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The Truth About Freelancer Hourly Rates

truth about freelancer hourly rates - Carolyn Daughters

Here’s the truth about freelancer hourly rates and day rates. Each freelancer has set rates. Their flat fee wasn’t crafted magically out of thin air.

Lots of solopreneurs and small businesspeople I know are hiring agency support, marketing support, freelancers, and virtual assistants. They often run their contracts by me before they sign on the dotted line. Sometimes they run them by me after they’ve signed.

Many of these contracts list a flat monthly rate for the services to be provided. So long as the rates align with the value offered, I’m a big fan of flat monthly rates, hourly rates, commissions and bonuses, and per-word rates (for copywriters). In other words, so far, so good.

Still, I’m often amazed by the contracts I see. Where I stumble is when I read the list of services.

Here are five examples from a recent marketing agency contract I reviewed:

  • Monthly social posts
  • Content calendar management
  • Industry research
  • Reporting

Vague lists like these stop me in my tracks. Essentially, the agency is saying “you pay me, and we’ll do stuff. We cool?”

For starters, what’s meant by monthly social posts? Is the agency crafting content from whole cloth? Are they doing research and seeking out subject matter expert input? Or are they simply repurposing content? Are we talking 2 posts per month, or are we talking 30 (or 60 or 120) posts per month? Will they post on one platform only or on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google My Business …? Are we talking 2 posts per platform per month or 30 posts per platform per month or 60 or …?

And what exactly is meant by content calendar management? If one doesn’t exist, will they create one in Google Docs? Will it be built out to align with the 2, 30, 60 posts per platform per month? What kinds of SEO/SEM work do they do (on page, off page, a combination of both)? What will the industry research involve, and what kinds of reporting will they provide?

I could go on. And on, and on …

Freelancer Hourly Rates and Agency Hourly Rates

Time and again, I encourage friends and colleagues to discuss with their freelancers their desired tasking and hourly rate(s). (I’ve written a lot on this subject.) Time and again, they come back with tales about how the freelancer indicated that they have no hourly rate and that all tasks are wrapped into one flat fee.

Throughout my career, I’ve been worked with several hundred startups, along with mid-sized firms, marketing and advertising agencies, global corporations, nonprofits, and government contractors, as well as federal and state government agencies and military organizations, including the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force.

With one or maybe two exceptions, every one of them bills out work at an hourly rate. Now, if they’re Mark Zuckerberg, that rate may be $1.7M/hour, but it’s still an hourly rate.

To recap, the truth about freelancer hourly rates (and agency hourly rates) is that they have one. Or several. When they give you a vague list of tasks and a flat rate, they’re simply not sharing that rate with you.

The One or Two Exceptions

Okay, I get it. You want to know about the one or maybe two exceptions. Here they are:

  1. Desperate freelancers who have no idea how much they should make, how much they actually do make, or how long it takes to perform any particular task. They’re so eager to land a gig that they promise the moon and all 9,096 visible stars and then end up collecting $1.32/hour for their efforts. Burnt out by day 30, they start ghosting you on day 31.
  2. Crazy people. All the desperate freelancer rules above apply here, but the crazy people are all, “$1.32. Rock on.”

The Rate Breakdown

A colleague recently showed me a contract she had received from a virtual assistant for monthly social posts for $800/month. Total bargain, I told her. Or a complete ripoff. The virtual assistant is either a wunderkind earning hundreds per hour or a novice scraping by at minimum wage. Or something in between.

I looked over the contract. The virtual assistant offered to perform “social media management @ $800/month.” Each month, the virtual assistant would do the following:

  • Post 2 blogs per month
  • Post 2 LinkedIn updates per month (3-4 sentences)
  • Post 2 Facebook updates per month (3-4 sentences)

For clarification, the assistant would simply be posting the blogs my colleague wrote. The LinkedIn and Facebook posts would be short summaries of those blogs. My estimate: 2 hours of work per month. Now, let’s say the assistant is a slow typist. To be kind, we’ll double the number to 4 hours per month. For the mathematically impaired, this assistant would make $200/hour. Not a bad rate for posting other people’s work and crafting a social post here and there.

My friend put my assessment to the test. She posted her own blogs and social posts for one month. She came in at under 3 hours.

The Truth About Freelancer Hourly Rates

In the day and age of flat fees that seem wholly disassociated from freelancer hourly rates or day rates, you don’t always get what you pay for. You may get way more than you paid for. Or you may get much, much less. When choosing your agency or freelancer, here’s what to do:

  1. Specify the skill set you’re seeking. If you want someone who weighs in or guides your strategy, say so. If you simply want an order taker to implement your plan of action, say so. (The skills sets and rates for the one vs. the other should be significantly different.)
  2. Specify the general tasking you want performed for the strategist) or the exact tasking you want performed for the order taker. If you want a daily social post on 3 platforms, say so.
  3. Ask questions. Lots of them. Get a strong sense of what exactly they’ll be doing and how long it will take them to do it. And if the agency or freelancer tells you they have no hourly rate, decide if they’re skilled in BS, a desperate freelancer, or crazy.
  4. Test out your agency, freelancer, or virtual assistant. Signing on for a months-long or year-long venture is premature unless they’re referral. Test your synergies. Watch them in action. Ensure their level of effort — and, more importantly, their results — align with your pocketbook and your expectations.


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