happy.
It was around this time that I determined it would be a good idea to leave the online content and tech startup world behind for good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s a) that VC capital tends to make people evil; and b) the ad-revenue media model is dead, even if some are still trying sleazy, sharp-elbowed remedies to revive it. Sometimes it’s best to just get out of Dodge and go back to more civilized climes, rather than trying to make a go of it in a ghost town where the water has dried up.