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Are Online "Meet Markets" Little More than "Meat Markets"?

by Marcia Yudkin

Psst! Want Web and print editors finding YOU for assignments? Spend just ten minutes, pay nothing to post a portfolio of information about your skills, focus and experience at our site, and sit back and let the assignments roll in.

Sounds like an appealing proposition, huh? Sites like eLance.com, freeagent.com, guru.com, workexchange.com and others have received millions from venture capitalists and rivers of complimentary ink in business magazines for setting up online "meet markets" connecting freelancers and those needing freelancers' services.

In theory, this holds the potential for increasing the efficiency of the process of writers and other independent professionals finding assignments. In most cases, this potential remains a gleaming promise. More disturbingly, I'm concerned that the way some sites execute this idea cheapens the already-not-so-high value of writers among relatively new purchasers of writers' services. And the whole setup doesn't seem as efficient or productive as old-fashioned ways of editors and writers finding one another.

Let's begin with what these sites offer. For publishers, Web sites and other companies, the sites provide a place to post projects for which they require qualified contractors. For freelancers, they provide an area for posting one's qualifications. There's also some sort of search capability so that companies and freelancers can call up listings that match their criteria.


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For instance, at eLance.com, an editor plugging in the term "science writer" would find 98 freelancers, "celebrity journalism" three and "gardening writer" five. At content-exchange.com, which focuses specifically on writers for online venues, "science" pulled up 212 freelancer listings, "celebrities" 23 and "gardening" 64. At big-spending freeagent.com, none of these terms yielded any listings at all.

Some of these sites, structured as auctions, also enable freelancers to describe services they offer and invite employers' bids, as well as providing the means for companies to describe their needs and invite freelancers' bids. At monstertalent.com, for example, searching on "science writer" turned up 10 writers holding their services out to buyers for prices ranging from $12 to $50 an hour.

As far as how many auspicious matchups have occurred, these approaches don't seem to live up to the promises yet. Doug Bates, product manager for Aquent.com, says that while 50,000 writers, Web designers, consultants and other freelancers have posted their profiles in Aquent's online "talent bank," he has no idea how many of those have landed work through their listing. "It's self-service," Bates notes, "so we wouldn't know who's getting calls."

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In an admittedly unscientific survey, I emailed ten freelance writers listed on Aquent.com and asked if their appearance there had attracted any inquiries. The seven who replied said either "no" or "I'm not sure." A similar sampling of freelance writers listed at eLance.com and content-exchange.com did not yield any success stories, either.

However, Steve Outing, CEO of content-exchange.com, emailed me four testimonials from writers who had received assignments from having listed their qualifications at his site, as well as two from editors who had found and hired listed writers. One was from Freelance Success subscriber Jennie Phipps, who had landed a substantial assignment from someone who spotted her listing at content-exchange.com.

"I think the reason I've gotten calls - from a few other boards too - is that I have a pretty lengthy newspaper resume, plus some pretty broadbased publication experience and a master's in journalism. On paper (or screen), I look like I ought to know what I'm doing," says Phipps.

Outing notes that his site provides other services to writers and online content buyers, including several discussion lists, all centered around content for the Web. It's possible that such a tight focus, excluding print journalism, for example, as well as the other professions included at similar sites, offers the greatest usefulness.

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Doug Bates of Aquent.com pointed out that the sites that structure the matching process as an auction are clearly not generating hires of freelance writers. "At monstertalent.com, for example, no one is coming to bid on writers," he told me, and indeed, those 10 science
writers eager to get hired had not attracted a single bid the day I checked. By contrast, at ants.com, a Web editor needing articles directed at husbands had attracted 20 bids from freelancers (one of them admitting that "I'm not really a writer") ranging in price from $50 to $400.

I found the auction procedures tough to understand and the search utilities hard to use. More important, when I put myself in the position of an editor searching the listings for a freelance writer, I found the standardized "talent" profiles mind-numbingly difficult to absorb. Let's suppose, though, that with greater volume more match-ups will occur and the kinks will come out of the searching and auction procedures. Do such "meet markets" further the interests of writers?

Unfortunately, these sites are treating writing and other professional services as if they could be bought the way many of us choose a washing machine or a car. A standardized format provides too much information that isn't relevant to an editor's decision, and makes it difficult to get to one of the most important factors - writing samples or clips. In addition, because anyone can post at these sites, an editor wading through profiles of writers offering articles at $50 each or those who have a long write-up but little experience will soon give up the search.

Doug Bates of Aquent.com, who has hired writers himself, voiced exactly what I was thinking when he said, "To me, writing is one of the least commodity-type services I could buy." He also said, "The average person is not knowledgeable and doesn't economically value good writing over mediocre writing." Apply these two points to a format that treats writing as a commodity and makes it easier to find a writer's self-described fee than writing samples and you have a "meat market" that holds the danger of keeping fees for writers below what they should be.

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Note that a recent article in Newsweek referred to eLance.com, guru.com and freeagent.com as sites "that allow people to sell high-level skills at basement-level prices." The accompanying photo showed two chairs face to face in a bathtub, one holding a freelancer, the other his laptop - perfect for serious work, right?

Note too that according to The Industry Standard, the higher-level the job opening, the less likely companies of any sort are to hire through online job boards. Instead, they depend on recruiters or referrals. "Job boards are the most impersonal and least targeted means of finding potential employees," the Standard said.

Indeed, when I was in a position to hire eight writers for a project last year, I used three methods to find freelancers appropriate for specific assignments: word of mouth, checking the profiles of ASJA members (whom I knew I could count on to deliver good copy on time) and checking profiles of Freelance Success subscribers (who also were probably experienced and reliable) posted at Freelancesuccess.com. The highly financed online exchanges are trying to generate as much traffic as possible, but without any prequalifications for postings, they require a lot more effort to use.

Even in today's Information Age, I vote for the efficiency of editors' traditional methods of finding suitable writers: comb through their mail (or e-mail), use the editorial grapevine and contact writers for other magazines whose work they liked. The old-fashioned query letter and clips, whether delivered by postal mail or email, offer much richer and quicker evidence of a writer's suitability than standardized electronic postings.

The first exception to this verdict is where listings enable a searcher to click right away to a writer's web site, which when well-done includes work samples, a bio and stands as an overall expression of someone's communication savvy. Second, where editors simply post their needs and interested writers reply, the process can work well without depreciating the value of our work. Third, the more specialized by topic, genre or level of experience the exchange, the more it may facilitate matches between freelancers and content buyers who value quality work.

Doug Bates had a more upbeat analysis for freelance writers. "A lot of these models are unproven," he said, "but the safest thing is to list yourself everywhere. The time investment is modest. Spend a few minutes and if it gets you even one client, that's time very well spent. If not, it's a very trivial loss." Trivial, I would add, unless writers' participation en masse reinforces the attitude that good writers will work for next to nothing, and enriches entrepreneurs more concerned with wowing investors than with respect for our talents.

Sites examined:

http://www.ants.com
http://www.aquent.com
http://www.content-exchange.com
http://www.elance.com
http://www.freeagent.com
http://www.guru.com
http://www.mediabistro.com
http://www.monstertalent.com
http://www.workexchange.com

Copyright 2000 Marcia Yudkin. All rights reserved.


 

 
   
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