By Joe Pulizzi published July 29, 2010

How Much Should Brands Pay for Content Marketing?

This cost of content marketing post was inspired by Kate Headen Waddell’s post entitled Pay Peanuts Get Monkeys.

At least one time per day, every day for three years, someone emails us at Junta42 or submits a project looking for a content vendor wondering how much content marketing (both print and web content) should cost them.  And who wouldn’t want to know?

Before now, we’ve never put all our thoughts and answers together into one post, but here it is, quite lengthy, but important enough to discuss in detail.

The Short Answer

Question: How much should I pay for my content?

Answer: It depends.

Unfortunately, it always depends, but there are ways to determine a fair price for content.

When most marketing professionals budget for content, whether that be for web content, blogs, editorial for print magazines, enewsletters and more, they go by what “feels” right. I’m not saying this is right or wrong…it’s just a fact. Marketers inherently judge content pricing based on what they’ve paid for PR or other creative, or even the value of their own time. Content and copy are always subjective and there are always multiple steps.  But the starting point is the Content Goal.

Look at it this way.  I can pay $12 dollars to play eighteen holes of golf at a Sandusky, Ohio golf course.  I can walk on and carry my bag (the gas carts have been known to die on the course, so I choose to walk).  The course is not in good shape. There are brown spots in the fairway…big ones.  The greens are bumpy.  There are no places to get drinkable water on the course.  Holes four and five kind of smell.  Sometimes you get some people on the course that shouldn’t be on a golf course.

I can also pay three-hundred dollars at Pinehurst in North Carolina. The course is immaculate. Every amenity you can think of.  There is a caddy that will carry your clubs for you and tell you which club to hit and when.  He or she will even rake the bunkers for you.  Sometimes you’ll see someone famous.  You can feel the history of the course. Even four-putting a green still feels okay (hey, even the pros have done that on this course).

What did I get?  If you really look at it, I overpaid by $288 to play eighteen holes by going to Pinehurst.  The two courses are both around the same length.  Both courses took about the same amount of time to play. I took about the same number of swings (= a lot). So what’s right? 0.67 per hole or $16.67 per hole.

The difference was that my goal was not the same.  There are times for each situation (just like content). If I just want to swing the club, the $12 course is perfect.  Exactly what I needed.  If I want an experience, or want to share an experience with someone else, I may take the rare occasion to play Pinehurst.

There is no right or wrong.  I can purchase both and succeed depending on what I wanted to do.

The same goes for content.  There can be a time for “cheap” content.  There are also times for premium content. Just like playing golf where they both have 18 fairways and greens, 500 words is 500 words.  What happens with those 500 words is where the price difference comes in.

First, a Word about Cheap Content

If you don’t know the story about Demand Media, you should read this Wired article. Demand Media is the company behind much of the content you find on the Internet, including hundreds of thousands of videos you find on YouTube and even the content behind Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong website about all things health, wellness and family. As a marketer or publisher, you should understand their model.

Without going into too much detail, Demand uses complex algorithms to try to predict what people will be searching for on the internet, whether that be for Banana Nut bread or a new crazy form of exercise. They then use those predictions to create content…lots of content around those topics.  Articles, videos, how-to pieces…you name it. Although they’ve changed their writer-payment model a few times, it seems that writers get about $10-15 per 300-word post and videographers get about $25 per online video…maybe less.

Anyone growing up in the publishing business gets sick at these prices.  When I was at Penton, it was not a rare occasion to pay $1 per word for web and print content.  There were even times where we paid up to $2.50 to $3 a word for highly specialized content (more on this in a second).

In order for writers to make a living producing content in a model like Demand Media’s, they need to write about a lot of topics very fast without much research, or be able to write many related posts about sub-topics in a limited timeframe.  Gone are the days where we wrote an article, came back to it, proofed it, rewrote parts, and then presented final copy (at least not in this model).  So, much of the content in this model includes:

  • Re-writes: One writer taking one article and rewriting it to a point where it can’t be considered copying (there are some ethical issues here).
  • Content curation: Reviewing a number of sources and blending an article back together from those sources (think of a filter).
  • Industry experts not charging very much money for their work.

Most marketers and publishers I talk to think that this “cheap” content consists of writers doing rewrites and curation.  What they can’t understand is that there are industry experts/skilled writers and videographers that are creating much of this assembly-line type content.  I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong.  I’m only saying that it’s happening and we need to be aware of it.

With content marketing, using this model is dicey at best.  Why?

  • You have a unique voice and your content needs to portray that. Getting writers to understand your voice takes time and expertise.
  • You have a marketing plan that has specific goals that need to be addressed. That means the content created has to speak directly to those goals.  This takes time and expertise.
  • Your content needs to original, engaging, valuable and compelling. Developing this kind of content takes time and expertise. [even curated content must be valuable]
  • Your content serves multiple purposes in multiple channels.  For example, a blog post might also be a video which might also need to be discussed on Facebook and delivered as a Tweet.  Correctly integrating this message takes time and expertise.

