A well-rounded content marketing strategy is a valuable asset for any brand, business, or individual looking to build their online presence. However, far too often even the most well-meaning strategies fall victim to digital sharecropping. This is due to the remarkably low amount of awareness surrounding digital sharecropping, with many content marketers not being familiar with it at all. The fact is, every content marketer needs to be aware of digital sharecropping and the negative effects it can have on the content you create.

What is digital sharecropping?

Digital sharecropping is a term coined by author Nicholas Carr to describe a common phenomenon of Web 2.0, aka the internet as we know it today:

“One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.”

In simpler terms, the more content we create for free on platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, and Medium, the more valuable those platforms become. Furthermore, the content published on those platforms effectively belongs to the platform, even if you’re the creator.

Digital sharecropping is aptly named, as it draws comparison to the system of agriculture known as sharecropping. Under this system, farmers do not own the land they work on. Instead, they work on a portion of land owned by a larger entity or corporation, in exchange for a small portion of the profits.

To understand digital sharecropping, we can take the metaphor one step further. Imagine Facebook is the landowner, and you’re the farmer. You’re given the privilege of “working on the land” in the form of providing content for the platform—whether that’s posting images, videos, or text. But, because Facebook owns the land, you have no rights to it. You’re also probably not making much, if any, profit off of it, because Facebook takes the larger share.

Are you a digital sharecropper?

Now that you know the definition of digital sharecropping, you may be wondering if you’ve been guilty of it all along without even realizing it. After all, most businesses and brands create content for multiple platforms to reach their audience, but few stop to think about who effectively owns their content. The following questions can help you determine to what extent you may be a part of the digital sharecropping phenomenon:

  • Is your content credited to you?
  • Are you able to control how your content is displayed?
  • Can you control whether your content is deleted, edited, or taken offline?
  • Can you download or archive your content?

If you answered “No” to the above questions, you’re most likely digital sharecropping.

The dangers of digital sharecropping

On the surface, digital sharecropping may not seem like such a bad thing—in fact, it could be argued that it’s simply a consequence of engaging with the ever-changing digital landscape. After all, how are businesses meant to easily reach their audience online without utilizing platforms such Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger? The difference between digital sharecropping and a well-rounded content marketing strategy is a reliance on one platform. It’s not a bad thing to utilize a variety of social media platforms to promote your business and engage with your audience. In fact, we recommend doing so as part of our 2018 guide to social media platforms.

It is, however, a bad thing to only rely on one platform to house all your content—and here are three reasons why.

1. Popularity can change overnight

Websites and platforms that seem to be on top of the world can lose their popularity in the blink of an eye, and even go offline for good. If you’re a content creator who has invested time, energy, and significant amounts of money into content hosted on these platforms, you may suddenly find yourself with not even half of the audience you used to have. That means fewer eyes on your content and a significant reduction in reach overall.

When you’re a digital sharecropper, you may be boarding a sinking ship without knowing it. Just think of how all the content creators invested in Vine must have felt. Even if the platform you’re using currently comes out on top, you’re still taking a large gamble in the end by putting all your eggs in one basket.

2. You can’t make it “your own”

When you don’t own the platform, there is a limit to what you can change. Maybe you don’t like how Facebook compresses your photos, or how the length of your videos is limited. Or, maybe you’d like more flexibility with the layout, color scheme, and other design elements. Unless you have a direct line to Mark Zuckerberg, there’s nothing you can do to change any of these things. This can lead to you compromise elements of your content.

3. You’re at the mercy of the platform

When you’re a digital sharecropper, you’re subject to the whims and decisions of the platform. To use another metaphor, think of the relationship between you and your preferred platforms as that of a landlord and a tenant. If your landlord makes a decision, it’s law, no matter how it impacts you. They can raise your rent, enforce a new policy, or even evict you altogether.

For example, Facebook has changed its algorithm so that users see more posts from their friends and family, and fewer posts from businesses and brands. This is bad news for digital sharecroppers who rely solely on Facebook to reach their audience. Additionally, within the terms of service for many platforms are conditions that allow them to terminate your account and remove your content as they see fit. No business owner wants to wake up to find their page temporarily suspended, or worse, deleted all together—but it’s a very real threat.

P.S.: Don’t let the dangers of digital sharecropping scare you off social media altogether. To manage the ever-changing digital landscape, it’s best to have a professional on your side who can develop an effective social media strategy that steers clear of digital sharecropping.

The solution to digital sharecropping

A professionally designed, SEO-optimized, mobile-friendly website is one of the most effective solutions to digital sharecropping. Your content can be housed on a platform that is owned, managed, and customized by you. Since you’ll be the one calling the shots, there will be no unwelcome surprises when it comes to how your content is displayed or promoted. You’ll be able to build your online presence on your own terms, and effectively own this element of your brand identity. This is essential in maintaining brand consistency, and ensuring that your audience is able to build the right relationship with your brand.

The role of other platforms

Just because you have a shiny new website to house your content, doesn’t mean you should leave your social media channels high and dry. Social media sites and third-party platforms can still be used to share your content; however, the ultimate goal is to lead your audience back to your website. So, instead of posting an entire blog on Tumblr, try posting an excerpt on Tumblr and linking to your website to entice readers who are interested in learning more. Or, prompt users to sign up for your email list to receive more content.

Next Steps

Avoiding digital sharecropping is just one aspect of navigating the complex and rewarding world of content marketing. From creating a strategy, to perfecting the art of writing headlines, and everything in between, we as content creators certainly have our work cut out for us. However, with the right tools and strategy in mind, we can create content that makes a lasting impression on our audience, free from the dangers that result from over-relying on one platform.