Working for exposure is a term often used by creative professionals and young creatives, but what does it actually mean?
In short, working for exposure means working for free or very little pay to gain experience or build one’s portfolio.
While it may sound like a good idea, in theory, the reality is that working in exchange for exposure never works.
1. When you work for exposure, you are devaluing your time and services
In the beginning, we did a lot of work just to get our name out there. The problem is when you do work for free or with very little pay, you are telling the world that your time and services are not worth very much.
Never will I do design work for free again regardless of the social cause. Often times these folks will treat your work like it’s cheap because of it.— Ajeeb Sir (@AjeebSir) May 30, 2022
For example, let’s say you’re a freelance writer and agree to write an article for a website in exchange for exposure.
You spend hours researching, writing, and editing the article, but the website pays you nothing for your work.
By working for free, you are saying that your time is not worth anything and that anyone can ask you to do work without compensating you.
2. Working for exposure often leads to more exposure requests
When you first start out, it’s normal to want to take on any and every opportunity that comes your way to gain experience.
Although it’s a great way to gain experience in your field, working for exposure can quickly turn into a slippery slope.
Before you know it, you’ll be getting requests to do more and more work for free. And, since you’ve already established that you’re willing to work for free, it will be very difficult to say no.
I dont work for free. No artists should. I put alot of time and heart into my animations. Go get “your boy” to do it cheaper then ..— RageAppropriate (@RageAppr0priate) September 3, 2022
3. Working for exposure doesn’t pay
Next time you get an electric bill, offer to pay it in an exposure.
Or when your water bill arrives, tell them you’ll settle up by telling everyone about how wet their water is.
This month I decided to pay my electricity, gas & water bill using this ‘exposure’ some people always decide to pay young folks with.— Mr. (@RamzZy_) January 20, 2016
You’ll be without a shower for a while, but at least you’ll have some good exposure!
In all seriousness, working for exposure doesn’t pay the bills.
You can’t put food on the table or a roof over your head with exposure.
If you’re working for free, chances are you’re not going to be able to live the life you want or afford the things you need.
4. Working for exposure can lead to burnout
When you’re constantly working for free or with very little pay, it’s easy to start feeling used and unappreciated.
You might resent the people asking you to do work for free and feel like your time and talents are being taken advantage of.
And, in our experience, they are.
Especially when their wages haven’t kept up with inflation. Working for free isn’t smart especially when you aren’t included in the fruits of your labor. People are tired of being treated like machines when all the pay is to CEOs & even bigger profits. Burnout can be deadly.— Lisa Eischens (@lisakjell571) August 18, 2022
You’re not going to be able to sustain a long and successful career if you’re constantly working for free.
At some point, you’ll start to feel burned out, and that’s when your work will suffer.
Or worse, you’ll lose paying clients.
5. You can get exposure without giving yourself away
There are plenty of ways to get exposure without working for free.
For example, you can start a blog or website and share your work that way.
You can also enter competitions or submit your work to be featured in publications.
There are many ways to get exposure without devaluing your time and services.
Plus, do you know who’s not working for exposure? The people who try to barter with you for it.
They’ll be counting their money while you’re wondering how to pay your rent.
6. The exposure may not be exposure at all
When starting out, we didn’t know any better. We partnered with a “media mogul,” who agreed to mention us to all of his contacts in the business world.
While we’re not saying that he didn’t, we are saying that we’ve generated zero leads from it.
No calls or emails from potential clients.
One more time for the people in the back: we got no business from the deal.
The so-called exposure didn’t result in any actual exposure.
In fact, it was a massive waste of time and effort on our part.
Plus, we’re not sure that the people he contacted knew who we were.
All we know is that we spent a lot of time and energy working on something that didn’t produce any results.
7. You might not be getting quality exposure
When starting out, it’s easy to be blinded by the promise of exposure.
But, not all exposure is created equal.
Just because you’re getting your name out there doesn’t mean it’s the right exposure.
For example, if you’re a writer and you’re getting featured on a website that has nothing to do with writing, it’s not going to do you any good.
You want to ensure that you’re getting quality exposure to help you reach your goals.
8. You could be missing out on paid opportunities
When you’re constantly working for free, you’re not leaving any room in your schedule for people who will pay you for your work.
And, if you’re not careful, you might find that you’ve painted yourself into a corner and have no choice but to work for free.
We’ve seen it happen to too many people.
They start out working for free, and then they can’t break out of that cycle because they’re always saying yes to exposure opportunities.
9. You might not be able to monetize your work
Even if you are getting quality exposure, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to monetize it.
For example, let’s say you’re a photographer and get featured on a popular blog.
While that’s great exposure, unless the blog has a way for you to sell your photos, you’re not going to make any money from it.
And, even if the blog does have a way for you to sell your photos, there’s no guarantee that anyone will actually buy them.
Sure, you may get a link back to your website every now and then, but suppose the blog reaches a million brides-to-be and you’re a graduation photographer.
You’re not going to get many leads from that.
10. You might not reach your target audience
When you’re working for free, you have no control over who sees your work.
Remember our “media mogul,” example from earlier?
We didn’t reach our target audience because we had no control over who he was sending our information.
We even partnered with another podcaster with a show directed toward small business owners. The problem is that he referred to us as “good at Google” and not a full-scale digital marketing agency.
Plus, the business owners (as a whole) were cheap and didn’t see the value in what we were offering.
It was a complete waste of time.
11. You could end up working for someone who doesn’t appreciate your work
When you’re working for free, the person you’re working for doesn’t have to appreciate your work.
In fact, they could completely take advantage of you and your skills.
We’ve seen it happen too many times.
People will take advantage of your kindness and generosity and ask for more and more from you until you’re completely burned out.
12. You’ll likely end up doing a lot of unpaid work for very little return
For example, we did a lot of work for a famous podcaster. He, in return, blasted out our name in a big way to his millions of fans. That sounds great, right?
His listeners didn’t fit our target demographic, so we wasted our time and damaged our brand by aligning ourselves with someone who wasn’t a good fit.
The Bottom Line
In the end, working for exposure is a bad idea because it often leads to more work for less pay and very little return.
So, if you’re thinking about working for exposure, think again. It’s not worth your time or energy.
Do you have any stories about working for exposure? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!