Friday, August 17, 2007

Is Associated Content ripping off their writers?

A while back I posted a poll asking if any of my readers had had problems getting their performance bonuses from Associated Content. (Besides the poll, you can also see a few comments about the situation on this post.)

Today I am finally ready to pose the question: Is the Associated Content performance bonus a scam?

Before you read about my AC payment difficulties, though, you might want to read about my personal history with Associated Content. To sum up right here, though, basically I have had two very different encounters with AC: I once interviewed with them for a part-time editing position, and I wrote for them briefly before realizing that $10 for an article was a high payment.

The story of this post, however, begins on June 5th. You may know of Associated Content's performance bonus system. Basically, they pay you a flat fee (i.e. a few dollars) for an article, and then you make a performance bonus according to how many thousands of page views your article gets. I have some things to say about the performance bonus program, too, but that will come in a later post -- this one is dedicated to Associated Content payment problems.

On June 5th, I logged in to my Associated Content account for the first time in a while. Although I had not written for Associated Content in a long while, and only checked my account occasionally, I had decided that I wanted to publish a few of my marketing articles on AC for additional exposure (and a few extra bucks).

When I logged in, I discovered that I had accrued $15.58 in bonuses. Since I had not been very active in Associated Content, I hadn't even realized I was accruing bonuses, let alone what the policies were. Through a combination of reading contracts and policies and emailing admin, I discovered that anything over $15 was paid on the second Wednesday of every month.

The feeling was pretty much like finding $15 in your couch when you're vacuuming it out. You didn't plan on it, didn't need it, but it still is pretty cool to find.

Imagine, however, that as you're thinking of how you'll spend that $15, you suddenly find out you don't get it after all. Maybe a family member claims it, or maybe someone steals it from you while you're sleeping. You get the point.

The second Wednesday of the month came and went, and I didn't get paid. When I emailed Associated Content, I was told that maybe what had happened was that my bonus wasn't over the $15 minimum by the cutoff date (the 1st of the month, apparently). I emailed them back, asking if there was a way they could track bonuses and determine when I topped $15, but I never heard back.

As it turned out, never receiving a response from Associated Content was a frequent problem through this entire ordeal. I would say that at best, I got a response 50% of the time. But anyway, back to my story.

I decided to let it go; after all, by that point it was only a few more weeks until the next payday. But just to be sure, I planned to screen print my account page on the cutoff date, since that was the only way I could think of to prove what my performance bonus was at.

By July 1st, my account had accrued $16.70. In an email exchange with AC admin, though, I was told I might be getting even more than that, as they had not updated the amount for several weeks. Sure enough, before the second Wednesday of July my account was updated, showing that I had accrued $18.98.

Unfortunately, I didn't receive payment this time, either. When I emailed Associated Content, I made sure to explain the entire situation, so that they would know this was the second month something like this had happened. The first email I sent received no response at all, so I tried again. When they finally responded, they had apparently not read my email very closely, because they fired back the same basic response as last time:

It is likely that you hadn’t reached $15 minimum before the cut off date, which is why you weren’t paid for this month’s bonus. Since you are clearly over the mark now, you will certainly be paid next month.

"It is likely..." Ha. Don't you intend to verify that?

Of course, I emailed back to explain that couldn't be the case, and why. I requested that they confirm when they received the email -- because about half of my emails were going unanswered -- and confirm that they were going to do something about it. All I received in response was this rather abrupt response:

We have received your email and are looking into the situation.

Of course, that was the last I heard from them for a while. I emailed several days later to find out where they were on the situation, and got the typical lack of response. After a week, I tried again, complaining this time about the lack of communication as well. Their response was:

We are working on it, but we cannot simply flip a switch and make it happen.

Maybe it's just me, but these responses sound rather rude. I don't think it is unreasonable to expect updates and responses to my emails. Plus, what does "we are working on it" mean? I wrote back asking for more details about how they were handling the situation, and whether others were having the same problems, and again received no response to my email.

The final email I sent to admin was on July 23rd. Then a fellow writer suggested that I try visiting the Associated Content forums. I did, but I found precious little regarding to my problem. I posted in several threads that seemed pertinent.

After some initial flak I encountered from one of the forum members (which I suppose I'll need to explain later, but not here), I discovered that I was actually not the only one having this problem. In addition to the helpful readers who responded to my poll and commented on my posts, I talked to a handful or so of writers in the Associated Content forums who had also not received their performance bonuses, some of the for several months running.

Amid discussions and griping, someone suggested that I contact Michael Street, as he had resolved a payment issue for the CP once. I messaged him, but got no response; several days later, I tried messaging his other account -- still no response.

