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.
load comments (7)
  • PORC

    Great article.

    In direct response to your questions. Yes, exposure outweighs pay. The opportunity to get out there and be seen by a new audience is more important long term than making a buck. I do have to pay my bills, so timing really can be the key issue there. In regards to #2. Yes, and no. Several well paying jobs have helped to catapult my career. But the reason why, is because they were for clients that already had a large platform. I used their client base to showcase my work. And that generated many other work opportunities.


  • Daniel Decker

    Great thoughts here. I think it all boils down to intent and individual strategy. I’m a marketing guy so I understand the Exposure Economy well. The pros and the cons of it. I see many go for exposure but have no idea of how to capitalize on it so they ultimately fail. See others leverage the opposite of exposure and sell exclusivity and niche. And others who properly leverage exposure and use it as a catalyst to do big things. Like most things in life, one size does not fit all and we just need to try and be smart about our approach. I always try to work backwards from the goal and then let the strategies dictate how to get there.

  • Sallomé

    I am currently leading a 90-Day challenge with women nationwide called “Be the Expert.” As every person in the workforce is witnessing the Information Age creep into their day-to-day lives and job expectations, I have been looking closely for how to articulate what you’ve just laid out. My gauge for new projects is a question: will this clearly lead to the legacy I want fulfilled? Operative word – clearly. If it’s murky, I don’t go forward. Exposure is a big factor – but not for the number of people that witness/experience it, so much as exposure to the human resources I believe will propel my career.

    In my experience the best paid ones were not the ones that forwarded my career. It was the startups and “great idea – not-so-great pay” that did. I believe that boils down to the hunger my colleagues showed, the ability to learn “on the job,” and the almost single-mindedness that those around me had.

  • stripeyhorse

    Pretty interesting post. I totally agree that doing any kind of creative work and design purely for financial gain will always lead to so-so results.
    As a relatively new graphic design company we tend to go for the smaller more creative jobs. These are the jobs that will add to our portfolio, and they will keep us interested and be fun to do.

  • Elizabeth Gallagher

    I found I could relate to this article on many level but certainly in relation to the “creation = cash” thought process.
    As the internet is my platform for marketing and exposure I find more and more websites offering free graphics and artwork in part down to the current economic climate and in part because I think this is just the way the internet is evolving with “real” overheads being low to non existent.
    This often makes me feel I have to compete with a freebie culture and it’s a battle that is lost before it begins.
    On the other side of the coin, as a company and artist, I have found many new paying customers who “obtained” copies of my work locations I am not aware of and whilst this initially used to anger and frustrate me, I realise after several years, I cannot control torrent sites or p2p sites. There will always be people who do not want to pay and will feel justified or simply ignorant to the concept of IP and Copyright.
    But by the same token, there will always be people who want to be honest and recognise the “value” in purchasing someones work as apposed to clinging to the misconception of “I paid, therefor I own”
    The commercial texture industry is not the market it was 3 or 4 years ago but providing you do not waste hours/days/weeks of your creation time trying to break a chain reaction of copyright breaches and instead focus on creating more and better content in theory this should keep you ahead of the game whilst appreciating those who chose not to be a part of the “the world owes me a freebie” culture.

  • mobilni telefoni

    Nice article

  • kieramccarthy

    my Aunty Zoe just got an almost new red Toyota Corolla from only workin on a home pc. l

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