There Ain’t No Such Thing as Free Lunch in Content Marketing

“There ain’t no such thing as free lunch.” – Milton Friedman (among others throughout recent history)

This will be piece inspired by a recent BuzzFeed article that outed contributors at “trustworthy” publications like Forbes, HuffPo, and Inc.

To recap the piece: Forbes and others operate using a free contributor model. In addition, their editorial stringency is nonexistent, so authors are incentivized to make their money by other means – mostly by dropping backlinks and references to their SEO clients in the article. This practice is widely known in the marketing world. However, most readers don’t know about this arrangement.

This paragraph from the piece, in particular, is what I’ll talk about in my article:

“DeMers and his present and former colleagues are among the many unpaid or low-paid outside contributors who’ve been recruited by sites like Forbes and Entrepreneur for years. The appeal for Forbes and Entrepreneur is a constant stream of content for which they pay little or nothing. Contributors, meanwhile, are attracted by the opportunity to build their profile or promote their views on popular sites with recognizable brands.”

Bolding is mine.

I’m going to talk about incentives, free lunch, and why the reader is almost always paying an externalized cost for cheap/free content that publications pump out.

DeMers and his clients (called out in the piece) aren’t really the ones to blame here, as the incentive structure set up by these publications obviously leads to this behavior.

This post is mostly written for the non-marketing audience, as this is largely known about in the marketing space. However, I think there are still important points to come even if you know all about this payola business in content marketing.

The Economic Concept of “Free Lunch” and What it Has to Do with Content

Free lunch essentially means that “an individual or group can be provided a good or service at no cost to the individual receiving the bene­fit or to anyone else.”

Obviously, as the saying goes, “there ain’t no such thing as free lunch.” Someone always has to pay, it’s just that the cost can be externalized, indirect, or in the form of an opportunity cost.

The phrase was popularized by saloons in the early 19th and 20th centuries:

“During the nineteenth and early twentieth century many saloons in the United States offered a midday buffet selection of gratis food to customers who purchased at least one drink. The saloon keepers hoped to increase the number of clients and the amount of alcohol purchased. The “free lunch” food functioned as a loss leader.”

This, of course, didn’t work out for saloons. The cost of the drinks didn’t keep up with the unrelenting pace of freeloaders ruining the economics of the restaurant.

A more interesting angle on this saying, though, comes from a 1898 newspaper:

“A free lunch is not very cheap thing after all, when one consider how many feller get poor eatin’ ’em.”

As Quote Investigator put it, “this adage suggested that partaking of free food did have a price. One may become a saloon habitué facing the dangers of dissipation, indolence, and alcoholism.”

I like this quote because it focuses on the consumer, the one who is eating the free lunch. Turns out, there are downsides to “free” content as well.

Today, there are dozens of examples of “free lunch” that are mostly just subsidized by advertisers or lots of venture capital. Content publishing is one of the areas I think has truly been underexplored, with the exception of the reliance on the advertising model (which itself is problematic, but we know that).

What I want to talk about is the transaction between the publisher (the consumer) and the author (the producer). Normally, an exchange of equal value must occur for all parties to be satisfied. The direct, transparent route would be an amount of money sufficient to cover the effort and value of the content.

Let’s say, for the sake of this article, the value of a given Forbes article is $750.

In the absence of this direct, monetary transaction, an author must make up the equivalent value by other means. One of those ways, supposedly, is through fame, or by the inherent value of having a byline on Forbes.

Of course, this is bullshit.

This is the “exposure” excuse that has exploited artists with poor business sense forever. Granted, sometimes this is enough value. Sometimes, an honest, high-quality author will publish something of value for free truly because the publication gives them a large platform with which they can spread ideas.

This is only my opinion, but I’d wager that’s the case less than 0.1% of the time (and probably far less often than that).

This, however, is the premise of publications like Forbes. People are writing to lift their own name, credibility, and status, and to spread their ideas to a wide and important audience.

The true case, however, is that the barrier to entry to publish on a site like Forbes is so low that the floodgates have opened (according to marketer/writers I know who write for these sites, the barrier used to be even lower a few years ago. They seem to have clamped up a bit since some of this bad press has come out).

People with no important ideas to spread (or desire to spread ideas) are publishing on them, and they’re doing so for some reason.

It’s not a direct financial reward. It’s not for fame/the facilitated spread of ideas.

It’s for an indirect financial reward – the money an author can make from placing clients in these publications. That’s the gist of what the BuzzFeed article covered. The fact that publicists are writing articles and dropping their clients’ links isn’t necessarily news, but I think there’s more to the story than what BuzzFeed covered.

You can understand the problem more deeply if you uncover the economic reasons behind it. You can also see that the problem goes much farther than Forbes, HuffPo, Inc, and the common culprits (that now are almost just the scapegoats).

Marketers Subsidize Much of Your “Free” Content

Marketing professionals seek to gain attention for their companies or clients. They do this through many means, two of which are important for this context: public relations and content marketing.

