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Barter Basics for Freelance Copywriters

What Copywriters Should Know Before They Trade Services


I was recently interviewed for an article on bartering professional services. Bartering presents an interesting opportunity to obtain the products or expertise you need without cash outlay.

Since this is a topic I’m frequently asked about by other freelance copywriters, I thought I’d share the questions and my responses here.  

– Susan Greene

bartering your copywriting

When cash is tight, bartering your copywriting talent for some product or service you need is a practical option.

When do you most often barter your copywriting services?  What sort of situations often call for this sort of exchange rather than traditional money-for-services?

To barter services or products, both parties must have a need for the other.  They must both sell something that the other wants.

For example, I once bartered writing a press release about a medical device that can be used to treat carpal tunnel syndrome in exchange for a sample device.  The client was delighted with my write-up, and the device, which I still own and use, helps relieve my carpel tunnel symptoms when they flair up. Win-win!

How can you be sure a barter arrangement for your copywriting services will work out?

Well, the truth is you can’t be sure.  A barter arrangement, like so many other types of business arrangements, is largely based on trust.

If you strike a barter deal, you want to be sure the other party will come through on their end. You also want to be sure they won’t take advantage of you, partaking in more than their share of free services.

Because of the trust factor, bartering often works best when you have an existing relationship with the other party.

What are some occasions when you were happy with the decision to barter your copywriting services?  

The best barter arrangement I ever made was with a web design firm going back about 15 years. They were a new company and needed copy for their corporate website. I was a copywriter who needed a website to promote my services.

We both fulfilled our part in the agreement and both benefited greatly. The website they designed for me resulted in me getting numerous clients. It took my business to a new level.

Keep in mind this was going back about 15 years ago when not everyone had a website. The web design firm was able to get clients as well as a result of the copy I wrote for them. It was a win-win situation all around.

One other barter situation I had was with a company that sold artwork and custom framing. I had just moved into a new house and had lots of plain white walls. The art company had decided they needed to do some public relations work to build their brand and attract customers. In return for writing monthly press releases over the course of a year, I was able to pick out about half dozen beautifully framed pictures for my home.

You’ve been in business as a freelance copywriter for many years.  Do you find you do more bartering now that you’re established or less?

Less.  When I was just starting out, I found that bartering was a good way to build my copywriting portfolio.  Clients were more willing to trust  a newbie if they didn’t have to dip into their pocket.

One of my best accounts that started as a barter arrangement was a company that manufactured draperies.  They had always depended on word of mouth for business and realized because of increased competition they needed to do some marketing.  But they were timid about self-promotion and wanted to take it slow before committing significant funds.

I offered to do their first few copywriting jobs, some display ads, as a trade for draperies in my home. It worked out well.  They were pleased with my work and saw good results from the ads I’d written. Eventually they transitioned into a paying client, and I still have their curtains in my home.

What are some occasions when you chose not to enter a bartering arrangement or you regretted bartering your copywriting services?

The times I have trouble bartering are when the company I’m trading with values their services higher than they value mine. One I perceive that mindset, I decline to barter.  I know the time I put in to do the other party’s work is not likely to be reciprocated equally.

For example, one time a company that puts on extreme races such as mud runs and obstacle courses wanted me to write a brochure for them to attract corporate sponsors. All they offered me in return was free entrance to one of their races.

Since the race cost was only $75 and because I really wasn’t into racing anyway, I turned down the barter arrangement. They were mad at me.  They couldn’t believe my services had a greater value than their races. I knew then I wanted nothing to do with their company.

On another occasion, I did enter into a barter situation and it didn’t work out great.  I needed a website designed for a new service I was offering.  I knew a web designer who needed content for his company website.  We decided to trade services.  I wrote his website, and he was extremely pleased with it.  He designed about one-half of my website and then became too busy to finish the project.

I patiently waited for almost six months before accepting the fact he wasn’t going to fulfill his end of the deal.  He didn’t want to do my “free work” when he had plenty of paying clients filling his schedule.  We finally parted ways, and I paid a new designer to finish building my website. Live and learn.

However, I should point out that the original designer did try to make it up to me by referring several new clients to me for copywriting services, so I guess ultimately the barter did work out, just not in the way I had planned.

Do you have any  final tips for new freelance writers on how to decide whether or not to barter their services?

Make sure the trade will be equitable for both parties. Be sure you can trust the other party to fulfill their part of the bargain.  Finally, and this is probably my most important point: Don’t let trades take up too much of your time. Barters won’t pay your rent!

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Phoenix, Arizona

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