4 Ways to Make Sure Working for Free Actually Pays Off

“Work for the exposure,“ they said. “It’ll pay off, they said!“

I know this sounds like the beginning of a meme or comic strip, but what if “they” were right?

This is one of the most commonly debated topics for freelancers and many other types of service providers. There’s even a website called ShouldIWorkForFree.com with a handy flowchart to reference.

"Should I work for free?" flowchart

There are a lot of arbitrary rules created by different experts and influencers:

  • Work for free, but just once.
  • Create X portfolio pieces for free and then that’s it.
  • Work for free with so-and-so kinds of businesses (non-profits, local, etc.)
  • No, just no, never.

My take? It’s a little simpler: work for free when you know it will pay off.

And how do you know? By designing and negotiating any “free work” opportunities that come your way.

Game the system.

Approach them like any business owner would approach a different kind of partnership: be strategic, negotiate, and set expectations and boundaries upfront.

Today I’m going to take you through how. But first, you might need to change your perspective about all this.

man looks at a white wall covered in different papers and designs

Mindset Adjustment: It’s Not Free Work, It’s Free Marketing

At the core, the key to getting free work to pay off is to treat it and approach it like a promotional or marketing opportunity.

If someone wants your help and isn’t going to pay you for it, turn it into a marketing campaign.

Negotiate the terms in your favor to ensure that you’ll eventually earn money or clients from the work you do. Just like the unpaid work you would put in to create a sales funnel or set up a Facebook ad.

Sometimes, the request someone approaches you with will be a marketing opportunity in itself, without making many special arrangements or negotiations. For example, if someone wants you to conduct a seminar or training event for free, make sure you’re allowed to talk about or promote your services during it, and that the audience is aligned with your ideal client. You’re good to go!

In other scenarios, you might need to do a bit more convincing or negotiating, but if someone truly doesn’t have the money and wants your help specifically, you’d be surprised what they’ll agree to.

And of course, there will always be people who just want stuff for free and won’t value your work. I won’t pretend those “clients” don’t exist. But simply say no to them and focus on rearranging the other requests for free work in your favor.

Here are four tips for negotiating an unpaid arrangement that can market you to new clients ready to give you dollar bills:

1. Focus on the Audience

Later in the post, I’ll talk about different kinds of free work, but regardless of the project’s nature, think about who is going to see it. Who is this free client’s audience?

A good marketing campaign places you in front of your own ideal audience. So the more overlap there is between your target audience and the client’s, the better.

Let’s look at an example.

a group of people sitting on a couch in various states of conversation

The local business support group is looking for a website redesign, pro-bono from one of the members such as yourself. The project would be noticed and seen by lots of local businesses as well as the community at large.

For a web designer who primarily specializes in one niche industry and works with clients all over the world, this wouldn’t be ideal. Most of the people who would see the new site and go, “I wonder who made this,” wouldn’t be a good fit for paid work with that designer.

You, however, love and are experienced at designing websites for local businesses. You’ve worked across industries, but stay close to home, creating a different type of specialty.

Designing something seen by all the local businesses would be amazing for you. Most people visiting the organization’s site every single day are your ideal clients.

By combining this audience targeting with the other positioning tips in this post, you’d be able to kick off a marketing campaign to become the go-to designer in your town.

This is where a lot of opportunities with great potential fall apart: just getting your work in front of your target audience isn’t enough. It’s the first step, which needs to be followed up by some of the other tips you’ll find in this post.

2. Provide More Information Than Labor

Let’s go back to that free training example mentioned in the mindset section. Any kind of free education or advice is great marketing. There’s a reason so many people offer free consultations, have coffee dates with prospects, and create content like blog posts for anyone to learn from.

Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll want to pay you money to teach you about the rest of his food, too.

Teaching or clearly explaining the concepts behind what you do, even at a broad or high level, is one of the greatest ways to prove your expertise. It’s one thing to understand something, but it’s another to know its ins and outs so well you can teach a novice something new in minutes.

two women working together looking at a screen

It also gives your audience a realistic view of the work involved, which for someone planning to do it themselves, might be a shocker. A better understanding of the work often makes people think, “Oh, maybe I need to hire a professional.”

So, you can provide them the info to get to that realization, then have your sales info at the ready when they decide they need help.

But if someone comes to you asking for a free website or other actual work, how do you turn that into a teaching opportunity?

