Defining Digital Sharecropping
For this post, I thought it would be good to actually define Digital Sharecropping. This should give you some insight into the general idea behind this blog.
Although this first post may seem to paint digital sharecropping in a negative light, stay tuned until the end, and you’ll see it come full circle. I think this topic is quite important for anyone who is working online.
Almost all of the sources I’ve found online credit Nick Carr as originally coining the phrase back in 2006. He is an author and blogs over at Rough Type covering topics such as technology, culture, and economics.
So What is Sharecropping?
At face value, digital sharecropping is pretty similar to actual sharecropping. According to Wikipedia, Sharecropping is a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on the land.
I often see sharecropping looked at as a bad thing, since in a lot of cases the sharecroppers were poor (and possible even being taken advantage of), but I would argue that it provided access to arable land for those who were typically excluded from owning land, such as women and freed slaves.
This arrangement also split the risk between both the landlord and tenant.
Side note: this practice is still alive and well today in the form of “farmer’s cooperatives” (or “Co-op”), where smaller farmers join together and become “members” of the cooperative. This gives them access to better machinery and better pricing on supplies.
How does this relate to the digital realm?
What this means in the digital world is that a site (landlord) allows users (tenants) to create content on their existing platform, typically at a low cost or free.
The exchange here is that the users get to create content on an established platform, while the site gets to make the rules and retain most of the value of their content.
The term “digital sharecropper” is usually aimed at people who run their online business exclusively on social media sites, but I’d like to extend it a bit further..
Are you Digital Sharecropping?
Lets see.. Do you:
- Create content on social media and/or video platforms?
- Store your data / files in the cloud?
- Use SaaS (including email marketing services)?
- Practice Affiliate Marketing?
- Rely on Search Traffic to your website?
- Rely on a Podcast hosting service?
- Sell ebooks or video courses beyond your site?
Any of the above (and there are dozens of additional examples) can be considered digital sharecropping, since you are at the mercy of those sites and providers.
I could even take it a step further to include internet service providers, the internet infrastructure (undersea cables, electricity, etc.) and so on, but I’m sure you get the point..
Why is this ‘bad’?
The danger here is that you are not fully in control of your business. Everything you’re working towards today can be undone by forces outside of your immediate control. Algorithm changes, changes in royalty percentages, the decline of a particular social media platform, etc., can completely derail your business.
So What’s the Solution?
Most of the time, the solution offered is to simply ‘own the land’ (build your own website, grow your following and email list, etc.), but that is not without its own challenges. I'll elaborate on this a bit more later, but suffice it to say that:
Owning 10% of something is better than owning 100% of nothing.
Solutions & A Philosophy for Success
At the beginning of this post, I defined the term Digital Sharecropping, and then outlined the ways that nearly everyone is doing it in their online businesses. While there are many potential downsides to doing this, I think the benefits outweigh them.
Let's start with the main benefit: not having to reinvent the wheel. There are also a whole host of reasons that create a compelling case to begin Digital Sharecropping yourself, if you’re not already do so..
What are the benefits?
Probably the “end all be all” of benefits is that you get to take advantage of infrastructure that you didn’t have to build yourself. This can be an online platform or social network, an existing user base, software, or other technology.
From day 1 you can be up and running, with little experience and minimal barriers of entry.
Anyone who has built an audience online (or is in the process of building one) knows the uphill battle for each new visitor & subscriber. Not to mention the learning curve of building your website, learning the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of your email marketing service, and all the while creating new content.
If you setup a profile on any social network, for instance, you can post updates today and immediately gain some new followers and traffic.
The second main benefit of Digital Sharecropping is that it’s still your content! What you create on other platforms can be re-purposed, posted elsewhere, linked to, and more.
It’s important to put your content in front of your audience wherever they happen to be. Social media often takes the brunt of the arguments against Digital Sharecropping, but the word “social” says it all.
This approach of being proactive will allow you to bring visitors to your site from other platforms. Think of it as harvesting your crops.
People are more likely to “know, like, and trust” you if you’re approachable and engaging on other platforms besides your own. The key is to talk with your audience, NOT just talk to them.
Have a Call to Action
Once you start to engage with your audience, it’s important to get them back to your site so you can keep the conversation going there.
Since another potential downside to Digital Sharecropping is that you often don’t get access to your audience’s email addresses from these platforms, it’s imperative that you be proactive with your call to action to bring them back to your site.
Socialize with your audience on whatever network they happen to be on.
The way to hold on to your success is to keep moving & adapting. Once you start to see diminishing returns from one traffic source, it’s time to re-evaluate and adapt.
Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Google may be on top today (and possibly for years to come), but there are many other platforms on the rise, and you don’t always need to focus on the biggest & best ones out there to succeed.
Engage on the network that your audience hangs out on, and if your audience begins to shift – shift with them. The beauty of Digital Sharecropping is that you can instantly jump on board any platform that is rising in popularity, and with little effort, begin to capitalize on that built in audience & infrastructure.
To Sum It All Up
Relying on search traffic is passive, but can be very slow. Going out onto the different social networks may take a little more active work, but can be quite rewarding.
The amount of time you’ll need to spend on each platform to get positive results will vary, which is why focusing on those that give you the best return on your time is especially important.
Above all, though, understand that no strategy is going to work indefinitely.
Realize that things WILL change, so build your action plan around that understanding.
Keep lean, agile, and above all.. Be Consistent.