Remember the Steps of the Content Process

Every brand’s process of creating content is a bit different, but generally you have:

  • The marketing plan
  • The content strategy within the marketing plan
  • The specific tactics (i.e., a blog) within the content strategy
  • An editorial plan for the tactic (the managing editor’s role)
  • Base content for the tactic (i.e., a blog post)
  • Review of the base content (expert review and proofreading)
  • The distribution of the content through the content management system
  • The optimization of the content for search engines (on-page and off-page)
  • Syndication of the content (i.e. though Facebook and Twitter)
  • Integration of the content (back to the marketing plan and with the other content marketing strategies and traditional marketing strategies)
  • Measuring the content (through analytics, conversions, direct/cross sales or other qualitative measures)
  • Reevaluating the content (based on the feedback about the content through analytics)

This is a simple version of a very complex process. Cost, or better said, investment is something comes at each one of these steps.  Most marketers only look at content cost as the base content (the word or the video), something you might pay someone $25 a post, $100 an hour or even $2 per word, depending on the complexity of the content and the needs of the business.  Let’s say that you need to invest $300 for this particular blog post. Many marketers think they are done with the budgeting process (blog posts needed x $300). Oh no, not even close.

  • Who’s creating the ongoing editorial plan?
  • Who’s keeping the content fresh, cutting-edge and compelling?
  • Who syndicates the content?
  • Who repurposes the content?
  • Who measures the content?
  • Who’s reevaluating the content?

The list goes on and on.  This is exactly the reason why, if you outsource your content marketing process to a content agency or custom publisher, it’s extremely difficult to break out just base content. Rarely do brands have all the other parts figured out and just need the base content. When brands come through Junta42 and want vendors for, say, blog posts every month, most haven’t thought about 75% of the content creation process. Turnkey content creation costs more…but you need to remember what you are getting.

What’s the Experience?

So what type of experience are you trying to create between your content and your customer? The answer to that question will determine what parts of the content process you need, and ultimately, what you need to pay for your content.  Maybe you are at a point where you could pay someone $25 for a blog post. This model works for Demand Media.  It doesn’t work for most brands. We can’t afford to focus all our attention on predicting what our customers will search for next and write content for that.  We need to develop content that will help lead the conversation with our customers, and ultimately help our businesses profit from the content we create.

I don’t necessarily agree with the idea of Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys because I know some amazing writers that have been able to use the Demand Media system to their advantage, like it or not. And, there are customers that are achieving their goals with that model. But, as a marketer, you must understand what you are paying for in that model.  Do you just want to take some swings and walk 18 holes?  That might be enough.  Or do you need Pinehurst.

Final note:  It took me about two hours to write this post.  Cost = priceless.

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • http://carebuzz.com Carebuzz

    Joe,
    My company Carebuzz markets content to the senior care industry to help them gain qualified referrals. We are constantly looking for good strategic ways that make sense to our customers when helping them.
    Man are you right on, Joe. We have worked with umpteen marketing/internet marketing folks and you are one of the first that produces clear strategies and direction… Thank you! I appreciate the work and content that you produce. I will continue to read your stuff and refer you to my customers.
    Carol Marak
    Carebuzz

  • http://marketinginteractions.typepad.com Ardath Albee

    Nicely said, Joe. Definitely priceless!
    Content Marketing is about much more than the words.

  • http://www.sproutcontent.com Dechay Watts

    Thank you for this post. I love the golf analogy and may borrow it (with your permission) the next time we’re faced with a client who wants 10 articles written for $10. I’d add that if you’re going the route of cheap content, even if it is a short-term way to increase rankings, consider the impact you’re making on the internet environment. We may have a pollution problem one day if we keep cluttering the web with “cheap” fluff. You may also have a brand problem one day if outdated fluff is tracked back to your site.

  • http://kmwordsmith.com Karen Marley

    Joe, you rock. You clearly articulated the difference between linking content to a marketing strategy and content written for eyeballs only.
    This is priceless. I’m hanging on to it and sharing it every way I can. Sending you a sincere thank you for those two hours.

  • http://www.smartb2bmarcom.com Kate Headen Waddell

    Joe – thanks for the shout out on my Savvy B2B article.You are right that when a client understands how marketing communications support larger business goals their willingness to pay for quality goes way up. There is room in the marketplace for keyword articles; I am just afraid that the first five pages of Google results will soon be spun articles that make no sense and add no value to the conversation.

