Should you work for free for exposure?

My friend Robert D. Smith is one of the smartest marketers I’ve ever met. He’s absolutely brilliant.

One day I was telling him that often people ask me to do things for free but they promise it will be “great exposure.” The idea is that speaking at a conference, writing for a magazine, posting on someone else’s blog, etc. will expose my writing to more people. I told Robert about that and his answer was perfect. He told me, “Exposure is great Jon! The problem for me is that my bank doesn’t accept checks of exposure.”

He’s right. It’s hard to pay a water bill with exposure. The power company doesn’t care about exposure either. But are there times when exposure can be very valuable? There are and I do free stuff quite often when it makes sense. So when does it make sense? Here are a few times:

1. When you’re just getting started.
At the beginning of a new dream, you need exposure more than you might 5 years into a career.

2. When it’s a whole new tribe.
I love writing for blogs that are outside my circle. When a career site I’ve never worked with gives me an opportunity to write that’s awesome because 99% of their readers have never heard of me.

3. When the numbers are real.
I recently connected with someone that has over 25 million twitter followers. If he asked me to write something for free you better believe I’d do that.

4. When it’s fun.
That might sound silly, but there are things I like to do for free just because they’re fun. Why do we always have to try to monetize everything?

Robert D. Smith is right. Most times exposure is a fake carrot someone waves in your face instead of paying you what they should. Sometimes though, it’s a great opportunity and you should jump.

Have you ever done something for free in the hopes of getting some exposure?

  • Nick
    Posted at 04:56h, 28 April Reply

    Totally. I’ve don’t free legal work in a new area In which I wanted to build a reputation as a first adapter. I’ve spoken at events because I knew the attendees are folks who hire lawyers like me. And a bunch more.

    And with public speaking on my side hustle, I’ve spoken with folks about speaking for free, but not actually speaking for free. Rather, if places don’t have a speaker budget but have resources budget they may pre-buy books or other product for their group.

    It’s a great topic. One of those “look for the win win” ones. And bringing that up to the person talking with me about doing something for free has really helped maximize the non- benefits for both sides.

  • David Mike
    Posted at 05:54h, 28 April Reply

    Sometimes it’s hard to say no but I agree with Nick, it should be a win win situation. Unless it’s just the right thing to do. I am still new and trying to build my tribe. I also have been able to guest post about 6 times, which was fun and beneficial. Helps me with my writing skills and also gain exposure. Getting there!

  • Bryan Logan
    Posted at 06:15h, 28 April Reply

    I’ve been asked to do things “for exposure” a few times. For me, I always run the numbers.

    1. How many people am I being exposed to? And no, I don’t assume that your Twitter and Facebook followers are a completely separate people. There’s overlap.
    2. How much time of mine will this require? And that’s that worth in terms of money?
    3. Does this target audience match any demographics for what I’m currently selling?
    4. Has this person shown any pull with their audience?
    5. What’s the chance someone is in the market for my skills?

    For example, giving someone a free meal at a restaurant for exposure is probably a good deal if they have the followers. Doesn’t cost you much, everyone they follow needs to eat, and those people will risk the cost of a single meal on a recommendation.

    Now trying to extrapolate that into “You should give me a free car, because I’ve gotten people to purchase a meal when someone gave me a free meal” isn’t going to work as well. People buy cars less often, people are going to put more and more research and thought into a car process where the recommendation of a single person won’t put it over the edge.

  • Dana at Happy Little Lovelies
    Posted at 07:09h, 28 April Reply

    Yep. Just contributed 25 of my necklaces to help celebrate the launching of a book written by a “celebrity baker.”. I’ve also contributed to subscription boxes. In both cases, the deal was exposure. I’m not just starting out necessarily (by most standards, my etsy shop is pretty successful), but I’m trying to grow out of the baby phases of business ownership and wonder if I’m underselling myself (literally!) by doing marketing this way.

  • Sundi Jo
    Posted at 07:14h, 28 April Reply

    Doing that right now with speaking. My goal for 2014 is to have three paid speaking events, but I’m doing way more free ones to build credibility and let other see my ability. I know it will “pay off” in the end.

  • Matt McWilliams
    Posted at 07:31h, 28 April Reply

    No one has ever paid me to be on their podcast, but I’ve made a lot of money from doing them.

    Some weren’t profitable, but they were also practice.

    So I look at free as practice, exposure, and a selling opportunity.

    • Zechariah
      Posted at 08:17h, 28 April Reply

      Also podcasts are fun I think Matt:)

    • Christiana
      Posted at 13:28h, 28 April Reply

      Matt: To me a podcast is different. The difference: are they asking you to be a guest or a guest host.

