It happens to all copywriters at some point. You get an inquiry that sounds promising until they ask you to do a free ‘test’ to prove your credentials. It doesn’t matter that you’re a professional. They want you to audition to prove your worth.
Although you might be tempted to say “yes” if there’s plenty of work in the pipeline – it’s a common tactic to promise jam tomorrow – my advice is to insist you’re paid for your time. And here’s why …
1. The client wouldn’t give away their services for free (as a trial) so why should you? A hotel company recently asked me to do a ‘free test’ before committing to a larger project. What if I’d strolled into their hotel and asked for a free night before deciding whether to stay for the rest of the week?
2. You don’t know how honest they are. If they need six pages of website copy, they might approach six different copywriters and ask each of them to write a different page as a test. The result? They’ve got their website written for free.
3. If a client can’t pay for sample copy, they probably won’t have much (or any) budget to pay a proper rate when the main project starts. If they’re trying to get freebies now they might try and screw you down on price later on. And who wants to work for people like that?
4. Copywriting is a professional service and should be treated as such. I’ve heard it argued that copywriting is ‘creative’ so ‘auditions’ are perfectly fair. This is nonsense. Copywriting isn’t acting; it’s a professional service and a vital part of branding / marketing.
5. Doing business requires trust. When you approach an architect or accountant you trust them to do the job based on their credentials, reputation and website. Asking them to do a test is like saying “I don’t trust you”. This is no way to start a business relationship.
6. If they can’t tell if you’re a good fit by looking at your website, they either (a) don’t really know what they want, or (b) can’t tell good work when they see it. Either way this is could lead to complications once the project begins. You don’t want clients like that.
7. Doing a free test implies that the client knows more than you. Remember that you’re the wordsmith. You’re the expert. You should be giving them valuable advice and working alongside them rather than just doing their bidding.
8. If they’ve asked you to ‘audition’ it probably means they’ve approached multiple writers. This means that the risk-reward ratio won’t be in your favour. What’s more, you don’t know their selection criteria. It won’t matter how good your copy is if they just want the cheapest writer out there.
9. Experienced copywriters turn down jobs that require free tests. After all, they’ve got paying clients to service. If you’re asked to audition then it’s a tell tale sign that this client operates in the bargain basement. This means lots of work for little reward.
10. Free tests aren’t needed because clients are protected anyway. If your work is awful then a client could (and should!) refuse to pay. After all, you won’t have fulfilled your obligations.
So the next time you’re asked to do a ‘sample’ or ‘test’ insist on a small fee to cover your time. Explain calmly that you’re busy, and that complying with their wishes will take you off paid work. The fact you’ve got a full diary should give them confidence and make them question their approach.
Of course, it’s hard to resist doing tests when you first start out. And you might think it’s worth jumping through hoops if the prize at the end sounds big enough. However, if a company is so hard up that they can’t afford to pay a small fee at the outset, then you might find this prize is an illusion anyway.
My advice is therefore this: only spend your time on real clients, with real budgets, who treat you like a professional, value your skills, and pay you accordingly.