Both of these tactics piggyback off of media impressions to achieve business growth.

Someone searches for a keyword on Google. They land on a website, say Forbes or a software company blog (let’s name our software company Payola Inc.). The website gets paid somehow. With Forbes, or another publication, that’s through ads. With a software company, that’s through leads or customers who sign up for the product.

For either of these types of publications:

ROI = revenue generated with content – cost of content production.

A scrappy marketer can easily see the loophole here: promise free/cheap content to the publication with the expectation that they’ll give you space to promote your product or client. This is an obvious incentive structure that almost anyone in marketing knows.

This is why marketers guest post for other blogs. It lowers the cost of content production to almost zero (depending on the editing process) for the accepting blog publication. In this case, however, the transaction is normally obvious and transparent: you write for my blog, and you can drop a backlink to your product or service. It’s almost like a “sponsored content” model, in which the incentive structure is disclosed or obvious:

A marketer can cover their tracks and scale their link building efforts by hiring a third party service or a freelancer to write these guest posts for them. That way, neither the publisher nor Google knows any better, and they can scale their content production and link building for a lot cheaper than doing it themselves, in-house.

So, you have a structure that looks more like this:

The problem is, the reader has no fucking idea that the companies on the left are involved at all, so their worldview is essentially warped by opaque incentive structures facilitated by “top” “trustworthy” publications. In short, they’re paying for the content that Forbes gets for free. This is all the reader sees:

The problem is, for a marketer, this is a really effective tactic. If I could game The New York Times for a backlink, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But that’s hard to do, because The New York Times has high standards.

The publications allowing this to happen are making it far too easy for marketers to game. That’s the heart of the issue.

Pssst: This Is Common and Happens All Over the Place

I applaud BuzzFeed for doing this story. One cure for all of this is to shed sunlight on it. But their platform isn’t clean of this behavior.

I don’t want to throw people under the bus, but I’m in more than one Slack group that engages in “link trading” and “link placement,” and I’ve seen BuzzFeed offered for placement regularly. You can buy links there for like $100. They’re offered just as often as Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the lot.

Apart from the direct link buying the BuzzFeed piece covered, most marketers are, at the very least, trading links and dropping links to friends’ content.

This isn’t ever disclosed, which is surely somwhat ethically questionable, but as a marketer, you do what you can to help out friends, build reciprocity, and of course, mention good companies and sources too (not all of this is negative and poisonous).

To an even lower degree, roundup posts and HARO-based content is basically a press release for those people who are featured. Not a lot of people call this out, but if Forbes’ contributor/marketer written content is “free lunch,” then HARO & roundup posts are at the very least “cheap content.” The barrier to entry is low, it’s mostly crap (not all of it!), and it crowds up the supply side of the internet with fluffy BS.

This is a cheap press release filled with easy backlinks for marketers

And if a marketer is working with a freelancer network or agency to help place guest posts or brand links, they often do so only on other software company blogs or lower level publications in their industry.

Maybe I’m off here, but that seems (while of dubious ethics) to be less damaging. People simply don’t put the same faith in the truth of a random software blog that they do in Forbes or Fast Company.

In the same way that we don’t expect the same political objectivity from the Huffington Post that we do the New York Times, we don’t expect the same quality and objectivity from Random Company Blog that we do from Forbes.

So we have a varying degree of transparency and harm in marketing-driven content:

  • Marketer writes guest post with their own name (transparent)
  • Marketers are mentioned on roundup posts and HARO content (cheap, but whatever)
  • Marketer engages in link trading (questionable, but whatever)
  • Marketer pays “author” to drop links in low level blogs (unethical, but low damage amount for public perception)
  • Marketer pays “author” to drop links in “reputable” blogs (damaging to publication credibility and public perception of truth)

Companies like Forbes and Fast Company have massive reaches, lots of money to spread their content, and are generally looked upon as being purveyors of real news. They’re not, for the most part, purveyors of real news.

They’ve been pumping out cheap, marketer-created fake news for years before you heard the term in relation to the 2016 election. Read the book Trust Me I’m Lying. This has been going on for a long time.

Forbes’ thinks, “we can drastically reduce our operating costs by securing free contributors who are looking to build their influence.” A marketer thinks, “no way in hell am I writing for free, with no benefit. I’m going to use this platform to sell influence.”

Forbes gets something. Marketer gets something. You get shitty, marketing-driven news.

That’s a Bummer. Is There Anything I Can Do?

“The small businessman is smart; he realizes there’s no free lunch. On the other hand, he knows where to go to get a good inexpensive sandwich.” – Adam Osborne

As a marketer, I realize I may be biased, but where the blame lies is obvious: on the publications.

Those who try to reduce the creation cost of content will externalize that cost on somebody. Even if you’re not paying people nothing for the privilege of writing for you, how much does it cost to get a good, ethical editor?

I’ve been called out tons of times on content I’ve written that contained too many questionable links and references. I was annoyed, but they were right. If this happens on Random Company Blog, it sure as hell should happen at Forbes.

