The Real Cost of Cheap Content

Aug 2017

The Real Cost of Cheap ContentA few months ago, I published a post titled “Why You Can’t Afford $25 Blog Posts,” and it was one of our most popular of all time. As I was writing it, I remember wishing that someone would do a study on what you really get when you buy bargain-basement content.

As a certain book says, ask and you shall receive.

Last week my friend Lisa Alexander was kind enough to tag me in a post sharing some, yes, actual research on whether you get what you pay for when it comes to content writers. Let’s take a look …

The Study

The good folks at ClearVoice know a thing or two about freelance writers, as they work with them on a daily basis to create content for clients. They’re well aware of the huge range of price points — and of quality — that brands encounter when they look to bring in a content writer. And so often do they hear the question “Do you really get what you pay for when you hire a real expert?” that they decided to put their hypothesis (“Yes, you do”) to the test.

In a post titled “The Power of Pay for Travel Writers: Are Freelance Rates and Quality Correlated?” the ClearVoice team describes an informal study in which they assigned a single travel article to seven freelance writers, whose submissions were judged anonymously by 30 editorial experts.

The writers represented three categories according to their levels of experience and per-word pay rates: Beginner ($0.10 per word), Pro ($0.25 per word), and Expert ($1.00 per word). To avoid any bias, no writers from ClearVoice’s network of contributors were used.

Once the writers were selected, the ClearVoice team presented each with an identical assignment: an article of 150 words or more on the topic “Amazing Island Vacations for 2017,” with some additional specifications (see the ClearVoice post for details). The writers were not informed that they were participating in a study.

The Results

Six submissions were received (yes, one writer failed to turn in the assignment; guess which category he/she was in?) and judged on a scale from zero (“horrible”) to 10 (“stellar”) by 30 editorial experts. Criteria for judging included factual accuracy, grammar, ability to meet the deadline, readability, ability to follow assignment directions, and other factors.

An automatic score of zero resulted if the writer failed to meet the deadline with no advance communication (as was the case with one writer) or if the editors found evidence of significant plagiarism (as was the case with another writer).

And the final scores out of a possible 10 were …

  • For the three Beginners: zero (did not turn in), 5.1, and 3.6
  • For the two Pros: zero (flagged for significant plagiarism) and 5.1
  • For the two Experts: 7.5 and 7.3

(See the ClearVoice infographic for more details)

A few observations:

  • Among the three Beginners, not only did one not even turn in the work, but another turned in writing so poor that it was beyond editing. If this had been an actual story submission, the editors would have had to reassign it to a new writer.
  • The two 5.1 scores, one from a Beginner and one from a Pro, included an average of 9.5 errors and required between 15 and 20 minutes of editing and rewriting.
  • Editors only found only one error between the two Expert submissions, which they rated as either “perfect” or “near perfect.”

“Buy Once, Cry Once”

I’ve gotten so many calls from clients who were sooooooo happy to find that “cost effective” content writer … only to find out that it wasn’t quite the bargain they’d hoped for.

In my post back in May, I shared the proverb that I learned from my lovely Croatian friend Ariana, “You’re not rich enough to buy cheap.” Here’s another that I learned from my husband when he was shopping for a banjo last summer: “Buy once, cry once.” In forum after forum, he heard from countless musicians who “went cheap” on their first instrument, only to have to go back and buy a better (more expensive) model anyway.

It’s the same with content, and the ClearVoice study proves it. Go cheap if you must, but do so knowing the hidden costs.

Hidden Cost #1: Dealing with Dropouts

Some writers take deadlines as mere suggestions, and many of those tend to fall into the bargain-basement category. So, there you are, at the moment when your blog post is due, with nothing in your hands. What do you do? Write it yourself? Ask one of your teammates to drop what he or she is doing and go to bat for you? However you handle the situation, it’s going to be a rush job, which not only throws you off your schedule, but amps up your risk for errors and inconsistencies.

Hidden Cost #2: Potential Plagiarism

I’m sure our friends at ClearVoice were gobsmacked to catch one of their “Pro” writers in the act of significant plagiarism. It happens. I wish I could tell you that there’s a magic level of experience beyond which plagiarism is never an issue, but I can’t. I can tell you that hiring a true expert dramatically reduces your chances of having to deal with it. These folks have built careers on their reputations, and they aren’t about to throw it all away on a stupid stunt like stealing another writer’s work.

Hidden Cost #3: Reassigning, Rewriting, and Editing

Remember the post that was so bad it couldn’t even be edited as it was? Unusable content is just as bad as no content (see Hidden Cost #1), and if you work with cheap talent, odds are you’ll have to deal with it at some point.

And then there’s the content that needs work. Not just a comma here and there, but reorganizing, rephrasing, and significant rewriting. Who’s going to do it … and how much is that person’s time going to cost your organization?

Hidden Cost #4: Damage to Your Brand

There’s one important aspect of this study we haven’t talked about: ClearVoice has an entire team of editors. What about marketing teams who don’t? What about the marketing manager who’s barely keeping her head above water and has no time to scrutinize/proofread/edit/rewrite the latest submission? What are the chances that bad content will end up going out “as is” on your blog, on your social media channels, in your emails … and what will that do to your brand? Scary thought, but it’s one we have to think about.

The True Value of Hiring an Expert

We’ve looked at the costs of going cheap on your content, but is it really worth the difference to pay the expert’s fees?

Here’s what ClearVoice had to say about the study’s two Expert submissions:

  • “The average time to copy edit an expert’s content was less than five minutes for each expert submission.
  • “One expert submission had zero copy errors, while the other had just one.
  • “Both submissions were written in a very clean, journalistic manner.
  • “The expert writers clearly presented details and context for the reader in a way to help them envision their experience on an island vacation.”

Does that sound like the kind of experience you’d want in working with a writer on your travel blog?

Folks, I’m not saying that higher rates will guarantee stellar content for your blog and other content assets. Nor am I saying that there aren’t some darned good writers on the lower end of the pay scale. But if you look at the results from ClearVoice’s study, you see that price is a pretty good indicator of professionalism, reliability, and overall quality of the product. Of course, it’s not the only one, and we still need to review samples and check references.

So if you’re looking for a writer for your next piece of content brilliance, don’t rule out a candidate just because of a higher price tag. In the end, you could be getting yourself a bargain.

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About the Author

Rachel Parker, Founder & CEO of Resonance Content Marketing

A self-described geek who can recite entire episodes of South Park by heart, Rachel Parker has had a passion for content ever since she was old enough to hold a crayon (purple, please).

As Founder and CEO of Resonance, Rachel helps businesses publish content that connects with their audience … and converts those followers into customers. She’s also the host of the Content Marketing Podcast and author of the book The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN!
content_marketing_50 BizSugar Featured Author on Business 2 Community

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