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Becoming a freelancer, even as a side gig, is probably one of the most terrifying and exciting leaps of faith you can make. The freelancing world presents a lot of freedom: freedom to do what you love, be your own boss, and work on your own time.
Unfortunately, that freedom also comes with a steep price tag.
When I began freelancing, as both a fine artist and writer, I was prepared for the struggle of finding clients. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how many people would expect me to work for free.
Did I say “work for free”? Sorry, I meant to say “work for exposure.” Oh, well, it doesn’t matter because they’re actually the same thing.
If you’ve been lucky enough not to be propositioned for what I call “exposure work,” or you just don’t see a problem with it, let me tell you a story.
Several months ago, I got a message on my Instagram account, where I sporadically post pictures of my art. My art account is pretty tiny and not somewhere I’ve invested a lot of energy into marketing my services. So, to get a message from a woman inquiring about my art was pretty exciting.
“Hi! The portrait you did of the baby is so good! Do you take commissions?”
At this point, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I’d done art commissions before, but they’d all been for friends or family. This would be, if everything worked out, my first real commission. I could already see the money in my bank account.
I wrote back, “Thanks! Yeah, I do. Are you interested?”
“Um… I thought you were gonna do it for free?”
She replied a couple of hours later, “Yeah. My friends just had a baby and it would be cool if I could give them a portrait of him as like a gift. Could you do it like you did the other one on your page?”
Almost immediately, after I received the message, she sent me a close-up image of a pudgy-faced newborn. It wasn’t necessarily the best picture to commission a portrait from—considering the low-resolution and awkward angle—but it was definitely feasible.
I responded, “Aww, cute baby. Is this the pic you want to use? Yeah, I can definitely do that. My rate varies on what size you want, but the other portrait was done on 8.5 x 11 paper. For that size (with the frame included), it would probably be around $200.”
I was already concocting measurements, paper types, and frame colors in my mind, thinking about how long it would take to do the portrait, how I’d ship it so it wouldn’t get damaged—and then I got this message: “Um… I thought you were gonna do it for free? Tbh I’m kind of broke rn… but I could shout you out on my page when you finish and advertise you to my followers. You’ll prob get a lot business.”
Feeling disappointed and irritated, I kindly rejected the chance to have my pro-bono artwork advertised to a couple hundred followers.
Exposure Doesn’t Even Work
There are several reasons why exposure should never be offered in place of monetary compensation, but the most important one: It’s not an effective form of advertising—or even advertising at all.
People advertising their services or products do so with the intention that they’ll get a monetary return on their investment. With exposure, there is no return or eventual windfall of cash.
Let’s say I had taken this woman up on her offer and drawn the portrait in exchange for a shoutout. Assuming that even one person contacts me for a commission (which is a pretty slim chance anyway), they’re not going to want to pay full price. Not when they could get a free portrait and pay me in exposure bucks instead, “I’ll just give you a shoutout like that woman did!”
“Working for exposure” and “working for free” are synonymous.
If I continue this cycle, I might get plenty of free exposure, but I won’t get any actual money for my time and work. Any person I encounter will try to capitalize on the special exposure discount they think I’m offering, long before they cough up $200.
“Working for exposure” and “working for free” are synonymous. Regardless of how much someone promises to give you a shoutout on social media or refer all their friends to you, the problem is still the same: They’ll all want to pay in exposure and that doesn’t cover rent.
It’s More Than Ineffective Advertising—It’s an Insult
Although my personal example deals with fine art, freelancers from all professions deal with this kind of treatment.
No matter what service you’re offering, working for exposure—or offering to advertise someone’s work as compensation—is an insult. It shows a complete disregard for the time and skill that goes into a project. For me, drawing a portrait can take 10 to 20 hours, depending on the complexity of the picture.
One of the common arguments used by these exploiters is, “Yeah, but you love to draw, so why can’t you do it for free?”
This might be a decent argument if freelancers didn’t rely on doing what they love to generate income, but they do. It may be a passion, yes, but it’s also a job.
Nobody, regardless of how much they like to work, would be okay if their boss suddenly said, “Hey, instead of getting a paycheck each month, we’re just going to give you a shoutout on social media. That way, everyone will know how much of a hard worker you are.”
I’m sure that would go over real well.
Exposure Work Is Damaging the World of Freelancing
Even if you’ve never been asked to do something for exposure (or asked someone else), working for exposure is still hurting you.
Most freelancers rely on clients to buy their product or service. Depending on the competition in your profession and the demand for that skill, you may make lots of money or a modest sum.
With the deck already stacked against you, the last thing any freelancer needs is a client base who say things like: “My friend got this same kind of work done by another guy, and he did it in exchange for free advertising,” or “Your rates are too high. I know someone who will do the same thing, and all I have to do is give them a shoutout on social media.”
If clients think free advertising is a payment option, they’re going to choose it.
It’s hard enough to find clients; you really don’t need to deal with clients who also expect free work. As long as “exposure work” continues to be an acceptable idea, the freelancing world will suffer.
It’s important to recognize that working for exposure is an issue on both sides of the equation: freelancer and client. While many freelancers won’t accept exposure as payment, there are some who will—namely, inexperienced freelancers still trying to get their name out there. They may fall prey to the advertising trap thinking they’ll get plenty of business from a social media shoutout.
Unfortunately, anytime a freelancer does work for exposure, they’re only reinforcing the idea that it’s okay for the client to expect that. Almost everyone would rather give a shoutout on their Facebook page than pay actual money. Clients certainly aren’t innocent in all of this, but they’re also just trying to get the best deal they can. If they think free advertising is a payment option, they’re going to choose it.
Exposure work is something that should be highly discouraged—not only is it an insult, but it’s bringing down the value of freelance work everywhere.