If you apply for a content marketing role, chances are you'll be asked to complete some kind of test project. It could be writing a post, refreshing someone else's article, coming up with blog post ideas, presenting a strategy or something else entirely. Some projects are small and take an hour or less. Some take days. Some companies pay candidates for their work, while others wouldn't even consider it.
We surveyed members of the Content Marketing Career Growth Slack community about test projects. Should companies ask candidates to complete test projects? How long should those projects take? And most importantly, should companies pay candidates for their time?
We got a ton of responses. Much of it was anecdotal, making it hard to quantify. Still, I've done my best to highlight trends. You can see the original survey here.
- Most folks are willing to complete test projects for free, assuming that (1) the projects take less than three hours and (2) the company doesn't use the work.
- Many content marketers have been burned by test projects in the past. They've been asked to complete arduous projects for free, only to find out their work was later used by the company.
- There was no consensus on how much to pay for test projects or whether candidates should be paid a flat rate or hourly rate.
- Many people believe that test projects are an indicator of whether a company will be a good place to work (or not).
If you hire content marketers and have a good process for testing candidates, I'd love to learn about it (and maybe publish it). Just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Onto the full results!
Question #1: "Should companies pay content marketing candidates for test projects?
Overwhelmingly, content marketers believe that companies should pay candidates for test projects.
- 75% of respondents said, "Yes, pay them fairly for their time."
- 12.5% of respondents said, "Yes, pay them something some but not a full freelance/consultant rate."
- 12.5% of respondents said, "No, test projects should be done for free as long as they are small."
We also offered folks an "other" option. Here are of a few of the responses we got to this question that didn't fit within the three options:
- "I agree with a free test project - but only if expectations around time spent are included. And if the project is more than a 1.5-hour commitment, there should be compensation."
- "I'm ok with free if a test project is timeboxed to max 1 hr. If it's anything more — ESPECIALLY IF IT'S USABLE WORK PRODUCT, like a blog post or actionable plan/strategy (e.g., not a thought exercise), it should be paid as if freelance/consulting."
- "If it's a huge assignment, pay. If it's short and within the bounds of a small sample and a presentation (the latter of which is normal for a more senior role), it can be free--but hiring teams should not use those as barriers to interview. those should be the last few steps and as few candidates as possible should be doing them."
I get the sense that more than a few people have been burned by test projects. I agree that companies should use only use them for the last few candidates and should absolutely pay if they are asking candidates to create a usable work project.
Question #2: "I'd submit a test project for free if it took less than..."
To clarify what kind of projects people would expect to do for free, I asked them to complete this sentence: "I'd submit a test project for free if it took less than..."
As you can see from the results, most people expect to do short projects for free. After all, they applied for the role because they believe it's a good opportunity and are willing to work to make it happen.
Test projects should be short—less than three hours of total work—if they are unpaid. As many respondents mentioned above, companies should not take a candidate's free work and publish it. In general, companies should also only ask the final handful of candidates to do any project at all.
Question #3: "If a company asks you to write a 500-1,000 word blog posts, what do you feel is a fair rate? Should it be an hourly rate? Flat rate? Done for free?"
The previous questions were multiple-choice (with an "other" option), but the rest were totally open-ended. I wanted to collect feedback without assuming that I knew what options people would want to choose from.
Here are a few selected answers:
- "I think they should provide their expectations (hours) for how long they think it will take, and a flat rate."
- "It depends on the company and the level of research required for the content. Anywhere from $300 to $600 is a good starting point, especially if the work will be used."
- "Should be treated as a freelance project and the writer should be paid based on their individual hourly rate or a flat rate, whichever is comfortable with both parties. Not less than $300."
- "$400-$500. But honestly I'd just charge whatever rate your at (your rate, not theirs)."
- "I have done this for free, and for a more junior level, I thought it was worth my time, especially since I didn't have a content marketing-specific role in the past. A hiring manager myself, I've had candidates complete these short assignments and it's really a crucial test to make sure they understand our company and are excited about the role. I would find it difficult to ask to be able to pay folks for this, since doing these types of projects is normal in other areas of the companies and are also unpaid (e.g., software eng tests)."
- "A blog post should not be done for free. A flat rate of $500 is fair. That's lower than my normal blog post rate, but for a small test project, I'm willing to compromise a little bit
- "An hourly rate would give the employer insight into how long a person takes to complete the project. As a prospective employee, I'd prefer a flat rate because it would allow me to spend as much time as I need to do a great job. I think $70 USD per hour is fair."
- "If they're going to publish it, they should pay full rate. If it's just to judge writing skill, this is probably too long -- it should be a short sample post (400-500 words) plus writing portfolio from past work. If they do want a post this long and put in writing that they will NOT publish it, they should pay half (at least $50)."
Overall, most folks want to be paid for this kind of test project. Many are hesitant to to do free projects if the company might actually use the work. If the company assures candidates that the work is only for the purposes of hiring, more people are willing to do it for free.
Question #4: "If a company asks you to create a marketing or content plan, what do you feel is a fair rate for 2-4 hours of your time? Should it be an hourly rate? Flat rate? Done for free?"
Just like the last question, I left this one open-ended. Here are a few selected answers:
- "It should be a flat rate and should be about $1,000. I think someone might spend more time than that if they really want the job. On the one hand, it's part of the process and getting to know the company. On the other hand, if job seekers are doing this for multiple companies, this is a lot to expect."
- "Requests like this are better served in an interview, where you can talk through your thinking and layout a high-level plan, with examples on how you'd execute, rather than delivering the whole thing fully baked. You wouldn't expect a consultant to deliver a full-blown plan in only a few hours, so I don't see it as a good barometer to judge their work."
