The best compensation for freelancers goes one personal step beyond monetary pay.
Marketing Content Strategy

Compensation for Freelancers: 6 Creative Ways to Go Beyond Fair Pay

8 Minute Read

“I have a confession only another writer would understand. I’m dying to get it off my chest,” I blurted.

My buddy leaned in close, concerned. “Sure, yeah, hey. You can tell me anything. You know that,” he stressed.

“Thanks,” I said. “I feel better already. Here goes: I’m more creative when a client pays well. When their compensation for their freelancers, you know, reflects the value we deliver. I outperform myself sometimes for my higher-paying clients. Wow, it feels good to say that out loud.”

My friend froze, waiting for more. “Wait, that’s it?” he asked, incredulous. “That’s all?! Jeez Bethany, that’s not a confession, that’s business.”

In what I (at the time) considered a scandalous string of revelations, my friend then listed all the ways he’s produced better, more interesting, tighter content for generous clients. And how, when working for the ones who treat him as a commodity, those creative juices seem to hit a mental stopper.

“I learned early on to just accept this as a mysterious reality I can’t control,” he said.

Since that conversation, my buddy and I have compared notes a few times. I learned he and I are both writing storified marketing material for a handful of brands that have gotten creative in their compensation strategies to keep us inspired.

Besides cash, here are a few of the best ways my friend and I agree brands can keep their freelancers as animated as the marketing stories they tell.

Fulfilling Work

A few weeks ago the Association of National Advertisers released an unflattering report that rang an industry-wide warning bell. Turns out, graduating college kids don’t want to go into advertising.

Some you win

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The study freely admits that “students are unclear about career paths in marketing and advertising and question whether it constitutes ‘meaningful work.’” The paper’s tone is that of a baffled traditionalist. “Young talent often seeks ‘purpose’ in their work along with ‘creative’ job environments, like those established by the startup and tech culture,” it says, obviously distancing the foreign concepts of purpose and creativity by ensuring they’re confined to air-quotes.

Mind if I try a clearer translation? Young people don’t want to interrupt their peers with irrelevant ads anymore, and they’re flocking to other industries that give them a worthwhile challenge. Industries that may even help others.

The buddy I mentioned earlier is ghostwriting under a famous storyteller as a sort of apprentice. He says that in this unique case, he doesn’t mind the lower pay—who even cares?—because just a shot at rubbing elbows with an industry sage is worth the work. Would he make the same sacrifice for any other client? “No way,” he says. “Just this one.”

Every brand wants to build something meaningful, sure. But imagine getting to a place where you’re so good at what you do, you’re so purpose-driven, you’re so positively disruptive that creative masters like my buddy would be inspired by your very presence.


Earlier this year, I won an award for my creative brand storytelling work. While the exciting announcement delivered the expected short-term feel-good shot of adrenaline, it also left me with a lingering sense of potential, like my best work may be yet to come. And that lingering anticipation didn’t come from my esteemed past work, but from the acknowledgement of what’s still inside. It refreshed my commitment to saying things in ways no one has considered before. Doesn’t that sound attractive? Wouldn’t you love a writer who is curious about what may emerge, if only encouraged?

Industry award contests are a great content marketing move, anyway. If you’re considering launching a best-of-the-best in your industry (even applauding what conventional business would call “a competitor”), throw in a few honors for your pool of creatives. This is an easy, above-and-beyond form of recognition and compensation for freelancers you want to keep jazzed.

Increased Responsibility

Some personalities thrive with increased, higher-stakes duties. If you have a freelancer you particularly love and want to compensate well, yes, you should start with a reexamination of her monetary pay. But then, assess her ability to do other things. Does she tend to over-produce ideas when your team is dry on story ideas, for example? Or does she lead and inspire others? Do people tend to ask her for technical advice? Or listen up when she speaks? Would she enjoy taking on more diverse responsibility than simply content creation? If so, you have a win-win by way of a mutually beneficial arrangement that would help you produce more and, in turn, build her personal brand.