  • Tif Smith
    Posted at 08:02h, 28 April Reply

    Yes. I just need to wrap up my website, right? Right. πŸ™‚

  • Zechariah
    Posted at 08:16h, 28 April Reply

    Great post Jon and so true. I do a lot of podcasts and guest posting for free no matter how small the platform. That is because I am new to building my own platform. However, having owned pizza parlors for ten years my coaching there I don’t do for free very often. Different stages of different businesses:)

  • Josh
    Posted at 08:46h, 28 April Reply

    I did 31 paintings for free during a one month span last year. It only generated about a half dozen real leads.

    I gave people the paintings and made payment optional–some were generous in return, others gladly took a free painting.

    It was fun to do and a great exercise in discipline, but didn’t turn into as much business as I’d have hoped for.

    • Lily Kreitinger
      Posted at 10:45h, 28 April Reply

      Excellent point Josh. People do not appreciate what they get for free.

    • Bryan Logan
      Posted at 11:25h, 28 April Reply

      Out of the half a dozen real leads, how many turned into actual sales?

      • Josh
        Posted at 16:35h, 29 April Reply

        4 actually ordered paintings

  • Lily Kreitinger
    Posted at 10:45h, 28 April Reply

    Sometimes people will dangle the “exposure” carrot as a way of saying, “I want to get some free work out of you because I haven’t hustled enough to make the money to pay for your valuable services”. I’d say approach with caution. Excellence will also get you the exposure you need. Like my friends at Launch Conference say, “volunteer work does not last very long”.

  • Jennifer K. Powell
    Posted at 13:29h, 28 April Reply

    I’m just starting out, so some exposure work makes sense for me. I recently contributed chapters to an upcoming book. I’m excited about it and believe it will get me a first look by new people, which is the goal.

  • Steve
    Posted at 13:47h, 28 April Reply

    I’ve made cakes in the past for free. In the end it didn’t go so well.

  • Andy Traub
    Posted at 14:01h, 28 April Reply

    Exposure is a legitimate value when you can prove the exposure. I’ve never fed my kids with exposure but I have fed my kids thanks to results of doing free work that eventually led to some big pay days. I generally say “No” to free and frankly don’t even reply most of the time.

  • Elliott
    Posted at 14:03h, 28 April Reply

    My dream job is to open a BBQ joint. Maybe its more of a nightmare. My day job is IT consulting.

    I never give away IT, even to organizations I care about. I do that everyday all day and by the time I leave, I don’t want to do it anymore.

    Conversely, I rarely charge to cook for a BBQ. I almost always give that away. I view it as developing a following who might support my one day kickstarter. I give that time to organizations that have people that could be a customer one day. They pay for supplies, but they get my time for free. And – while it’s still a hobby, I get to have my hobby for free. And since I’m not charging, I can feel free to be picky without feeling like I just gave up a good income opportunity.

  • HolliB
    Posted at 14:05h, 28 April Reply

    Thanks for taking on this issue, Jon.

    Here’s the way it should work: You want me to do something for free? Ask me. Be honest that you can’t (or won’t) pay me. Maybe offer some incentive (some swag, a chance to meet someone I’ve wanted to meet, a chance to support a cause I care about, etc.). But don’t ever say it will be “good exposure.”

    Let the person you’re asking determine whether it’s worth their time and effort, and assume they are completely competent to determine whether working for you for free will provide “good exposure” or not.

    Because, to be honest, virtually every time someone promises “good exposure,” it isn’t. They’re asking for a favor but pretending they’re doing you a favor — which is a lie. Just the fact that someone uses that phrase usually shows they’re trying to con you. If it’s good exposure, you’ll know it already and be eager to say yes before the asker can get the words out.

    And then of course there’s this:

    • Bill Ramsey
      Posted at 11:41h, 29 April Reply

      Working for “exposure” typically means “work for a large group of people who also expect free work.”

  • Ed Cyzewski
    Posted at 14:08h, 28 April Reply

    One practical example of giving something away for exposure is giving an ebook away vs. using a free ebook to gain newsletter subscribers. Giving a book away may get some reviews and exposure, but I have seen far better (and measurable!) returns by using an ebook giveaway as a means to get more connections over email. I’m sure there are lots of different stories here, especially among fiction writers who use giveaways to build interest in a series. That’s just my story so far.

  • Paul Simkins
    Posted at 14:57h, 28 April Reply

    I had a group call me to fill in at the last minute as a speaker with a topic I would have had to create material for. They asked for my fee and then before I could get it out informed me that many speakers they asked would do it for free to get exposure to meeting planners. I did not offer a free resource.

  • Patrick
    Posted at 15:07h, 28 April Reply

    In the words of the Joker…… “if you’re good at something, never do it for free”.