- "It needs to be well defined in scope first. 2-4 hours would at best allow for a small amount of market research and a top-level plan for 3-6 months. Anything beyond that would require more resources or time than what should be expected for a reasonable hiring process. An ideal hourly rate would be $40.00 USD for this sort of work if no role or contract is given at the end. $30.00 USD hourly would be acceptable if a role or contract was given at the end."
- "Should be treated as a freelance project and the writer should be paid based on their individual hourly rate or a flat rate, whichever is comfortable with both parties. Not less than $600-$800. I interviewed for a role and developed a strategy, wasn't hired and realized that they ended up using my strategy!!!"
- "Would only do something of this nature for a minimum flat of $1,000."
- I think an hourly rate is respectable. It gives you a better idea of the output you can expect for the rate you are willing to pay. Plus, it gives the hiring manager a good litmus of what they can expect with say "4 hours of research on [X]."
- "Done for free. But the expectation should be well defined. If someone wants a plan for a month, or even for a quarter, that would still be okay. Anything beyond that is unacceptable."
- "!!!! This one should really not be done for free. Yikes! This is like a $2,000 ask. Also, who can make a good marketing or content plan is 2-4 hours...? I say that and I'm fast!"
It'd be obvious if a company asked candidates to do a write sample, then published the work. It'd be far less obvious if they asked candidates to work on strategy. A company could borrow ideas or the company could already be planning campaigns similar to what candidates present.
Question #5: "What types of projects have you been asked to do when applying for content marketing jobs?"
Oh my, we got a wide range of results for this question. Here are just a few:
- "Create a presentation for a social media strategy"
- "Plan a mini-content library"
- "Write short articles (less than 500 words)"
- "Create a strategy for gaining traffic around a content cluster"
- "Write example blog posts, write a 30/60/90 day plan for content strategy"
- "Everything from sample social posts (very reasonable) and blog posts (some more reasonable, ~500 words, and others not at all, ~7,000 words) to a full-blown content strategy, broken down by quarter"
- "Write a product pitch deck, create a sample marketing plan"
- "Pitch 3 blog posts and write one"
- "Prepare a presentation showing one project you're proud of and one project you would have done differently."
- "Create a 1-month content calendar, create a couple of social media posts, and write a headline for an article about a specific topic."
- "Write a blog post and prepare three Instagram posts that fit the company brand."
- "Pitch seven content topics inspired by similar content guides that had been successful for them, including why each topic would resonate with their audience and what the success metrics would be."
- "Develop 3 SEM adverts for preexisting pieces of content, with 2 versions for each of the Adverts and what I was testing in each version."
- "A content strategy for one quarter (including types of content I'd write, actual topics I'd write about, and how I'd move prospects through the sales funnel - this was too much!)"
- "A couple of weeks ago I was asked to create a go-to-market strategy, which required competitor and persona research beforehand, plus write a product launch blog post and copy for a landing page."
Some of these seem reasonable, others seem like too much. It really depends on the context. How are along were these candidates? Were they paid for their work? Did the company use the work?
Question #6: "If you are involved in hiring, do you ask for free or paid test projects? What's your perspective on this topic?"
I knew that some folks from our community were involved on the hiring side and wanted to make sure their voices were heard too. Here's a selection of what they had to say:
- "I have asked for free 'homework' assignments that is made up of 3-4 questions, timeboxed to no more than an hour. People have typically turned in 1-2 Google Doc pages of words. As far as I know, the company doesn't do paid test projects but if we do ask for substantive projects and/or usable work product, I would be advocating for a move for paid."
- "As a hiring manager, the only test projects I've created/asked for are conversation-based. For example, I give them a scenario (a goal we're trying to accomplish, and the assets available to them to help us accomplish that goal) ~24 hours in advance of our call, emphasizing that this is meant to be a topic of conversation during the interview and they are not expected to pull together any materials (a report or written material, for example). I have not paid for such projects, as I use them to hear their thought process and how they tackle challenges. For anything that would require delivery of an asset (like a blog post), I would push on senior management to pay for that work. IMHO, asking for a full-blown plan or even a blog post is overkill; depending on where they're at in their career, they more than likely have many samples and proven work to provide, and asking for 'free' work just feels gross."
- "I typically ask for projects only if it's the final deciding factor on hiring a person. If it's anything beyond a short blog on a relatively simple subject, I would also offer a fair rate based on the person's experience and the scope of the test project."
- "The moment a company asks me to get prospective candidates to work for free is the moment I walk out the (virtual, remote) door."
- "At the last agency I worked at, we asked new freelance content producers to submit a blog post on a specified topic. We paid them the same for that test project as we would have done if they were working with us (flat rate). If their test projects were good, we would hire them and publish their blog posts. If their test projects were not very good, we wouldn't hire them or use their work, but they would always be paid right away."
- "We currently ask candidates to complete an unpaid test assignment with one round of revisions, but we try to be extremely mindful of the amount of work we are asking, particularly at the revision stage. I know that we have paid for work in the past and are hoping to do so again in the future. Budgets, man. They sure do exist."
- "At my company, we are always VERY clear that the projects we ask candidates to complete will NOT be used by us. We choose projects that have already been completed internally or not intended to become live marketing content. If we intended that, we would pay them."
There you have it. I know there's a lot to digest in this article and it's not easy to sum up. If you hire content marketers and have a good process for running test projects, we'd love to hear about it (and potentially share with our readers). Just shoot me an email at email@example.com.