Here are a few ideas:

  • If someone asks for a free website redesign, offer to do a free website review instead. You could teach them a few general concepts that could help them improve the site, suggest specific changes, and explain how (and for how much) they could be implemented.
  • If someone wants free, in-depth consulting or advice, leverage content and documents you’ve created for your business and clients to help them get clarity without using up your time. For example, offer them just your new project questionnaire to use as a workbook to get clear on their goals and ideas.
  • If someone wants you to do an intensive training session, try to turn it into a group training where you can invite other potential prospects.

And if education doesn’t fit the situation, use the next two tips to negotiate the project so that you can make the most of it.

Negotiate working for free

3. Demand More Than a Mention

One big problem with “working for exposure” is that it’s usually not that much exposure. Maybe one link to your website hidden somewhere subtle, or there’s no mention of you at all, and your work is just “out there to be seen.”

Well, in marketing we hate the whole “build it and they will come” concept. No. You build it and then make sure it gets noticed.

So any time you’re “working for exposure,” make sure that exposure actually happens. You want not just your work, but your credit for it, prominently featured somewhere, whether that’s within the project itself, in a “launch campaign” to the client’s audience, or somewhere else.

If their audience lines up with your audience, and that audience is actually seeing your name attached to the work repeatedly, you’ll be in their memory when it’s time they need a website.

A Few Ways You Can Request a “Spotlight” Include:

  • A credit and link back to your business *in someplace prominent* on the client website. Instead of a tiny, very light grey mention in the footer among a bunch of other links, ask for a shoutout within a certain page’s copy.
  • Dedicated social media posts about the project that credit you. These don’t need to be promotional or come off like an ad, but make sure your client mentions you when they announce or talk about the website.
  • A blurb in the client’s newsletters or blog posts.
  • A referral partnership where they’re rewarded somehow for word of mouth referrals.

Lean in hard to one idea or use a combination of multiple. The important part is that you’re being shouted out more than once. Future leads and prospects won’t be too interested in, or even remember, something they just see once.

Similar to any partnership, you can use a written agreement to make sure the client upholds their end of the bargain and be specific in the kind of credit you’re going to get. You can take a queue from PR and influencer marketing contracts here: they often lay out how many mentions, social posts, and other pieces of content need to be published.

Man writes in a notebook at a desk

4. Create a Case Study

If you’re performing client work for free, it needs to become an integral part of your portfolio, way more than your average portfolio piece. And I don’t mean in terms of the quality of work, I mean in terms of how you use it to market yourself later.

When you’re negotiating the terms of your free partnership, consider requiring the client’s permission for and participation in a case study about the project.

Instead of going through the design process as usual and then showing screenshots on your portfolio page later, try to create as much marketing content from this project as possible. Turn it into a powerful, in-depth marketing tool for getting clients in the future.

This is something that needs to be planned in detail and agreed upon from the very beginning, but it can also be really fun.

Once you start working on the project, document as much of the design process as possible.

Grabbing great quotes from your conversation together, logging the evolution of the design or goal throughout the project, and saving different design concepts can all be used to create content that demonstrates your process and expertise.

Then, it’s time to create some content. Don’t overthink this or psyche yourself out—you don’t need to be an expert writer, you just need to tell the story. And you’re an expert at your own process, so you’ll be great talking about it.

A table with multiple sheets of paper with the word Idea written in different fonts

You Can Create Any Kind of Content as Part of the Case Study:

  • Write a big blog post walking through the whole process, how you and the client made decisions, how things turned out, etc.
  • Design a before/after graphic explaining parts of the project.
  • Interview your client about the project from their end—what they were looking for, why they chose you, their thoughts throughout the process, and other “testimonial-ish” topics for a YouTube or Facebook Live video.
  • Round up before and after numbers in a report showing the impact the project had.
  • Pitch the story to external publications (with the client’s permission) to use as personal PR.

The great part about this is that you can focus on whatever content plays to your own strengths—you don’t need to go off and become an expert content marketer.

Not a big writer? Hop on Zoom and record the video call. Not an engaging storyteller? Pitching yourself to other press, where a journalist or blogger would be the one to come up with questions to ask you, leaves someone else to shape the story. Want to keep it simple? Just round up the numbers.

Remember You’re in Control

Next time you go to reject an opportunity for “exposure,” take a second to further consider the opportunity. What do you have to lose by trying to negotiate things to your favor? They weren’t going to pay you anyway.

So, step back, look at the client and the potential in the project. Could it be a promotional diamond in the rough?

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