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cost per word

Don’t Pay Per Word

January 15, 2019 - Content Marketing, Marketing - , ,
By: Chris Riley

In the business of content creation, charging by the number of words is the original business model. While there are situations where this is fine, if your purpose is creating content, your goal is to provide value to the market. You should not be paying per word.

No matter how much I want to deny it, there is a time and a place for just getting something written and publishing it. In these scenarios, companies are not focused on content that is consumable and provides value — and the content is tied to an antiquated SEO strategy. If it’s a strategy for a vendor, than paying per word can be a benefit. It is a way to maximize cost.

In these scenarios, paying per word can actually backfire. Here’s why:

  1. The writer’s motivation is to embellish the content to achieve a higher word count.
  2. The content will tend to be high-level. With technical content, adding fluff will directly (and negatively) impact the value. With high-level content, however, fluff makes pieces naturally more high-level.
  3. If there is a word cap, the writer will write to that cap. No more, no less — even if it means leaving critical information out.
  4. Creating great content is more than typing. A good content pipeline will have editor reviews, peer reviews, and copy editing, which means a good chunk of the time spent to make a post successful is not spent typing words. If you pay per word, you are only paying for the typing. And if you are only paying for typing, you are either skipping essential steps, or not realizing that the cost per word is not the cost of the paper.
  5. As the commissioner of the content, you will still probably set a word limit so your costs don’t go out of control. But the limit you set is a blind guess that has no correlation to the topic matter.

Benefits of flat rate

Cost per word indirectly impacts the nature of the content itself, even if on the surface it seems like just a business model. If you pay a flat rate, you are:

  1. Getting a predictable price per piece of content — and it should be the price of the entire content creation pipeline.
  2. Creating content that is focused on value, not optimization of a writer’s time.
  3. Asking for longer pieces of content when it makes sense, and more concise content when it’s appropriate.

You could argue that the author will always go short because they are trying to optimize their time — but this is why no content should be created without a robust content creation pipeline, where the author is not the only person involved, and not motivated to cheat the system. The starting criteria for quality is adherence to a post’s abstract and/or outline, and a title. The editorial team will quickly spot a lack of adherence.

Cost per word or hour does make sense, however, for copy editing services. This is because the length of the post directly affects the effort, and with technical pieces, that effort does not impact the meaning of the content. Of the two options, paying hourly is what makes the most sense.

Setting limits

Limits are necessary. Good SEO demands content be robust. Short posts can imply not caring much about a topic. Most of the time, it’s impossible to impart value with 500 words or less. Our minimum for any post is 500 words (this post is around 700). However, the nature of the post dictates its length. Technical posts like how-to tutorials, for example, can easily hit 1,500 words.

At Fixate, our content is usually very technical — Thus, our average word count is around 890. At 1,500 words, we re-evaluate the post and ask “Should this be split into multiple posts?” or “Is a blog post the wrong type of content for this subject?”

If you are creating content purely for getting words on the page, then paying per word might work out for you. But eventually, you may end up in a scenario where the actual cost for your content is not very predictable, and this will impact your ROI.

But this use case is actually becoming more and more rare. Most organizations create content to deliver value to their market. When value is the focus, paying a fixed cost per post with a robust content delivery pipeline is the best way to go.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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