Digital third-party platforms are excellent ways for nonprofits to reach new online audiences, especially given their frequently low costs and barriers to entry. However, over-reliance on these channels can cause problems, especially when they represent a significant source of fundraising. Nonprofiteers who are leveraging third-party platforms online should be wary of digital sharecropping.

SharecroppersWhat is Digital Sharecropping?

Quite simply, digital sharecropping is the act of using a third party platform to publicize your brand. The brand creates the content and publishes it on an external platform in exchange for exposure on that platform, similar to how sharecroppers would tend land owned by someone else in exchange for a share of the yield. The tenants do all the work while the landowner reaps a majority of the benefits.

Sonia Simone of Copyblogger calls it “the most dangerous threat to your online marketing” and with good reason. Given the recent and constant algorithmic changes on Facebook and Google, it can be very risky to place all of your eggs in someone else’s basket.

Biggest Dangers:

The dangers of digital sharecropping typically manifest around social networks and search engines. Fundraisers who have invested a lot of time on these platforms can see the rug pulled up from under them at anytime without warning.

1. Facebook

You’ve likely noticed a drop in the visibility of your brand status updates as of late. That’s because Facebook has instituted a “pay-to-play” model, forcing page administrators to purchase sponsored posts in order to get their content in front of those who have liked the page.

While this has caused a lot of uproar, it’s a perfect example of the dangers of digital sharecropping, especially if you’ve spent the last few years building a community there. Author and speaker Scott Stratten recently responded to the ocean of consternation over Facebook’s monetization strategy:

Warning: some harsh launguage

2. Google (Bing & Yahoo)

Google’s ranking algorithm changes constantly, making it very difficult to keep a website fully optimized and ranking on page one of the search results. SEO practices that worked 2-3 years ago are, in some cases, now viewed as harmful. For the most part, Google’s ranking algorithm is now at a place where good behavior is rewarded: helpful content, social media shares and high-quality backlinks are lauded. However, SEO in general is still built on a foundation of sand.

3. Quora

Quora is a great place to answer questions that other users are asking about a variety of topics. You can put your expertise on display and solve real problems. Just know, however, that content published here stays here.

Because Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest still have newsfeeds that operate without an algorithm (what you follow is what you see), post visibility is somewhat consistent. However, this could change at anytime, so be wary of leveraging your efforts too heavily on any one network.

YouTube is unique. Even though producers are supplying content to an external platform, they are still rewarded in the form of ad revenues and content exposure. The video blog Veritasium has an excellent explanation of the differences between the YouTube and Facebook ecosystems:

How To Avoid Digital Sharecropping

There’s no reason to stop using social networks or optimizing for search engines, but it is important to maintain a healthy balance between owned and rented platforms. Here are four areas nonprofits can focus on to even the scales a bit:

1. Owned Content

Owned content in the form of blog posts, podcasts, videos, webinars or wikis (a collection of pages on your website) are excellent ways of building community around your website, rather than tapping into an existing community like Facebook. Here the dichotomy shifts, as social media becomes a delivery system for your content, rather than a publishing platform in and of itself.

2. Owned Subscribers

Owned subscribers are individuals who have opted in directly to a web property that you own – most likely your website. Website visitors can subscribe a number of different ways:

  • RSS subscribers to your blog
  • Email subscribers to your blog
  • Email subscribers to your newsletter

Now that you have their contact info and an idea of what kind of content they would like to receive from you, you can communicate to them directly.

3. Donor Database

Few would argue that a donor database is a nonprofit’s greatest asset. Why? It’s your repository of contact information to anyone who has ever supported your organization. Best of all: you own it! No algorithms can get in between you and a phone call or handwritten note to a donor.

4. Mobile App

A mobile app completely removes the digital middleman and places your content onto the smartphones of supporters who have downloaded your app.

As long as you aren’t putting 100% of your social media time and energy into one network, or attempting to maintain a page one ranking on Google and ignoring all other channels, you should be alright. A diverse digital strategy can pay dividends, especially if it’s rooted in owned assets.