Digital Sharecropping is Costly

Digital Sharecropping is Costly
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA

Are You  Digital Sharecropping?

Sharecropper in Alabama, a plow girl. Near Eutaw, Alabama
Image of Sharecropper sourced from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA

What’s digital sharecropping anyway?

To define digital sharecropping, let’s start with defining 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. Sharecropping has a long history and there are a wide range of different situations and types of agreements that have used a form of the system.”

Now let’s take the sharecropping concept and apply it to the context of marketing online. Digital sharecropping is a term coined by Nicholas Carr to describe a peculiar phenomenon of Web 2.0. According to Nicholas,

“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.”

One popular blogger, a personal favorite of mine, Sonia Simone of Copyblogger wrote a great post entitled “The Most Dangerous Threat to Your Online Marketing Efforts.”  The essence of what I took away from that post is that online marketers can often fall victim to becoming digital sharecroppers, with the social networks reaping the rewards of marketers hard earned efforts and the marketers left with little control of their outcome or return on marketing investment.

Time to Get Out the Facebook Plow and Till the Soil for Fans

Facebook likes are earned media not owned media
Facebook likes are earned, not owned media. Are you tilling the Facebook field for likes?

Let’s look at Facebook. Facebook’s business model is to sell advertising in the context of user generated content. How would you like to sell advertising against content that others create and distribute?  They were not the first.

Remember that once dominant social network called MySpace? The one that many wondered if the aspiring Facebook 5 years ago could ever grow to be as big as?  What do you think the long-term return on marketing investments for those online marketers who placed bets and invested heavily in earned media on MySpace?

YouTube does the same thing. Sell ads within the context of user generated video content. How brilliant is it to provide infrastructure that users use to create content that generates lucrative advertising revenue in the millions and billions of annual revenue? And people called Google Crazy for shelling out a $1.65 Billion for YouTube back in 2006. Now it is the number 2 search engine.  Twitter sharecropping? Yes, them too.

The sharecropper model puts all the control in the hands of the land owner  or in the case of digital sharecropping, the social network.  At any time, the social network can change the rules (i.e. Terms of Service) or worse yet evict you by suspending your account.

Eviction of a Twitter Millionaire (True Story!)

Twitter Notice of a Profile Suspension
Twitter notice of a profile suspension. A digital sharecropper has just been evicted!

Every day, I see Twitter followers of @eBizROI suspended for who knows what violations. Some of these accounts have tens, hundreds or in the one case below, over 1,000,000 followers amassed over months or even years, with thousands or  tens of thousands of tweets.  All gone, for some never to be recovered.

Is this a positive outcome for the Twitter user whose account was suspended or just another example of the digital share cropper losing their crop even if their harvesting methods were questionable? This is not to pass judgment on Twitter or their terms of service, just to point out the risk of loss of investment. Here is a digital sharecropper who was evicted after 342 days of service, producing 9,414 tweets earning a total of 1,055,187 followers. Ouch!

Twitter power user with over 1,000,000 followers whose account was suspended
LinkedIn Answers
LinkedIn Answers gone with no notice and complete loss of crops!

LinkedIn Answers – Huge Digital Sharecroppers Web 2.0 Sinkhole

One of the largest examples of digital sharecropping loss on a massive scale was the quiet departure of LinkedIn Answers announced on June 26th, 2013. Imagine the hundreds of thousands, dare I say millions of person hours invested asking questions, answering questions, building online portfolios of the finest Web 2.0 expertise on LinkedIn Answers, only to log in one day and find that it’s all gone. All that effort down the drain.  Not just down for maintenance, but gone forever!

Here was the unexpected eviction notice from LinkedIn Answers:

“LinkedIn Answers was a feature that allowed members to ask questions and let other LinkedIn members provide answers. Although that feature no longer exists, there are still many other ways to pose questions and facilitate professional discussions. “


For some Web 2.0 early adopters, LinkedIn Answers was the place they heavily invested in to showcase their expertise while promoting personal and corporate brands. You know the ones that you observed  answering questions while you were examining your LinkedIn status updates.

The same sharecroppers, investing deeper and deeper in LinkedIn Answers everyday, not expecting a thief in the night. Surely LinkedIn benefited from the traffic, engagement and advertising revenue that LinkedIn Answers, an in particular, the user generated content, brought to them. In the end, for the individual contributors, the return on marketing investment of investing LinkedIn Answers was clearly negative for the long-term.

Sharing is Caring

Sharing is Caring - PSY - GANGNAM STYLE
Sharing is Caring – PSY – GANGNAM STYLE!

Well not really. We online marketers share using a process now called curation, a word once used to describe how museums acquired the finest pieces of art. With so much content and noise out there, it takes effort find, evaluate (yes read before you share) and then share quality content that informs, entertains while reinforcing your brand and online reputation. In the process, you are promoting someone else’s brand.  That can be good through positive association and relationship building, but in general, it’s always better for the person whose content is shared than for the person sharing it.

It is good to share others content to build relationships, show broad perspective and loosen the content creation load. Many experts say that social sharing should follow the 80/20 rule where 80% of social shares from a profile should be others content, 20% your own. Everyone has to find their own balance here and what works best for their situation. In the end, if you do nothing but share content of others, you might want to ask yourself whether you are feeling a bit like a digital sharecropper and if some of your time might be better spent creating and sharing your own “shareworthy” content.

The key takeaway?

Online marketers should avoid in over investing in social media, particularly in any one channel unless their business objectives for that social investment are short to medium-term. The key is to not “over-invest” at the expense of focusing the due time and creative effort required to develop owned digital assets. These owned assets that will survive the rise and fall of great civilizations such as LinkedIn Answers, MySpace and whatever is next  to fall.

Owed digital assets are the very cornerstone of a sound digital marketing strategy, including:

  • A quality business website, hosted on your own domain
  • Blog with original content where you have editorial and moderation control
  • A double opt-in email list built that you built and maintain over time
  • Online reputation, brand and reputation for delivering excellence
  •  Managing online forums that are self hosted and other creative opportunities

Remember, possession is nine tenths of the law and online assets you create, own and control will serve you well today, tomorrow and more importantly, well into the future.


Rick Noel is an experienced digital marketer enabling businesses and organizations to grow through the Internet, while maximizing marketing ROI (Return On Investment). Rick is the CEO and Co-Founder of eBiz ROI, Inc., a full-service digital marketing agency located in Ballston Lake, NY.

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