Online barter: using friends as free labour

Liz Ayling

‘My husband’s just got in, have to go, back on Skype later tonight’. This came in from a friend at 21.15. We’d been chatting about how her blog cum site for her freelance photography business could do with a secure login area where clients could choose the shots to have printed. She needs some customisation of her WordPress blog. I needed something in return; a more professional photo for my LinkedIn page, and some lessons on Photoshop.

We’re engaging in mutual back scratching – sharing advice and tips freely, and plugging each other’s businesses when and where we can. It’s costless (bar some of our time online late at night over our respective glasses of wine or mugs of coffee); it has a more honest feel about it than hiring each other formally, and the barter approach seems to work well for us. We’ve got good at it, balancing what we give and take.

But it can easily go wrong. Especially if you start thinking actively of the cash you’re losing or not making while you’re ‘helping’ and if you’re not ending up bartering equally.

Analysing why our arrangement works, I came up with some tips about how to keep your real friends and mutually help each other to influence people.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask: asking for help face to face is that more grueling I find than firing off a salvo (message in a bottle sometimes) online (email, skype, Twitter, Facebook or whatever). You’ll be surprised how quickly your friends, fans or acquaintances respond.

2. Don’t delay in returning the favour: While we might need to wait to do a return date for a dinner party, and feebly say ‘you must come to ours soon…’ meaning in six months, online, we need to respond very fast with any return offer of help.

3. Don’t take and not give: you will soon lose that real friend, not just their online IDs and buttons .

4. Narrowcast any PR you do for friends: it’s easy to open up your networks to friends to plug their business, but don’t be tempted. You will alienate your trusted networks. But do see which of your contacts might need your friends’ services and tailor any PR they send you to your own words. That way you validate their work/services/products and your missive to your groups is seen as more relevant, useful and trusted.

5. Don’t abuse of someone’s Facebook wall to post a blatant advert, or keep on sending Facebook links ad nauseam to their email. Or bang off Tweets on rubbish. I get around seven a day from one ‘friend’ and I am really resenting it even if some of her offer appeals. I am now deleting them all without reading them.

6. Don’t be taken for a ride: if the little help here and there is building up to a lot of time, and drawing extensively on your (fee paying) expertise, then say you will have to quote and spell out deliverables, timeframes etc. There’s a limit to free if you don’t see a win-win somewhere along the line – whether hard cash or quantifiable PR mileage. Rarely will true friends abuse of you as they are likely in the same freelance or start-up boat if they are asking for your help. It’s more likely to be friends of friends, who have less (real) face to lose and won’t care about pestering you.

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