  • Dana Nuesca
    Posted at 15:13h, 28 April Reply

    Thank you, Jon, for this article! I grow frustrated as I speak for free at various events at least once a week. I have been paid but intermittently. Normally, I am speaking about the non profit that I run, Seeds of Hope Homes, but I have a motivational message. I am always well received. The non profit doesn’t pay a single bill because it is still a fairly new start up and the speaking events don’t pay the bills, BUT it has given us a TON of exposure which eventually leads to more support. So I can see both sides. Each time I speak, I feel like more doors have opened. Now to get paid.

  • Jeff Miller
    Posted at 15:15h, 28 April Reply

    Good post Jon. That does make sense (cents) πŸ™‚

  • Scott Asai
    Posted at 15:20h, 28 April Reply

    I agree at first, but you have to be careful when you start something because the perceived value of free may be too low for the customer to buy. I did a network event for 2 years (free) and barely got any clients from it. I enjoyed it, rarely promoted myself and although it was good experience, it wasn’t the best business move for me. Other things like webinars convert much better being free. I guess it’s just trial and error.

  • Rosanne
    Posted at 15:26h, 28 April Reply

    You know, people die from exposure! πŸ˜‰

  • Rebbekka
    Posted at 16:13h, 28 April Reply

    I recently wrote tall tales for a local brewery’s marketing campaign, and I had a blast doing it. As a result, not only did I get my name out there, but the owner also named a beer after me! So if you’re ever in Berthoud, Colorado, stop by Berthoud Brewing Companyand get a Rebbekka’s Raspberry :).

  • Chandler Lyles
    Posted at 16:30h, 28 April Reply

    We just started our BBQ catering/fundraising business this year. Its funny that you wrote this post the Monday after we just did this exact thing. Two college kids in our community have been recently diagnosed with different forms of leukemia. On Saturday we donated our time, money, expertise and network to raise several thousand dollars to help the families.

    We didn’t put our logo out there and definitely didn’t portray it as a LBC sponsored event. Giving our time was an amazing feeling. I’m a firm believer in the philosophy of help as many people as you can and things will work out.

    As always great work Jon! Thanks for helping us get our dream going!!

  • Brandon
    Posted at 16:54h, 28 April Reply

    I’m a musician. Exposure, right or wrong, is often the only way musicians get paid. At a wedding the money always goes to the rental hall, the caterer and then the cake decorator. Music is a commodity that these days is found everywhere for free (youtube, streaming services, pirating, etc). As a musician I HAVE to give stuff away for free.

    I have this theory (and I know I’m not alone) that if you give stuff away for free (and it’s valuable stuff) people will pay for it. The more I give my music away the more I’m asked to play for a fee. I would recommend that to be successful in competitive markets you need to have an element of your business that you are comfortable giving away for free. Writers do it all the time with blogs or podcasting in order to sell a product. I do it with gigs/concerts in order to sell my services. Life Coaches speak for free in order to gain 1 on 1 clients.

    Giving stuff away shows that you are invested in the community and in relationships, not just sucking money from the system – even if you’re a super awesome person who is just trying to make a living – It’s about perception.

    My advice is to be forthright in offering something for free that doesn’t cost you a lot of time and/or money and you will see a big return in other areas of your business.

  • Rob
    Posted at 18:47h, 28 April Reply

    I am a advanced amateur photographer and have a passion for taking photos as a hobby. This relieves the stress of my lucrative, but high-pressure day job. On occassion I get asked by friends to do a commercial shoot or wedding. I will do so only if I can do it for free so as not to add pressure and take the fun out of my hobby. I do feel a little guilty, though, because I am taking potential revenue from a professional photographer.

  • Mary
    Posted at 19:55h, 28 April Reply

    I definitely have, but that is largely because I’m in my early 20s and in the first stages of launching my dream. I’ve been doing work for exposure alone through college til now in order to build up the network and resume that will land me paid gigs. And after a couple years, it’s beginning to seriously pay off.

    I’ve been cautioned a lot against working without monetary pay, but there’s a definite balance to be had there, because on the other hand I don’t want my current “career” track to be anything except something I love enough that I’d do it for free.

  • David Hooper
    Posted at 22:40h, 28 April Reply

    You can die from exposure. πŸ™‚

    Great advice, I think. Too many people get caught up in either taking everything that comes or not taking anything. I think you’ve got a good balance.

  • Liz Barber
    Posted at 23:19h, 28 April Reply

    Great article, I did free work when I first started and now if I do it has to be for something that I believe in. Right now I’m working on a free site redesign for for a great organization that provides special needs families a place where they can connect, ask questions and get support. This is close to my heart because my 2 boys were diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. If it’s a cause I believe in and feel strongly about, I don’t mind providing services- and the exposure part isn’t even a part of the equation for me.

