The social media “industry” is built on the back of people doing “stuff” for free. The business models of most social networks — Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Flickr, YouTube etc. etc. — depend on consumers using the free/”freemium” services and thereby creating both the free content that attracts and retains users, and more importantly, a mine-able database. People. Topics. Linkages (who are your friends, what do you like, where do you go). Marketing gold. And the companies are reaping the benefits of our “work” in potentially ginormous valuations, as discussed in this Businessweek article.
You could argue that posting on Facebook or sending a tweet isn’t work per se. We, the users, are getting something in exchange for our activity — the use of the network to accomplish a personal objective. The question is whether the value is balanced — are we getting enough from our participation in exchange for the value we are helping these companies build?
Honestly, that’s a question that each person must answer for themselves. Participating on Facebook DOES mean that you are surrendering some of your personal privacy, and a great deal of personal information that is going to be aggregated, analyzed, mined and sold. Every Facebook item you post, link or share is going to earn money for Facebook and its investors somehow. Maybe ad revenue. Maybe data mining revenue. But certainly revenue. Facebook is a business, not a public service.
Is it worth it to you? If yes, play away. If not, don’t.
And of course, you can figure out ways to monetize YOUR participation in the networks. Use them to promote your business. Or yourself. It’s all about extracting the value you require from your participation.
The other “work for free” model prevalent in the social media space is influencer relations, which owes its structure to the earned media model inherited from public relations. I’ve written about this before — Is earned media an anachronism?
In a nutshell, the idea is that companies and brands can have such compelling stories that consumers will write about them, share them on their social networks, for free, without compensation. And you know, sometimes that’s true.
Sometimes a product is so compelling that we are happy to harness our word of mouth for no other reason than we love the product. Perhaps Apple products are the only ones that can generate widespread mass word of mouth at the mere whisper of a new version, but we all have things we love that we’re happy to share just because we love them.
I’ll use myself as an example. Recently I bought a SpotBot Pet, a little spot carpet cleaner from Bissell that I first learned about at the BlogPaws conference. It is TERRIFIC, and eventually I will get around to posting a review on my personal blog.
But… products we are intrinsically passionate about are few and far between. Certainly far fewer than the number of firms reaching out to bloggers asking them to work for free on behalf of the brand. To write about a new product. Or attend an event and tweet it up. And so on.
So here’s where I draw the line. If it is work — if you are asked to do a specific thing in a specific fashion or to a deadline — you should be compensated for your time and expertise. Because if you are not paid for your work, it is volunteer work, and if you are going to volunteer for something, it should be something that you care about personally and passionately. I’m pretty sure cereal and motor oil don’t qualify. At least for most of us.
Is a free product adequate compensation? In my opinion, it all depends on what you are being asked to do. Try the product and participate in a short survey? Or leave a comment on a Facebook page? Probably yes. Try the product and write a 500 word blog review? Unless it is use of a car for a year or some other equally large “in kind,” probably not. It’s your call, but remember that the FTC and the IRS do not distinguish between cash and “in kind” compensation. You get a free product, you must disclose, and if you get enough of them, you probably should be reporting the “income” on your taxes. Disclaimer: not a lawyer, not an accountant, consult yours if you have questions about your legal obligations, especially for taxes, which unlike the FTC guidelines, DO have defined penalties for getting it wrong.
So, if you are working in exchange for free product, whatever it is, best to make sure it is something you actually want. Because you may have to pay taxes on it. If it is not something you need or want, cashy money probably would be more useful.
A final point on working for free. I am not saying you shouldn’t volunteer your time, skills or blog content to causes — or even brands — that you care about and want to support. Everyone has to make their own decision on that score. However, if you do work for free, if you give it away, don’t expect the recipient to turn around in future and say, wow, you are so great I should be paying you. Volunteering in the hopes of a paying gig is a losing proposition. It is VERY unlikely to happen.
So when someone asks if they could just pick your brain, or could you just post about this thing on this day and include the following three points, or whatever, understand that you have just created a non-paying customer. And no one can afford too many of those.
Finallly, there’s a fine distinction that I don’t want you to miss. Doing something of your own volition — whether writing a blog, sharing a link or posting on Facebook — is very different than working to someone else’s specifications or timeline. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference when the email box is overflowing with “opportunities.” All I can advise is to consider the value to both parties in the exchange. If it is an even exchange of value, if you are getting what you need to make it worth it (whether cash, products, connections or feeling good about helping out) and so is the other party, go for it.
If not, you may just want to say no.
Disclosure: I work for BlogHer. We pay the bloggers who write for us.