Digital Sharecropper or Social Media Asset Owner?

Using Google Reader to browse through all my Rss feeds from social media blogs I follow yesterday, I came across the term “Digital Sharecropping”. The first use of this term is credited to Nicholas Carr in his blog “Rough Type” I think it is a wonderful term and so accurately describes a lot of our efforts – both personal and business – on social media sites and common blogging platforms.

Share cropping had its origins in agriculture, it was a common system in medieval Europe and cotton plantations in the USA.

A landowner would let sharecroppers grow crops on his land. The sharecropper would assume all the risks (and costs) of production. Instead of paying a fixed rental for the land, the sharecropper would give the landowner a share of the crop and keep a share for himself. Sharecroppers often lived in dilapidated housing in the farms they cultivated.

digital sharecropper

Sharecropper house

In the case of a landowner with a large acreage, many sharecroppers might be involved. Thereby spreading the risks of production over many, but concentrating the rewards into the hands of one person or family.

Sharecropping has been condemned as exploitation of the poor by the rich. Certainly the system was open to abuse like any commercial undertaking between people, but in its pure form it was merely an alternative to a fixed rental. With a fixed rental, the tenant farmer is still required to pay the rent even after a total crop failure through no fault of his own, from drought or other natural causes.

Using a percentage of the crop or a rate per ton of production is still used in many countries to determine the rental to be paid for the use of agricultural land. It transfers some of the risk to the landowner as mentioned above. There is a commercial parallel where retail businesses pay a percentage of turnover in addition to a fixed amount for the rental of shops.

What does this have to do with social media or Internet Marketing?

The analogy of the sharecroppers relationship with landowners,  describes almost exactly, the business users relationship with social media sites like Facebook and common blogging platforms like blogger or wordpress.com.

The risks (costs and time) of production (content) are distributed over millions of users. The rewards (advertising revenue and capital appreciation) are vested in the hands of a few owners (or shareholders in the case of Linked In). We as business users get our share in the use of a platform to promote our businesses. While we do not pay a fixed rental for this use, we do pick up the tab for all the costs of creating content.

Just as the shareholders of old could be thrown off the land at the whim of the landowner. So can social media accounts be closed for real or perceived non-compliance with Terms of Service. Rules can be changed overnight. An expensive marketing campaign could be aborted because of new restrictions on social media accounts.

Digital sharecropping

Red Flag

This is a huge red flag to advice from certain experts recommending using, for example, Facebook pages as a final destination for internet traffic.

Let’s remember that social media sites are exactly that “media” like a landowners fields that we can cultivate as long as we stick to the rules and behave ourselves. Social Media is not an extension to our own website or brick and mortar store that we have absolute control over.

Just as a newspaper, magazine, TV or radio station could decline to accept our ads for any reason they choose, so too can Facebook or twitter decide that they can get along without us.

I am not suggesting that social media is too risky or not worth the effort, on the contrary, I believe that it will become increasingly important to most marketers.

We must remember the risks and limitations as well as the rewards and advantages.We need to increase ownership of the assets and reduce the costs of production as much as possible.

This means self-hosted blogs and in many cases reversing the trend to rely too heavily on Facebook pages to complete the sale.  Rather let the Facebook page be the friendly, helpful sales assistant who politely guides the customer to the cashier (our own website) to complete the sale.

Wishing you success in all your endeavours.

Peter Wright

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