Give Away Your Work? It Can Work

If you are a freelance writer, artist or have a talent, offer a service or product, you will be asked to give it away for free. Often it comes with the promise of “getting your name out—good marketing.” I’ve talked about avoiding false marketing schemes, but today the issue is different.

Giving away your product or service can be a gift to you, or. . .

Giving away your product or service can be a gift to you, or. . .

A good way to get your services, company’s name or your own name in front of people is to donate your product or services in a way that it will get seen by your target audience. The key is, as always, the right audience. Let’s assume you are fielding requests from several good organizations, all with your target audience.

The request involves both your time and materials, which have a value. They also require time and effort, which has a financial worth–part of the price. (Price and value are two completely different things.)

How much should you give away? How much free time is too much to give away?

1. Treat the request as a real job. Never give away something sloppy because you aren’t charging for it. If you are contributing, it represents you, so it has to be your best. Many requests will try to make the request look smaller by saying “just send anything.” Don’t do that. What you send represents you to your potential audience. Send your best.

2. Limit your time and costs. Not by being fast or sloppy, but through smart

. . . or a load of garbage.

. . . or a load of garbage.

time management. Instead of starting from scratch, re-write a good article for this specific audience. Make new art, but not with a new technique. Create something you already know how to make, but in a new color.

3. Know when to say ‘no.’ Ask about the deadline before you agree. Most requests for “free” also come with tight deadlines. Don’t be afraid to turn down a request if the deadline doesn’t work for you. Know your limit for “free.” A good rule of thumb is between 5 percent and 10 percent of your non-committed time in any quarter. That figure includes all charitable work–from volunteering to producing. And count in all of your production–planning, buying materials, production.  (Check with your tax person about how much of these donations are tax deductible. It’s much less than you think–your time isn’t tax deductible in most cases.)

4. Plan out the project. Let’s say you offer to write an 800 word article. Use your calendar to block out the time for research, writing, re-writing, proofreading, as if it were a real assignment. The entire block of time is now not available for any other charity work. Putting it in your calendar is a handy reminder to do the work, but also a good reminder that you can’t do any more volunteer work at the same time.

5. Understand your motivation and stick to it. Most of us get in trouble because we want to be nice, friendly, helpful and loved. So we don’t say ‘no.’ We say ‘yes,’ become resentful, rushed, and do a bad job. And inadvertently become not-nice, cranky, a problem and hated. The opposite of what we wanted in the first place. You cannot accept work to be loved if you don’t have time to be loved.

6. Know how to say ‘no.’ Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be a rejection of the person who asked.  Here are some ways to say no that are both clear and kind–and that’s the real key to turning down an offer. Be clear and kind.

Say ‘no’ to now, but offer a time that’s realistic for you. “Thank you for asking for an article, Mary, I’m honored you want me to be a guest blogger. I’m booked up for the next two weeks, so tomorrow doesn’t work for me. I could get you something in three weeks from Thursday. Would that work for you?”

–Say ‘no’ because you have booked up all your volunteer time. This shows you are already loved and booked. “Thanks for asking, Mary, but Carlos asked me last week, so my volunteer time for March is already booked. I’m honored you asked.” Delivered with a smile, this feels good and is clear.

Point to another source. This will make you a valuable resource and not cost you future work. “Thanks for the offer, Mary, normally I’d jump at the chance. I’m booked right now, but you might want to ask Haji. He’d be great for your project.”

Free work, handled like real work, can be a good marketing idea. Or it can be the project from hell. Either way, it’s yours to accept or turn down. Don’t create your own hell, I learned that lesson the very publicly embarrassing way.

—Quinn McDonald learns by failing spectacularly. Then she shares with her readers.

Images: Giftbox from, garbage truck from

Stone-Age Marketing

One of the things about the West that charms me is the inventiveness of the people. Many people here xeriscape–no lawns, crushed granite and native plants dot the front yards. And there are people who happily market their services and products in that environment.

bags of stone with a message

bags of stone with a message

They use small plastic bags, about 2-inches x 3 inches, put in a small card with a description of their product or service, put in a few chunks of granite, seal the bags and toss them onto your front yard. I see them when I walk in the morning, bags left by slow moving cars that could easily be mistaken as a hit-man cruising the neighborhood (if you’ve watched all seasons of the Sopranos). Well, not really. Mostly the cars are several years old. One person drives, the other one flings the marketing bags onto yards.

I’m not saying I love them, you have to go pick them up and dispose of them, but I do think the idea is clever. Never a loss for getting your name out there.


Surprising, however, is how many people feel a need to tell you they are

Information side of bag o'rocks

Information side of bag o

Christian or love Jesus. (In the bag on the right, you can see the fish symbol.)  Again, it’s charming that the worker and his company love Jesus, but I don’t find that a deciding factor in landscaping, pool care or painting. Even if Jesus’s dad was a carpenter. I guess people do use that in the decision-making factor, or it wouldn’t be so prominent on the marketing material. And that opens up another whole line of thought. . . .

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and a certified creativity coach. She wonders about a lot of things and lives happily in ambiguity. See her work at

Hidden Costs on Websites

There is an annoying trend starting up on websites, and I’d like to nip it in the bud. All of you who sell products and services on your websites, quit hiding the cost of your memberships, classes, and products. Quit making me click on “buy now” or fill out registration forms with all my information before I find what I have to pay.

You are probably thinking that telling me the price up front will make me leave, because my buying decision is based on price, and if you can show me a few more facts, I’ll think the price is a bargain.

secret hiding placeDon’t know about everyone out there, but if I can’t find the price, I feel like I’m being scammed. I don’t like searching for things you cleverly hide. You can’t make your clients eat your vegetables on your website.

