How to Navigate the “Exposure Economy”

As the web slowly breaks down accepted transactional structures, it is also redefining our means of financial compensation. Particularly for people in the creative fields, payment is increasingly generated indirectly. A music artist whose album is illegally downloaded eventually gets noticed by a music supervisor who pays them to write the theme song to a TV program; a marketing strategist publishes his analysis on a regularly updated blog, develops a readership that follows his thoughts, and is later hired by an agency.

In the digital age, our unpaid intellectual contributions to cyberspace put us all in the business of lead generation. We are ultimately casting our insights and ideas as fishermen cast their baited lines into a dark and deep sea. We are fishing for opportunities, unsure of exactly what we might catch, but cautiously optimistic nonetheless.

The new system that’s arising looks something like this: free work filters out on the web, garners favorable exposure, which in turn leads to some form of (delayed) financial reward. This is both frustrating and exciting. It means that there is no defined path to success, but also allows for your genuine interests, experiments, and ideas to yield meaningful opportunities.

Like any fundamental shifts in business and behavior, we must proceed cautiously. Here are some insights to consider in the exposure economy:

1. Be long-term greedy.

More often than not, the projects that offer the most immediate (and direct) financial reward are the least likely to teach us anything or to get noticed. Conversely, the projects where we are able to learn something or invent something that’s truly original – that allow a company to take it to the next level – frequently offer little or no immediate financial return. In the long run, the latter approach yields both knowledge and the possibility of financial gain.

We are ultimately casting our insights and ideas as fishermen cast their baited lines into a dark and deep sea.

If you share your knowledge and engage in projects with the intent to learn and expand your expertise, you will profit in more ways than one. Certainly we all have immediate financial obligations and ambitions, but the ability to take the long view is critical in an economy where your intellectual contributions generate future opportunities.

2. Harness the power of tried-and-true platforms.

As you start sharing your nuggets of wisdom, your photo portfolio, or your product designs, you might be tempted to do it exclusively on your own website. After all, you will want to control the brand and “own” the platform you use to cast your ideas. While you should certainly keep a record of your work online for those searching specifically for you, it’s also good to “put yourself in harm’s way,” allowing the uninitiated to uncover your great work as well.

If you share your knowledge and engage in projects with the intent to learn and expand your expertise, you will profit in more ways than one.

You may find that you can reach a broader audience by utilizing an existing platform to promote your work. It takes time to build an audience, not to mention building an understanding of how to effectively spread content and keep visitors engaged. To take this website as an example, 99U often features “guest posts” from a variety of talented bloggers: While these writers also possess their own platforms and audiences, they can garner new leads for their books, consulting businesses, and so forth by sharing their ideas with a new (and relevant) audience via the 99U.

3. Develop “exposure criteria” for gauging the value of new projects.

In the creative industries, low-to-no budget projects that promise great opportunity and exposure are a frequent occurrence. Sometimes such projects can be a boon, allowing us to earn valuable experience and/or a foothold in a new industry. At other times, they can be an absolute waste of time and energy.

The takeaway here is that we must develop alternative ways to gauge the creative projects we undertake – beyond using money as our only yardstick. If cash is our only criterion, it’s likely to result in a constant stream of so-so work. We must weigh financial considerations alongside of questions such as “Will we learn something?” and “Is this going to be a great portfolio piece?” and “Is the project likely to garner exposure?”

Occasionally, we must leave our comfort zones to catapult our careers forward. Of course, as we do so, we must be very keen about managing our risk. Like it or not, the Internet is breeding a new ecosystem, one that requires us to think not only commercially, but creatively.

What’s Your Experience?

How do you gauge which projects to take on? Is “exposure” a key factor?

Were the projects that catapulted your career forward the best paid ones?

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.
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