As creatives, the one thing that is critical to us is the art we create. It’s the single most important part of our being, and is certainly the one thing we should make a priority to protect. Without our art, we have nothing.
So how is it possible that putting our sacred work in the hands of someone else would be deemed a good idea?
At Copyblogger, we talk a lot about a concept called digital sharecropping. Our Chief Content Officer, Sonia Simone, warns us, “Beware: Don’t plant your content flag on borrowed land.”
Let’s talk about what digital sharecropping is. Digital sharecropping is a term coined by Nicholas Carr to describe a peculiar phenomenon of Web 2.0:
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.
Sonia breaks it down for us in layman’s terms:
The term sharecropping refers to the farming practices common after the U.S. Civil War, but it’s essentially the same thing as feudalism. A big landholder allows individual farmers to work their land and takes most of the profits generated from the crops.
The overall idea here is that it’s ill-advised to build an audience and your brand on digital land that could theoretically be taken from you at any given moment. This is space that, for the most part, we don’t control, nor have any input on how it is developed. We don’t own it, the landlords do.
We throw around words such as “beware” and “borrowed land,” but in my opinion, there is an opportunity to strategically use the latter as a way to grow an audience and brand—albeit as a temporary form of production.
I want to make it clear that I do not suggest you digital sharecrop as a primary method of cultivating a harvest. I am a firm believer in owning your content—whether you are a writer, a designer, a photographer, or a musician.
But there’s something here for us to work with, as creatives.
Cultivating My Own Land
In order to help illustrate my point of view, I am going to talk about what I have done—and what I am currently doing—at No Sidebar.
For those of you who might not know, No Sidebar is my personal project. After having built software for content producers for a number of years, it was my way of experiencing life on the consumption side of what we do, rather than the production side. I wanted to do things through the eyes of our customers.
I launched No Sidebar back in January, 2015. I modeled it after what Brian was doing over at Further.net and is currently doing at Unemployable: a weekly newsletter, which I sent out on Mondays, that had an intro, followed by a curated section of links to relevant content.
After six months of producing my own content, I decided to reach out to the community that was forming and invited folks to guest post. I wanted to grow the audience and traffic to No Sidebar quicker, but didn’t have enough time to make this happen myself. The TL;DR of that strategy: it worked.
Fast forward to today, and here is where things stand:
No Sidebar is still growing on a number of different levels. Currently we have 36,882 email subscribers, 92,400 fans on Facebook, 12,078 members in our Facebook group, and over 12,000 followers on Instagram.
Yes, this is partially a humblebrag, but the reason I share these numbers is to illustrate the effectiveness of using digital sharecropping to build an audience.
Reaping the Facebook Harvest
Without a doubt Facebook has been the most productive form of digital sharecropping for No Sidebar. On any given day, I am able to share an article to my page, and get an average of 1,000 visitors to the site. From that, I will get anywhere between 100-250 post likes, which means anyone who is friends (or follows) each of those people will see that in their stream as well.
I typically share 1-2 articles from No Sidebar to our Facebook page per day, so you can imagine how much reach and engagement is created over time. A few months ago, I shared an article that went viral and sent more than 1,000,000 unique visitors to the site. (Yes, you read that correctly—one million people.)
Love it or hate it, one thing is true: The power of leveraging Facebook to build an audience and a brand is undeniably huge. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more specifically how I am executing my strategy with Facebook.
Production vs. Distribution
Circling back to the idea of planting seeds on someone else’s land, I have to mention the single most important element to exercising this digital sharecropping strategy, and the big delineator in all of this for me.
I mentioned earlier that I do not suggest this kind of strategy as the primary option for building your audience or brand. The reason is simple, and one that remains a reality: you do not own the land, and the person who does, can change the rules whenever they want. Which leaves it as a good secondary option.
This means that under no circumstances should you use digital sharecropping for producing content, rather you should be using it to distribute it.
This is precisely what I do at No Sidebar—I am the sole owner of the content on my own land, my own website, and my own terms. I am merely using Facebook (and other social media platforms, for that matter) as a way to distribute my content to hundreds of thousands of folks who might otherwise not see it.
The content is produced and published onsite, and shortly after, shared to my Facebook page, syndicated to my Medium publication, and then distributed to a few other channels.
There are benefits that come along with digital sharecropping, but understand the risk. You need to play the game smart, and know when the right time (and the wrong time) is to plant your seeds in places you don’t control.
As a creative, you must protect what is rightfully yours. Your words. Your designs. Your photos. Your videos. It’s pretty much all you have to offer. So…
Create your content. Own your content. Distribute your content.
This is the secret to being a successful digital sharecropper. And with that comes the many benefits of planting your seeds on someone else’s land. Just know the relationship there is temporary, but the harvest can be plentiful. Enjoy the feast.