How to affordably (and ethically) trial a new freelance writer

You’d be laughed off the phone if you asked a painter to paint an office wall for free in order to judge their work, or for a prospective accountant to do a month of expenses as part of the “evaluation process”.

Why, oh why, then do businesses expect writers and designers to do unpaid internships or present fully developed marketing pitches at no cost?

The problem often starts with the question: “Well, how will I know the quality of work that I’ll get? Or if I’ll like it?”

Let’s break this down.

First: “How can I judge the quality of a freelancer’s work?”

Let’s be honest – design and writing are subjective. Lots of books win awards or become top sellers that I think deserve to be consumed by white-hot flames. And there are many underappreciated writers who die in obscurity. But that’s Art for you.

Similarly, you’ll find the same level of subjectivity in freelance writing. Embrace it, it’s a conundrum that will never be solved.

But beneath that, I think people struggle with the dichotomy that creativity is an intangible asset that can’t always be replicated or produced on demand. That’s why companies want to see pitches from multiple freelancers – they’re afraid of the uncertainty and want to know what they’re buying before they purchase it.

But that places an undue burden on creative types. Their time is money, which they are investing at a massive risk of loss to fight for your business, driving up prices for yourself and their other clients. That investment has to be recouped somewhere.

So, down with free spec work. What’s to be done then?

  • Ask to see their portfolio. Every freelancer or agency maintains an electronic portfolio of their best work and is eager to share it with prospective clients. You can ask for specific examples similar to your project, work they’ve done for similar companies or your industry. If you don’t like their portfolio, politely move on.
  • Word of mouth. There’s a reason 57% of agency new leads come from referrals and personal networks. Ask people in your network who they use or if they know anyone. If you see a piece of marketing or content that really resonates, ask who did it.
  • Do a small, cheap test project as a trial. Honestly, this is the best, most comprehensive way to judge a freelancer. With a pitch, you only see a portion of the process – ideation and proposal – all the sexy advertising stuff from Mad Men. But you’re missing all the stages where the real work gets done. Through a trial, you can:
    • Evaluate how well they listen to your brief and embody your brand.
    • See what their turnaround times are like.
    • See how well they accept and incorporate feedback.
    • See how many rounds of revisions it takes to get the work to your standard (very important)
    • Ensure all of your project requirements were met.
    • Discover if anything was left out of the scope of work.
    • Evaluate how well they understand your audience, market, and product.

To keep costs down, pull together as much information as possible so they don’t have to spend a lot of time researching. And be sure to negotiate the rate before work begins.

For example, an inexpensive trial project for us might be a social media post, editing an article, writing a press release, or a short blog.

This brings us to the second question.

“What if I don’t like the work?”

To be transparent, we charge a non-refundable deposit because we need to be paid for the time and resources invested in researching and developing your marketing strategy or material. Even if you don’t like it.

But that clause is only there to protect our livelihood. Content marketers work incredibly hard to ensure client satisfaction.

Most have a multi-stage workflow with several client approvals baked in to make sure this doesn’t happen. A graphic designer will give you several choices at each stage of the design process. A writer will have you sign off on an outline or content calendar before they begin writing, not to mention the typical two rounds of revision of the final piece.

You don’t have to hire a freelancer based on gut feel. There are standard evaluation and workflow processes available that ensure you get the quality work that you are seeking…and that you paid for. Peruse those portfolios with confidence!