But ignoring the problem helps Forbes continue to acquire free content and increase their content ROI. You know, as Upton Sinclair so beautifully put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

I don’t think we can completely solve the problem, but we can start at home and do things as readers to start to chip away at it.

What Readers Can Do

I don’t have all the answers, but I do these things:

Question everything I read. I’m a cynical skeptic, but I think it’s warranted. It’s especially important to be critical with free-contributor models like Forbes, HuffPo, etc., if the author is a “guest contributor.”

  • Share and evangelize truly good content. I praise to high heavens FiveThirtyEight, The Atlantic, and WaitButWhy.
  • Pay for good content, through Patreon or subscription. We need a new incentive structure, and you can help provide if by voting with your dollars.
  • Call out bullshit content, plagiarism, and egregious behavior. In any system, there will be a few idiots flaunting the rules that ruin it for everyone else. Most people ride Bird Scooters without a helmet, but we should call out the asshole without a helmet who is running red lights and carrying two people on the scooter.

In general, if content is cheap or free to produce, there’s a higher chance the content will be garbage (though not a certainty). That’s a simple lesson in content economics.

It sucks that the externality is on the audience. It’s a bummer you have to be skeptical every time you come across a piece of content. But when in doubt, I’d lean towards skepticism, especially online.

Instead, as a reader, ask: where’s the money? If a person isn’t being paid, and being paid sufficiently, for a piece of work, you have to wonder where the incentive is coming from. Why are they writing this? For fame, glory, and a Forbes’ byline? Don’t be naive.

And in the meantime, don’t believe any content written by marketers that is not transparent about their affiliation. You can initialize your parameters to “don’t believe anything Neil Patel writes,” and your model will be 99% accurate.

As consumers of content, I like this quote:

“So, unless you want to be a sheep, some questions you should always be asking yourself are- why is this being provided at no cost to me? How will I act or feel differently after I accept this? Is there an expectation that I or someone else has if I accept it? What is the long-term benefit for me and for the person or group providing this to me?”

For instance, I write content on my blog to a) show people I’m smart and b) in order to bring to people to my site for personal brand awareness. These lead to opportunities for a) CRO/growth client work b) speaking gigs or podcast requests or c) just interesting conversations. The incentives are somewhat obvious with personal blog brand building, in most cases at least.

Also, another option for readers: read less online content. Read more books (they’re expensive to produce, less likely to be bullshit). Put in extra effort to follow and support specific authors you believe are doing excellent work.

Or just read less online content. The diminishing returns of doing so come on fast, so you shouldn’t feel bad about missing out on whatever is trending on Twitter tomorrow.

For Publications Who Don’t Want to Suck

If you’re a publication, and people think you suck, there can be long term reputational damage that is hard to recover. I think that’s the case for Forbes. Most people I know think they suck.

If you don’t want that to happen to you:

  • Hire a good editor.
  • Raise your barrier to entry and standard of quality
  • Prioritize long-term success over cheap tactics and production
  • Think about a different monetization model. Quillete seems to be doing cool stuff a donation/Patreon model. Maybe launch some small experiments in this direction?

Most of the reason this happens is because publications make it easy to do so. While I’m sure this has happened before at the New York Times, I guarantee it’s not very common. Why? It’s really hard to get a New York Times byline. The editorial standards are much higher.

Do you know how easy it is to get a byline or a backlink in Forbes, Inc., or the Huffington Post? Wildly easy. I’ve done it in all of them, several times over, and before they starting using only nofollow links.

Oh, that’s something: some of these publications are starting to give only give nofollow links. This is a start in the right direction, but it’s a lazy way out. Natural links deserve to be given SEO value, so you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater out of sheer laziness by changing all links to nofollow.

Just hire a better editor.

What Should Marketers Do?

Keep doing what you’re doing. If people are going to open up loopholes to build links for your brands, why not take advantage of them? You gotta pay the bills, too.


The following was printed in a 1938 edition of the “El Paso Herald-Post”:

“Speak on,” cried the king, and the palace guards leveled their crossbows. But the old economist rose fearlessly to his feet, stood face to face with the king, and said:

“Sire, in eight words I will reveal to you all the wisdom that I have distilled through all these years from all the writings of all the economists who once practiced their science in your kingdom. Here is my text:

“There ain’t no such thing as free lunch.”

Remember that when you read a piece of content. Follow the money and ask yourself, “who is paying for this and with what money?”

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

2 Responses to “There Ain’t No Such Thing as Free Lunch in Content Marketing

  • Thanks for the deep and good analysis on the matter!

    For the laymen, you should add a postscript on your blog answering “who is paying for this and with what money?” having this post as an example? 😉 (Is it those trustworthy publications ( FiveThirtyEight, The Atlantic, and WaitButWhy, New York Times) or are you building a brand/audience for future use, etc? )

    • Alex Birkett
      2 years ago

      That’s a really good point. Just added a small section on that