Referral Business

If you haven’t already, ask your favorite freelance creatives if they’d like referral work. Almost always, the answer is a gushing “yes.” The favor can gain you huge gratitude from both parties whether or not the introduction turns into a contract. Plus, with your referrals, your freelance worker will likely need to spend much less time hustling to drum up new business to fill her client roster. Offer her your Rolodex, and she’ll probably have more mental energy (and time) to devote to your creative projects.

If you’re not keen on making direct business connections (some people do it in their sleep, others struggle with the risk), cross-promotion is a strong compromise until you’ve built more trust. Simply tag your creative in every online mention of their work. Yes, the asset belongs to you, but the engine behind the product is worth the nod. Again, your freelancer will be inspired to create better and better content knowing you’re cross-promoting every collab as a joint effort.


“I really want this client, should I offer to do work for them for free? Would it be a good way to get a foot in the door?” This is one of the most common questions raised in my online freelance writing communities. The answer is always a cacophony of negatives.

“You’re better than that!”

“You bring down the rest of us when you work for free!”

“How will anyone ever appreciate good writing if it’s cheap or free?”

“Please, don’t, for your sake and ours.”

“Have you forgotten? People have died of exposure!”

That last one made me smile. I’ll admit I’m the only one to disagree with the naysayers. I recommend writers who get the chance to byline for today’s most innovative and respected brands should be willing to do so for a temporarily smaller paycheck. The thing is, all brands think they’re innovative and respected—but often, they’re not. Usually, brands are one or the other. A teeny tiny percentage of companies are worth this kind of financial sacrifice, and they only make the cut because with their name on a writer’s portfolio, that freelancer can likely score higher-paying client relationships. So while exposure is one additional way to compensate creatives, you need to be one of the top few most valuable brands in history for that benefit to be fair.

Professional Development

A few years ago, I was the world’s worst writer. My intellectual capacity for thought leadership was there, but the craft of building a case and organizing points was non-existant. Recently, I re-read one of my earliest pieces and balked. How could so many words say so little? It was bad. The contrast reminded me how fortunate I am that my clients didn’t cut me loose. Instead, a few of them coached me, one offered me training books and other educational resources (a benefit most corporations offer their employees, you’ll recall), and one even offered to save me a seat at industry conferences.

Compensation for freelancers

Image attribution: Marcus Sumnick

The knowledge was great, and I improved because of it, but the investment in me is what conveyed the message. They were loyal to me, so naturally, the feeling is mutual. I don’t need to wrestle with doubts (or other agency recruiters).

First Thing’s First

To be clear, the above suggestions are extra creative investments you can make in your freelancers. They are not a substitute for fair, uncomplicated, on-time monetary compensation. In fact, in addition to old-fashioned pay, there are a few other things your writers should get just for being your writers.

Compensation for freelancers

Image attribution: Adrian Scottow

  • A byline. Putting a name behind your marketing communications is a good move for you, and an expected bonus for writers.
  • Flexibility. Employees get sick days, bereavement pay, and often even “tinker time,” a flexibility that encourages breathing room for new ideas. Freelancers, on the other hand, get deadlines. Even if you’re generous with your timeframes, work in a cushion for stuff to arise—and ensure your freelancer they’re not in trouble when stuff happens to interrupt their usual reliability.
  • Genuine gratitude. Thank your people early and often. In fact, every time you commend a W-2 worker, use that as a mental trigger to ping your independent worker, too. Both they and you will be better for it.

Don’t ever hold these last few things over your creatives’ heads as incentives. They’re not. Instead, they’re beneficial byproducts that should come with the trade.

One thing brands are realizing is that those who write their corporate story eventually become part of that story. Perhaps, then, we should start calling them co-creators and compensate them accordingly.

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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and the Content Marketing Institute currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's gig economy. For more, visit

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