  • http://www.touchpointcity.wordpress.com Vince Giorgi

    Great post, Joe. Read it while on the bus and for some reason was struck by this image of a neighborhood garage sale. A bunch of homes and driveways lining a street. Gaggles of people meandering the sidewalk. Scouting for finds and bargains, yes. But also looking for experiences.
    One garage seller has stacked odds and ends in a jumble near the bottom of the driveway, stuck a handwritten sign on a stick near the street, and is sitting inside, peering out a window, only coming out when someone appears to be looking seriously at an item.
    Next door, the family’s tied a few helium balloons to their mail box. The kids have baked cookies and are serving kool-aid. One is giving away a stick of bubble gum for every 5 baseball cards purchased.
    Stuff is arrayed around the driveway’s perimeter and in the neatly swept garage. There’s music playing. The pool and foosball tables, and the portable basketball hoop, are not only for sale, they’re set up so people can try them out, even play a quick game. Mom and Dad are greeting people and available to answer questions — how long, how well, any problems, how much.
    Both of these homeowners are pursuing garage sale strategies. Stacking $25 dollar blog posts like cord wood might be considered a content marketing strategy.
    But you could argue that only one of these garage salers is striving to provide a differentiated, value-adding, brand-building experience.
    When next year’s garage sale weekend comes around, which home will customers remember? Which will they make a point to revisit, or tell others about?
    And maybe there’s this, which I think is too often overlooked:
    When you as the homeowner (the corporate marketer) close the door on you garage sale at night, how good do you feel about the experience you’ve provided for your customers and potential customers? Did you provide them with a lowest-common denominator. Or did you strive to create and deliver something special, truly relevant and useful, even unique?

  • http://jontusmedia.com Jon Buscall

    Joe, this is the kind of post prospective clients should be foreced to sit down and read through. No kidding!
    It’s an excellent piece and illustrates one of the major problems with our industry right now.
    Thank you for sharing this. It’s been my read of the week!

  • dj davisson

    Joe, many thanks for your thoughtful post. i appreciate the time you invested to create a great framework for the kinds of client conversations we have every day.
    thankfully, many of our clients choose Pinehurst and the experience it offers. but sometimes it’s a bumpy ride to the course. already sharing your post with colleagues.

  • http://twitter.com/lakey @lakey

    Good read Joe, all sound tips, and a nice checklist.

  • http://ensignjenpersonallog.wordpress.com/ Jennifer D

    Brilliant post. I couldn’t agree more with all of your points – few people understand how much work actually goes into creating and maintaining decent site content.

  • http://blog.junta42.com Joe Pulizzi

    Some amazing comments here…seems this issue is as important to others as it is to me.
    Initially, I thought about writing this from the standpoint of “you should pay x for y and z”. Wouldn’t we all like to see a rate card for this kind of stuff? Not possible in my opinion.
    Vince, I loved your analogy.
    We still have a long way to go. Maybe we haven’t seen the bottom yet…but I feel the tide turning.

  • http://joshsmorrow.wordpress.com/ Josh Morrow

    This post was awesome. I learned a whole bunch from it.

  • http://www.pr2020.com Christina Capadona-Schmitz

    Joe, thanks for putting together such a valuable post.
    You cover so many angles in this, but I think the main point is that marketers have options when it comes to content creation. By keeping the many steps of the content process in mind, as well as the questions you shared about what happens after the content is created, marketers can evaluate their individual situations and plan upfront for investment in the full life of the content piece(s).
    It’s about finding the balance of quality and cost that is going to achieve marketing goals and work within a budget. Content strategies and activities should be designed with the end goals of generating leads, building loyalty, or both, and marketers have the power to choose for their organizations where resources (time included) toward content marketing can have the greatest impact on these areas.
    Thanks again for the useful post, great comments as well!

  • http://www.creativepen.co.uk Matthew Pattinson

    Great post which taps straight into the heart of the debate on content pricing.
    As a freelance copywriter, I’d have to say pricing is not a fixed science.
    To give my clients a fair idea of what to expect price wise though, I break down each individual task complete with projected hours.
    And, like you say, price totally depends on the type of service required by the client.
    If it’s a simple rewrite, or making something sound pretty, the overheads will be notably cut.
    Whereas projects involving brand building – an extensive content strategy before pen is put to paper – will cost more.
    It’s not rocket science, it’s simple mathematics.
    Thanks for the post, really enjoyed!!
    Matt Pattinson – freelance copywriter at http://www.creativepen.co.uk

  • http://OnlineMarketerBlog.com DJ

    I know others have said it, but thanks for this post – you’re right on.
    It’s tough to explain this to clients. But you guys did a great job. Thanks man!

  • http://blog.junta42.com Joe Pulizzi

    Thanks DJ. It’s a tough question to answer…every day.

  • http://giglogo.com/guest-blogger-articles.html Karla Campos Lopez

    This is an excellent read, I couldn’t agree more with the saying “you get what you pay for”. I have come across different web sites where you can find article writers for hire. Usually the writer’s with the proven skill levels and track record charge more per article than a less experienced writer.

  • http://aaronbeashel.com Aaron Beashel

    Joe
    Just wanted to say this is a great post and has made me realise we need to invest some serious time in knuckling out the details if we are going to make the most of our content.

    Thanks for your valuable input. I have subscribed via RSS and look forward to learning more!