By that point, it was nearing payment time, anyway. On the second Wednesday of August, two things happened: our accounts were updated for the first time in nearly a month to reflect our total performance bonuses, and payments were made.

I am happy to note that as of August 9th, Associated Content finally paid me for my performance bonus. However, I noticed right off the bat that the amount was wrong. This is from the August 1st screen print (the cutoff date):

And this is from a screen print of my PayPal account page:

As you can see, the math doesn't add up: The payments made total $18.59, not $18.98. Perhaps it seems silly to complain about 39 cents, but think about how much money Associated Content can save if they short every writer a few cents! It is the principle of the matter that irritates me -- after all, I waited this long for my bonus, and then they couldn't even get it right?

As it turned out, though, the problem was bigger than 39 cents. This was what my account said my bonus was out when it was updated shortly before I was paid:

(Ignore the "Last Payment" line. The bonus said the same amount before the "Last Payment" line appeared.)

It took them several weeks to update the account pages after making payments, but they finally have. And this is what my bonus is supposedly at now:

Do you see the problem? $23.24 minus $18.59 equals $4.65, not $2.10. So now they are shorting me $2.55.

I can't help but wonder if this is all deliberate. Skip payments and make writers grateful for getting paid at all. Divide payment up into a handful of small amounts so that writers get confused about the actual amount. Delay updating the account pages so that writers forget to check the math. There are other potential problems, too, which I will discuss in a future post.

Either Associated Content is deliberately ripping off writers, or this is the absolute worse case of disorganization I have ever seen in a business.

It's not about 39 cents, or even $2.55. It's not about $15.58, or $16.70, $18.98, or $23.24. It's not about whether I write for Associated Content regularly (which I don't) or whether I intend to in the future (which I also don't). It's about clients keeping their word and paying writers when and how much they say they're going to. For if we let Associated Content get away with shortchanging writers now, how much further will they take it?

Click here for an update on my Associated Content performance bonus.


Anonymous said...

They'll take it as far as they can, as long as writers keep opening accounts and submitting articles - and I seriously doubt every writer out there (especially those who are desperate to break into the writing business, like I was when I first opened my AC account) is going to say, "You know what? Screw this."

Their pay is ridiculously low, if $10 is the high. Shoot, a writer could get a low-paying content article writing job and make more money, because at least that would be steady.

I thought of your situation one day last week when I happened upon a writer's website - it was sort of half-portfolio, half-whatever else he wanted to put on it. Anyway, he was a beginning writer and had listed, "I'm a freelance writer for a company called Associated Content." I just shook my head. If I remembered his site address, I'd send him this post.

I'm glad you're not going to write for them anymore. Do you have a blogg-buzz (http://www.blogg-buzz.com/) or Stirrdup (http://www.stirrdup.com) account? If not, you should seriously get one (or both) and send in this blog post so others can read it.

Oh, and thanks for letting me know you wrote this! I'm about a week behind on my blog-reading (and writing!), so I really appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

You should probably read the actual policies of the performance bonus. Might clear up some of your confusion.

Katharine Swan said...

Alicia --

Thanks for your email. I haven't seriously written for Associated Content since early on in my freelance career, and I stopped precisely because of the ridiculously low pay. Regardless, though, I want whatever performance bonus I am owed -- it helps to make up for the low pay I received on those articles!

Thanks for your suggestions regarding blog-buzz.com and sitrrdup.com. I will look into setting up accounts with them, but it'll have to wait until next week -- I'm trying to finish up a big summer project this week.

Thanks again for your visit and your comments!

Katharine Swan said...

Anonymous --

I have read the performance bonus policies. It says:

Payments will be made on a monthly basis. Each time that we send you a payment, we incur administrative and other costs. For this reason, we will not send you a payment if the amount owed to you is less than $15 (the "Minimum Balance"). In the event that you have not achieved at the end of a given month, your balance will be rolled over for payment into the following month.

Aside from the fact that it's written in the worst legal language I've ever read, the policy clearly states that payment is made once a month, providing you have accrued the $15 minimum.

I'm not sure what else you think I'll find in the policy. Perhaps it's this:

Beta Phase
The data presented in the Performance Bonus Beta may not be 100% accurate, and you should not rely on those numbers, as they may change during the beta phase. While AC will use its best efforts to report and pay the bonus payment accurately, and in a timely fashion, because we are in a beta environment there may be some errors and delays.

Interestingly, I think that actually proves my point for me. If Associated Content puts into their official policy that they are justified for not paying their writers on time or the correct amount, wouldn't that be considered evidence that the payment issues are premeditated and deliberate?


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