Getting started as a freelancer is hard. Even if you've been working in your field for a decade and have a potential client list a mile long, that doesn't mean you'll get hired right away. Or make a profit in your first year. Or, frankly, be able to cut it as a self-employed person.
Getting started as a blogger is hard. The medium is quite mature by now, and that means the market is glutted. It doesn't really matter what niche you're entering, a couple dozen people will have gotten there before you. Making your blog stand out, getting your content in front of the right readers, and generating traffic to generate income are all challenges.
And all of this means that, when a company you'd like to work with reaches out with a potential project, you might do a little dance of joy. Alone in your home office. While listening to “Happy” by Pharell.
And it also means that when they say they'd like you to do the work “for exposure,” you might think, “Well, I certainly need exposure. If this project piques the interest of enough other folks, the paid work is bound to start rolling in.”
See where I'm going with this?
To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking on a few projects or writing up a few product reviews “for exposure” when your biz or blog is brand-spanking new. You're building relationships, gaining viewers, establishing yourself. Totally fine. But try to remember that, in many cases, “for exposure” just means “for free.” You will not be paid for this work, so, by definition you are working for free.
And there are several reasons why doing this too often will hurt you.
Just because a giant corporation promises to sing your praises on their social media accounts doesn't mean you'll get more followers yourself. Just because you do a free review post for Maxwell House doesn't mean Starbucks is going to be breaking down your door with fistfuls of cash anytime soon. Just because your writing gets reprinted in an airline magazine that purportedly reaches 30 million people doesn't mean ... jack. (I know that last one from personal experience.) Sometimes “exposure” just means people see you, not that they want to work with you.
Sets a bad precedent
Say you design a simple website for a super cool local nonprofit, and they don't pay you but feature your logo at the bottom of every page on the site. In six months when they need something added or adjusted, do you think they'll be willing to pay you then? How about in two years when they've outgrown your design and need a beefier site with more features? Will they be more than happy to shell out at your regular client rates? Unlikely. By giving away your services, you set yourself up to continue giving away your services.
Hurts the market
If you're just getting started, you might not want to worry about “the freelance market” or “the state of the blogosphere.” But bear in mind that you are about to join a community of other workers, and just as their actions impact you, your actions impact them.
Giving away work sends the message that similar work can be procured for free.
Companies that might otherwise have budgeted to pay freelancers instead search around until they find someone green enough to work “for exposure.” Offering free work now may mean there's nothing but free work available down the line.
There's no doubt that work breeds work, and if you have no portfolio to show from past clients, it'll be tough to snare new clients. So the occasional freebie is understandable, even wise in some cases.
But consider adding some expectation-setting verbiage to your replies when people request work in exchange for exposure. Something like, “Generally I'd charge $XXX for a project like this, but in this case I'll do the work in exchange for exposure to your customers/readers/clients. If you're pleased with the results, I hope you'll consider working with me again! Since I have very limited space in my schedule for pro bono work, I'm attaching my rate sheet so you'll know what to expect for future projects.”
Even if this means they never contact you again, you've set an important boundary for yourself and your colleagues. You've let them know they're getting something of value for nothing. You've told them that, like most people, you want to be paid for your services and “exposure” has limited use.