Put your price where I can see it and consider it. I’m not so dumb that if you’ve led me on a chase through your website, and I finally find the price, I’m going to think it’s worthwhile and buy.

And while I’m at it, stop calling prices “investment fees,” “opportunity cost” and other nonsense. It’s a price, and I’m willing to pay it if you give me real information and put the price up front, so I can make a decision like an adult. If you don’t, I’m finding someone who will.


–Quinn McDonald teaches Writing for the Web and other business communication classes. She is also a certified creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Marketing When You Don’t Have Time

Whether you are an artist, freelance writer, or any small business owner, you know you have to market yourself and your work.  And as soon as this crush slows down a bit, you plan on doing just that.

Now it’s too late. The time to do marketing is when you don’t need to because you are busy, when you don’t have free time. Once you have free time, it takes weeks for the marketing to work and money isn’t coming in. I hate hearing it; I hate saying it, and it’s true. So I devised a way to get around the roadblocks and market.

One of the ways I market my work is to publish articles in magazines and ezines. Published work not only displays your talent and expertise, but the clips also help you market your work to others. There is a certain amount of drudgery involved in pitching your work,  getting rejections, finding another magazine, re-writing and then re-pitching your work.

I write an article–just getting down the ideas. What Ann Lamott calls a “zero draft”–not even a first draft. If the article is longer than a page, I staple it together and stick it in the yellow folder in my bag. When I’m in line at the post office, the grocery store, or waiting at the dentist, I pull out the folder and read through the articles. Sometimes I circle a paragraph and mark it for deletion, other times I’ll write notes in the margin. I don’t line edit it. I’m not ready for that, I’m still working on the idea stage.

When I’m waiting for a client to call back, when I can’t read another email, when I have a few minutes of time, but no more, I pull out the zero draft and review the notes. Sometimes the zero draft is really two different articles. Sometimes the zero draft is not worth keeping. If the article has promise, I’ll write the first draft, and toss it back into the folder. Over time, creativity wins out. The articles get written, re-written, edited and polished.

When I send them out, I am no longer attached to them. Rejections don’t crush my spirit. And because there are more of them in the folder, if one is rejected, another one can go out. Or the rejected one can be rewritten.

The marketing benefit comes from producing publishable articles without setting aside weeks of time to do it. The emotional benefit is that staying objective about the articles helps you pitch and rewrite more efficiently. There is the added benefit of not buying candy while you are in the supermarket line and not being as anxious when the dentist calls your name.

It’s a slow process that makes the most of how creativity works. Your brain keeps working on the writing, even if you are not focusing on it directly, and the process moves forward in small, but definite steps. When you get an article accepted, it seems like a bonus. Over time, I’ve noticed that I get more and more accepted, and the checks are an incentive to keep working.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at

Marketing “Opportunity”: Pass

Marketing is an ever-present part of your life if you own your own business. You need to do it most when you are too busy with other clients. If you wait until you aren’t busy, it’s too late.

Marketing means making your business known to potential clients. The more your name is in front of the right audience at the right time, the more likely clients will see it. Notice I did not say, “The more money you will make.” Having a potential client see your work and selling your work are two separate steps.

You can have a billboard visible to 10,000 people a day, but if those 10,000 people don’t need your product or service, you won’t make a dime. You need to have a product or service that fills as need as well as the people who need it. And even then, it takes a while for the connection to spark.

lotus bowlIf a jacket is on sale and you buy it just because the price is right, but it matches nothing in your closet and you don’t like it, you will never wear it, no matter how little you paid for it. If the jacket fits well and you like it and it goes with half your wardrobe, you will see the need, and buy it, even if it’s not on sale.

Marketing it about seeing the exact need and filling it.

I get a fair number of calls from people who have “excellent marketing opportunities” for me. They generally involve me doing something for free–donating a piece of my art or offering free life- or creativity coaching.

After they describe in glowing terms how my art will be showcased or my writing will be read, I ask, “how is this a marketing opportunity for me?”
“Well, your work will be seen by important people! That’s like money in the bank!” they say, a touch annoyed that I’m so slow witted as to question this wonderful opportunity.
“Actually, having your work seen is not like money in the bank, or I’d have a lot more money in the bank,” I reply. A marketing opportunity puts my product in front of people who need the service and who are willing to pay for it. Everyone at this event can love my artwork, but if none of them is in the market for art, it is not a good marketing opportunity.

The same is true of people who ask me to write for them for half my fee, because “it will put your name in front of many important people. If one person pays half my regular rate, and someone discovers how much (or little) that person paid for my services, they will not be happy if I quote them a much higher price. They will want the same deal the first person got. That isn’t an opportunity for me.

Getting clients means more than having my work seen. It means having my work noticed and wanting something similar. If that doesn’t happen at this event, I won’t get any business.
“Well, what do you want?” the pitch person asks.
“I want the mailing list for your organization,” I’ll say, if I think the group contains potential clients.
This is met with a gasp of horror. “I can’t do that, that’s giving you contact to my group.” That always makes me smile, as access is exactly what was promised as a great marketing opportunity. Focusing on the definition of access usually throws cold water on their enthusiasm.

A marketing opportunity is only an opportunity if you, the business owner, see it as one. Giving away your product or service because you want to do a good deed is worthwhile. Having a fleeting second in front of a crowd is not marketing and not an opportunity. It’s charity. (And not very tax deductible charity if you are an artist–just the cost of your supplies, not the value of the work or your time.) And charity has a big place in my work. But it’s not marketing.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and creativity coach. See her work at Bowls: Handmade paper by Quinn McDonald. (c)2007, All rights reserved.