  • Josue Molina
    Posted at 23:27h, 28 April Reply

    free comes with a price.

  • Amy Latta
    Posted at 07:52h, 29 April Reply

    I’m writing this comment right now for free for exposure, so, yeah, we all do it sometimes. πŸ˜‰

    In all seriousness, the reasons you list are outstanding. I think the trick is to realize when you hit that point where you’re no longer in need of exposure and instead in need of return on your investment.

    Thanks for always keeping us thinking, Jon!

  • Travis
    Posted at 10:27h, 29 April Reply

    I have a rule: if Jon Acuff asks me to work for free in exchange for exposure, I’ll do it:)

    In all honesty, I believe we should do some things for free. Sometimes for exposure if we are new and if we are seasoned/established we should do things for free as a way to help others out.

  • Tori Grant
    Posted at 11:31h, 29 April Reply

    Re: Bryan Logan’s list is helpful to me. Especially as regards “How much of my time will this take? And how much is my time worth?”

    As a long time crafter about to go from hobbyist to semi-professional, I think in terms of “Does this add to the 10,000 hours I need to finesse my skills?”


    • Bryan Logan
      Posted at 13:47h, 01 May Reply

      Good luck with the move foward. I tried to follow you on Twitter, but your page isn’t linking there properly.

  • Bryan
    Posted at 21:54h, 30 April Reply

    Giving things away is the best marketing strategy I’ve ever used. Huge huge fan.

  • Melissa Kaiserman {A Time for Everything}
    Posted at 12:58h, 01 May Reply

    A month after I launched my handmade business, a blogger with a decent following contacted me asking if I would be interested in sending her one of my premium wallets to review and then giving one away to a reader. At first I was a little taken aback (mostly because I was new to the game and didn’t understand this wasn’t completely out of the ordinary), but then I figured it couldn’t hurt. It ended up being one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made, because the exposure was a key factor in my shop taking off, and I still get traffic from that blog post over two years later. Plus she ended up becoming a friend.

    Since then, I’ve repeatedly witnessed handmade shop owners saying they would never send a product for free and getting all up in arms about even being asked. Yet these are often the same people who complain that they’re not getting any sales. It’s a very short-sighted and ungenerous position to hold.

    Nowadays I hardly ever say yes when approached for free product since the requests rarely meet the criteria Brian listed above. But I remain open. I’m usually the one who does the pursuing when I see potential, and except for once, my choice to “work for free” has brought in far more than went out. I want to always be willing to give without disconnecting wisdom from it.

  • Jay Crane
    Posted at 13:07h, 02 May Reply

    As a licensed Realtor in Texas, I am considering listing a couple of homes in an exclusive area in the hopes of trying to build my niche in the luxury market. How would you approach this type of owner with this proposal without them thinking they are getting scammed?

  • Alex Sawyer
    Posted at 15:02h, 03 May Reply

    Free is so powerful! There have been times recently when I volunteered to work with a company I highly respect in hopes I would have a great experience. It totally was! In fact, this past week they contacted me and want to pay me for an upcoming project!

    Free lets you show how good you are at what you do and how great you can be to work with. Free is the best way for people to fall in love with you, and that will not only lead to more work, but it’ll lead to the kind of work that you want!

  • John Ton
    Posted at 10:08h, 06 November Reply

    Reading people’s posts, I see there is certainly not universal agreement on this. My 2 cents’ worth: I paint murals professionally, and I receive some really great commissions from cities, businesses and individuals. I am approached occasionally by art students / beginners who want to “do what I do” – that is, make art for a living. I tell them to paint FIVE really great murals, for free: get permission from the building owner, show them a rendering, pay for your own paint and supplies and other expenses, and go for it! Do your very best effort, take your time, and keep at least rough track of time spent. Use these five pieces as your mural portfolio, and when someone approaches you (they will, if your work doesn’t suck), tell them your rates -which should be calculated based on how fast you’ve been able to paint the five murals. That is how I did it 20 years ago, and it worked very, very well for me. — Giving stuff away for free is a GREAT way to promote –IF YOU DO IT RIGHT– -enjoy! JT

  • Janice F.
    Posted at 09:57h, 14 January Reply

    NEVER EVER work for free. Is gas free? Taxes, education, insurance, utilities–free? When you pick my brain, you pick my pockets. Say no to american moochers/dupers/shysters looking for hand outs and freebies. Even those so -called–“non profits”–many of their directors/pres/vps are making high 5-6 figure sallies. They play the poor me persona and eye patch/tin cup psych ops to sheeple. wake up. NO to free work. Period.

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