Social Media and the Perils of Monetization

Are profits and social media compatible? Does making money from a friendship make it less social? The path to monetization is full of perils, and inevitably changes your relationship with your audience. For B2B professionals, mixing social media and business requires a delicate balance of giving and selling, sharing and monetizing. Too much giving and you’re out of business; too much selling and you’re out of friends.

I was reminded of how tricky this balance can be last Friday when I logged onto my RSS reader. There I learned about a new experiment with monetization being tried by one of my favorite bloggers, Mark Schaefer. As I’ll explain in a moment, the way I learned about it was vaguely, if misleadingly, disappointing.

As he says in his post, Schaefer’s monetization experiment involves a couple of small but notable changes. Fed up with many shady web sites stealing his copy and, presumably, making money on it, he wants to make his own direct money from the site. For that reason, he’s now including “a modest amount” of advertising in his sidebar. In addition, he’s vowed to share any revenue from the site with four frequent guest bloggers.

To my mind, neither of these changes has any effect on the social aspects of his blog. There is one unmentioned change, though, which does: As I discovered last Friday, his RSS feeds are now short summaries instead of the full text of each post.

For those many people to whom RSS is still a mystery, the change is meaningless (if you’re one of these people and are curious, you can read about it on Wikipedia).

But for anyone who reads many blogs each day, as I do, a good RSS reader is essential, and a full-text feed of each post is vastly more efficient than a summary. With the full text in my reader, I can immediately read the entire story. I’ll often click through to the full blog if I want to make or see comments or view the original layout and graphics. But clicking through is optional.

When I have only a sentence or two from a post in my reader, however, I have to decide whether to click through to read the full story on the blog. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t—but it takes a few seconds to make the choice. For one blog, it’s a minor inconvenience; for many, it would be a disaster.

The logic behind using summary feeds is clear, if debatable. It requires readers to visit your site (and see the ads) and makes it harder for disreputable site owners to scrape your site’s content onto theirs. But for dedicated readers like me, it feels, well, ungenerous.

My first thought was that Schaefer’s switch to summary feeds was part of his monetization plan. But when I asked him about it over Twitter, he expressed surprise at the change and emphasized that it was not intentional. I’m glad to know that (although several days later, the feed is still partial-text only).

You only have to read the extensive comments on his post and his replies to see how complex monetization of social media can be, and how sensitive Schaefer is to its perils. His concern is not new. In a blog post almost exactly a year ago, “The End of the Trust Agent,” Schaefer noted how Chris Brogan had shifted his social-media approach from giving content away to taking making money from it:

Around the time of his book release last year, Chris flipped this philosophy upside down and took steps to aggressively monetize his audience.  He explained this change by saying that he had been giving stuff away for a long time and that it was time to make money.

Although Brogan thought otherwise, Schaefer’s post struck me as a thoughtful analysis rather than an attack. (A year later, though, he seems to have given up on Brogan.)

As Schaefer noted last year, the more the emphasis is on business, the harder it is to maintain the social nature of social media. Each of us has to come up with the right balance and hope that it works for both us and our followers. As Schaefer himself says, he’s experimenting with that balance now. I hope his results—or my pleas—will persuade him to err on the side of sociability and resume full RSS feeds.

UPDATE: Happily, the full-text feeds have been restored. Thank you Mr. Schaefer!

2 thoughts on “Social Media and the Perils of Monetization

  1. Thanks, as always, for extending the dialogue in such a meaningful way, John.

    I am constantly befuddled by the seemingly random problems that happen with technology and Feedburner is about the worst. I could find no cause for the shortened articles, in fact I could not even see how to do it if i WANTED it to happen! Finally my tech guy found some corrupted link in one blog post that had caused the problem — bizarre, but not unusual. To make matters worse apparently Google has pulled live technical support from Feedburner.

    Any way, I know the point of the post is monetization, which is a tricky subject. Certainly there are many wonderful benefits of blogging whether monetized or not, so we’ll see how the experiment unfolds! Thanks for your support!

  2. Well, RSS really is for a select few, I think–as you noted earlier this week, “Most people don’t even know what an RSS feed is!” So I especially appreciate the effort you put into finding and fixing the problem with the {grow} feed.

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