Is “digital sharecropping” posing a big risk to your affiliate marketing business?

Digital sharecropping, a term invented by Nicholas Carr, refers to the Web 2.0 phenomenon of building content and subscribers on a third party platform such as Facebook or Twitter. The inherent risk is that, if this “landowner” shuts down or raises “rent,” you as the “sharecropper” are out of luck. In fact, this has already been the case with Facebook Pages: Businesses that want their posts to be seen by all their fans must pay money to promote those posts, even if they already paid money to get fans in the first place.

Are affiliate marketers really digital sharecroppers?

Affiliate marketers might smugly think that they are immune from this issue because the websites and email subscriber lists that they built are planted solely on their own digital property. They don’t need to pay money to access their fans or followers. And they might even be good friends with the person whose product(s) they market.

However, what they often fail to account for is the affiliate item itself. That item, though reviewed, promoted and blogged about by the affiliate marketer, is not actually owned by the affiliate marketer. No, that item is merely being cross-promoted through an affiliate network like Clickbank or Amazon. And should the product’s manufacturer discontinue that product or its promotion via affiliate networks, the affiliate is out of luck.

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Much like the business that has generated 6,000 likes on Facebook and can now reach only 100 of its fans, an affiliate marketer faces incredible risk if she relies too heavily on the product or promotional platform. This is especially true if her entire website or family of websites is focused solely on one product or niche- and maybe even carries the name of that product in the URL.

Does that mean that affiliate marketing is flawed and should be abandoned? No. What it means is that an affiliate marketer must remain vigilant regarding products over which he does not have complete control. And by remaining vigilant, the affiliate marketer should take the following cautionary steps:

1. Create and maintain a “detachable” website.

Affiliate websites that are too closely tied in with their affiliate product take the risk of “going down with the ship” if that affiliate product ceases to exist or is removed from the affiliate marketing networks. To reduce risk, it is best if a website focus on a niche field rather than product. For example, a website devoted to fly fishing techniques versus a specific trademarked line of fishing lures is a good start.

Alternately, specific affiliate products and/or programs can be relegated to their own designated tabs/pages. That way, if the product/program comes to an end, all that is required is the removal of the offending tabs or pages. Once these items are gone, new products or programs can be inserted to take their place.

2. Create a product or program. 

No, it’s not exactly affiliate marketing, but why should an affiliate focus solely on only promoting the products/programs of others? Can’t there be a balance between earning some quick cash via already existing items and launching and promoting something new?

Generating something new is an adventure in itself and can really open one’s eyes to product management and marketing. Likewise, when an affiliate owns her own product, she can peruse affiliate networks and set her own commissions…and, if need be, pull or discontinue that product at some future point in time.

3. Promote subscription-based services.

When there is recurring income month-to-month or year-to-year, a product manufacturer will be loathe to retire his “cash cows.” Overall, a subscription-based product, such as software or an online forum, is going to remain more stable over time because the product owner has to stay involved with updates, upgrades or just general community business.

As a result, the affiliate is more likely to be in the loop about new developments. The affiliate might even get to participate in product improvements or help operate the subscription-based service. Such activities inevitably lead to additional income-generating opportunities.

4. Focus on producing value.

The affiliate may never have his own product to market, but that’s OK because he can create something else entirely: a website that contains lots of quality content and is valuable in its own right. Pillar articles, enticing sales pages and email subscriber lists are commodities too- and can be sold as part of the asset package known as the website.

Even if there is no desire to sell the website, having valuable content helps increase site traffic and comments as well as customer engagement. And of course, when well executed, good content helps generate conversions and sales.

Who’s afraid of digital sharecropping?

It might be argued that SEO is a form of digital sharecropping. Guest blogging is too. So, while it’s impossible to abandon all sharecropping attempts, there are ways to mitigate the risks. By doing so, affiliates stand to gain additional traction (i.e., income) in their marketing campaigns.

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