What is "digital sharecropping" and why is it a bad thing?

Sharecropping is a sucker's game and always has been. To grow your business, you need to own your content.

As a good Southern boy whose ancestors hailed from Mississippi and who spent much of my four years at the University of Virginia studying 19th-century Southern history, I know a thing or two about sharecropping.

Sharecropping in the United States originated in Mississippi and became popular across the South after the Civil War, replacing the vanquished plantation economy. Because freed slaves never received their 40 acres and a mule, they found themselves uprooted in an agrarian economy lacking the basic asset needed to have a chance at success: land.

So the Freedmen were forced to be tenants of the white landowners — planting the cotton seed, tending the crop, being responsible for everything produced by their small patch of land. But after all the work was done, they had to hand over the proceeds of their labor to the landowners and receive just a “share” of the “crop” — usually no more than half.

The blacks, as well as poor whites, forced to work as sharecroppers were little more than feudal serfs for nearly three generations after the Civil War.

Sharecropping Goes Digital

Today, creators of content face an online parallel to old-school sharecropping. My friend Brian Clark calls it "digital sharecropping." And while it’s certainly not as inhuman, racist or debilitating as the Southern system of agriculture, the comparison has some logical legitimacy.

Digital sharecropping means creating content that you publish on a site you don’t own — like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.  Just like sharecroppers of old tended the land of others, living at the mercy of large landowners, so those businesses today whose content marketing strategies revolve around the websites of others find themselves in a similarly powerless position — at the mercy of large social networks.

If your social media campaigns revolve around Facebook, for example, and you spend the bulk of your marketing dollars driving people to a Facebook page, you are merely tending Mark Zuckerberg’s land — helping his audience to grow, helping his users to become more engaged, and ultimately helping his revenues to continue to skyrocket.

You are doing this in return for the subsistence compensation of whatever leads you can generate directly through Facebook.

This is a sucker’s game.  Why?  Two reasons:

1. Lack of audience ownership.  Just as subsistence farmers of the past were stuck on someone else’s land forever, so a strategy centered on someone else’s website leaves you dependent on that website. If you send  your audiences to Facebook rather than to your own website — an asset that is yours — you own nothing.

2. Lack of predictable outcomes. Because you have no control over Facebook, you are easy prey for disadvantageous changes that take money out of your pocket and make your labors seem fruitless.

Facebook Bait and Switch, Flickr Capriciousness

Think about what Facebook did years ago with page “likes." It used to be that adding “fans” or “likes” was the holy grail for Facebook marketers — if you achieved 100,000 likes for your business’ page, you had climbed to the mountaintop. And so more and more companies paid big money for Facebook advertising to grow their likes.

Then Facebook changed how it displayed its newsfeeds so that your fans wouldn’t see your content unless algorithms showed that it engaged those who followed your page — as proven by likes, comments and shares. Reason for more and more investment in Facebook by marketers.

Then Facebook announced that for all your best efforts to drive organic engagement, the reality is that only about 15 percent of your content would actually be visible to those people who had specifically requested (through “liking” you) to see your updates.

Oh, you wanted 100 percent of those who liked your page to see the updates they had signed up for? Enter Facebook Promoted Posts. If you want the people who have already liked your page to see the posts they had signed up to see, you would have to pay — on a post by post basis.

That’s digital sharecropping. 

Oh, and there’s that other part of sharecropping that’s perhaps even more annoying than premeditated bait-and-switch changes in algorithms. It’s the arrogance and capriciousness with which the plantation owners (I mean social networking website owners) wield their power.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience — one that taught me a valuable lesson.

Many moons ago, when Flickr (now owned by SmugMug) was still more popular than Facebook for photo-sharing, I created a group there on behalf of one of my clients. After a few months of working on this project, the group and all the photos were deleted out of the blue, without warning. Shocked, I inquired about this and was informed that a photographer filed a complaint about the group. The complaint, I explained, was invalid.

It didn’t matter, the Flickr representative explained. All data related to the group was gone forever.

That’s arrogance. That’s capriciousness. And as long as you’re a sharecropper, it’s a risk you face daily.

Get Your Own Tract of Land Online

So what’s the solution? Simple: invest in building out your own website with fresh, frequently updated, mostly non-branded content that will attract prospects and other important audiences to your site. Then develop and perfect mechanisms for capturing and nurturing these audiences over time.

In other words, inbound marketing.

As for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Quora, Flickr and the rest? Use them, of course — but with the purpose of leveraging their audiences to build your own.

It’s the equivalent of working on someone else’s land but setting aside some of the crop to build up your own spread, until you have created a lucrative farm of your own — one you can truly be proud of.

- Scott Baradell