One of the most frequently asked questions freelance writers had on my free call earlier this month was, “How can you tell if an online writing gig is legitimate?”
Funny story — I got a very strange email earlier this week that I think illustrates how difficult it can be to tell very solid opportunities from bogus ones. Here’s the story:
I got this email at 10:30 pm. The sender name and the company names involved are disguised, but otherwise this is letter for letter how the email looked:
My name is (person’s name) and I’m looking for a writer for a project I’m managing. I’m not sure if you are available but thought I would reach out. The project is really to create an annual report for a few business programs for my large client in the SEattle area. I need someone to work with me better now and May 5th. Not sure if you are available but i’d love to chat. all teh best (name).
Kind of suspicious-looking, huh? Looks like someone typing on their mobile device or something — someone who doesn’t care how their message looks. And they’re sending me an inquiry at a pretty weird time for doing business.
In general, when I get feeler emails like this that don’t include a company name and phone number, and the email doesn’t reveal a company name — which this one didn’t — I tend to be extremely wary.
I often fire back an email saying if they’re from a real company to please reply with their company name, address, phone and URL. I have a habit of never wanting to spend time discussing projects with anyone who won’t give me those basic pieces of information.
But there were a couple things that made me give this email a second look.
The first was the mention of a big client. The second was the fact that her email did end in a name that I knew was associated with a service offered by a big local company. That gave it enough chance of being a real offer that I wrote back:
Hi (name) —
Thanks for reaching out to me! Annual reports are definitely up my alley — as a longtime business reporter I’m very familiar with that format. I’m pretty slammed for about the next week, but after that my schedule should get better. Why don’t you give me a call tomorrow to discuss your project?
In the meanwhile, maybe you could send me a bit more contact information for you and your company so I can take a look online?
Also would love to hear how you found me – thanks!
After I sent this inquiry, I decided to run the sender’s name through LinkedIn with “Seattle” attached. Bingo: The sender was affiliated with a very large company. I wasn’t surprised when I got her response below. Marketers, note the interesting way she found me:
I’m with (major project management agency) and we are working with (Fortune 500 company) on a large project for the office of the CTO. I found you through linked in online to be honest and was looking for someone with adequate experience. This is a huge project and I need someone for 80hours between now and May 5th. Let’s chat tomorrow
I also need to know if you can help me with interviews and a few client meetings to review documents once we are done or are you jsut remote?
All of which brings us back to our question: How can you tell if a writing gig is legit?
Answer: You have to do some sleuthing. Don’t take prospects at face value. Start researching and find out if they’re who they say they are.
My experience with this prospect shows how hard it is in our casual-email era to tell good from bad. So you really need to look hard at the prospect before you leap.
Ways to investigate a prospective writing client:
- Get their contact information and look them up online. Have they been around a while? Do they sell a real-world product or service — or magazine — with a proven track record of success? If they won’t provide a street address, run.
- Ask around your writer forums on LinkedIn or wherever you hang out — has anyone worked for this company? If so, what are their impressions?
- Poke around in social media to see what this company is saying…and what others are saying about them. Also try the contact person’s name on Twitter and Linked In — does their bio say they work for the company they told you they represent?
- Try Googling that company’s name + lawsuit and see what you turn up. Use the Google News tab to see if there are news stories about the company.
- Ask the prospect: What is your business model? (If it’s “we get you to write tons of content cheap or free and then we put ads next to it,” run.)
- Ask: What are your pay rates and your payment schedule? You want to know up front if they pay on an instant bank transfer or take six months.
- Be on the lookout for obviously scammy propositions — it they ask you to write a bunch of free samples, or to write for peanuts because they might be able to pay more later on, or if you get enough pageviews…run.
Ever gotten scammed in a writing gig? Leave a comment and let us know what happened, and what you learned from the experience.