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What is Digital Sharecropping, and Should You be Worried?


Online Marketing

The Pros and Cons of Digital Sharecropping

If you were paying attention in history class, you might remember learning about the term sharecropping. 

Sharecropping is an agricultural system where a landowner lets a tenant farm the land in exchange for a share of the crops produced… and the system didn’t necessarily benefit both groups equally. The landowners reaped a staggering majority of the profits, while the tenants struggled to feed their families.

If there was a digital equivalent to sharecropping, surely you’d want to avoid it, right? And, as it turns out, today’s business owners have a different type of sharecropping to worry about: digital sharecropping.

Defining digital sharecropping

At its most basic level, digital sharecropping simply refers to building an online presence on a platform that you don’t own. 

It’s a phenomenon that was first introduced by Nicolas Carr back in 2006, and Carr ominously dubbed it the “most interesting, and unsettling, economic phenomenon the Internet has produced.” Social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and others are all examples of content ultimately belonging to the platform, and not to you.

And that doesn’t sound like a very dependable business model for you, does it?

If you’re a business owner who uses those sites as an integral part of your business model, you’re getting digitally sharecropped. You simply can’t depend on these external sites for your revenues, because the fact that your assets are owned by someone else can present huge negative consequences down the road.

What happens if:

You might be thinking, “But Facebook is going to be relevant forever. There’s no way they’ll shut down. Of course people will continue using Facebook, and I can deal with any algorithm changes.”

But remember… people used to think that way about MySpace, too. And each of those examples listed above? They aren’t doomsday prophecies — they’ve all happened before.

Real-world examples of digital sharecropping

In many ways, digital sharecropping is such a large problem because these external websites regularly change their rules, aka algorithms. 

Facebook is one of the most well-known examples of how unwise it is to rely on other websites for traffic and profit. From January through March 2016, Digiday reports that some publishers experienced traffic drops of up to 20%. And now that the platform has made a move toward prioritizing posts from friends over posts from Pages, businesses are more likely to notice further drops in traffic.

This is good news for many Facebook users who long for the “old days,” when they could view their friends’ posts in chronological order. However, businesses certainly won’t benefit now that they don’t have as much exposure to potential customers. 

It’s a clear example of how digital sharecropping can impact your business. Sites like Facebook, and even Google, all control their own algorithms that determine what visitors see. They can do whatever they want, and we’re powerless to stop it.

Let’s also look at Instagram. In March of 2016 they announced that users’ feeds would be ordered in a new way: 

“On average, people miss 70 percent of their feeds. It’s become harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share as Instagram has grown. Over the past few months, we brought this new way of ordering posts to a portion of the community, and we found that people are liking photos more, commenting more and generally engaging with the community in a more active way.”

Many users weren’t pleased with the changes, users and professional Instagrammers alike. Thankfully, Instagram also introduced new tools for business owners. But, even with the new tools, brands that have historically relied on Instagram for much of their revenue will need to seriously re-evaluate their social media marketing plans. 

If these examples have you thinking, “Hmm, it would have been easier to not rely entirely on these platforms in the first place,” then you’re catching on.

Protecting your business from the dangers of digital sharecropping

Thankfully, avoiding the worst of digital sharecropping is pretty straightforward: Build your website, with your own paid hosting, as your most valuable online business asset. 

That’s it.

Well, that’s almost it. Essentially, protecting your business requires diversification. That means you can, and should, still use those social media platforms, along with other platforms and systems. You won’t depend on any singular platform too thoroughly, but you should use a variety of tools to grow your business online. 

With social media, just make sure you’re linking back to your own content, on your own website. Fill your website with excellent blog content. If you have a podcast, make sure it’s on your site, and not just on iTunes. Encourage visitors to sign up for your email newsletter so that you always have their contact information. Provide them with real value that keeps them coming back to your website again and again. 

That way, if something does go wrong, you still have your content and your audience.

At the end of the day, a solid foundation built on a website that you own the URL for is the best way to protect your online presence. And, Google is important, but you should never depend solely on the search engines. Getting that organic traffic is great, but if Google changes it’s algorithm and your traffic suddenly halts, you won’t be in a good place.   

The newest social media or online marketing trend might sound appealing, but you should never build your entire platform on an asset that you don’t own. 

Did you know about the dangers of digital sharecropping, or is the concept new to you? How do you plan to avoid the dangers of digital sharecropping in your business? Share your thoughts in the comments — including questions.