No, I’m not talking about housing. I know all sorts of things about all sorts of things, but housing isn’t one of them. I’m talking about your digital "presence." That’s right — this column is about whether you’re really owning it or whether you’re renting it.

Digital presence

For years, the phrase "Web presence" has been a fancy way of saying, "Your website, bozo." It sounds so much better, so much more important. Also, it’s way easier to charge a lot of money crafting a Web presence than it is to build a website.

But sooner or later, the realization hits that to have a "presence" you have to be present. Digital is so rarely a set-it-and-forget-it medium. It’s changing all the time — not just in terms of products and networks, but in terms of raw capabilities: the people using the stuff and what they’re doing with it.

The rise of digital social networking and the media sites that use social networks to distribute content have really highlighted this idea. Without being present there isn’t much you can gain from these tools. They are built for people to interact in real time.

Sure, there are ways to automate a bunch of these things. You can probably automate your personal relationships, too, but chances are they won’t benefit from it. The relationships and value come from actual presence — from "being there."

Should you rent your digital presence?

A current trend in many small businesses or other organizations that are more focused on tactics than strategy is to, in effect, rent a digital presence.

This isn’t necessarily bad or evil or immoral. It just means that, for whatever reason, the organization can’t spare the time to be present in the digital realm. As long as whatever the organization is doing works, who cares?

For example, I have a customer who gets the vast majority of his business through relationships he’s formed in the service clubs to which he belongs. I don’t want him to miss a meeting because he’s hanging out on Facebook or writing a blog post.

For other people, it could be that previous experience or decisions have pretty much closed down the opportunity to really own their own digital presence.

Maybe they’re in a bad relationship with a Web vendor. Maybe their internal information technology/Web department always has a good reason for why nothing can ever change on the website. Maybe it’s the legal department. Maybe it’s the marketing department.

In these situations, it’s common to see digital-presence rental occurring. Can’t make a change to the website? Just post on Facebook instead! Can’t get a blog installed on your own domain? Use a WordPress domain! No time to actually do anything with online social network sites? Hire someone else to manage it!

The thing to be wary of, when it comes to renting a digital presence, is that your digital presence may evaporate as soon as you stop renting. Or your digital presence may evaporate if conditions change faster than you can comprehend.

Here’s an example: Imagine turning back time to 2005, and renting a digital presence on the powerhouse social network: MySpace.

Renting is awesome because you don’t have to learn how to create themes. It’s also awesome because you don’t have time to connect with people or leave comments on their pages, and so on. You set up your profile, you pay a fee to someone to manage it, and you’re done. Instant presence.

Now fast-forward to 2007. MySpace is effectively toast. The "audience" you built up on MySpace isn’t going to follow you anywhere because they aren’t your audience. They were MySpace’s audience. They weren’t there for you; they were there for their own needs. It was just a rental. It was nice for a time, and now that time’s done.

Facebook and Twitter, of course, won’t have that sort of thing happen. Just like Friendster didn’t. Just like SixDegrees didn’t. Or IRC chat channels. Or AOL. Or GeoCities. Or LiveJournal.

The point here isn’t to prophesize a digital social cataclysm. It’s to point out a key facet of renting a digital presence: If your "audience" won’t follow you to a new a platform or mode of digital (or real-world) communication, then they aren’t your audience.

In this case, you are just the digital side show they may enjoy on their way to the main event.

The corollary here is this: That might be just fine. Different businesses will have different needs from their digital presence.

Owning your digital presence

To really own a digital presence, your audience really has to be your audience. This means that they will seek you out on whatever the social site of the week is. It means that if a particular system or vendor or site or assistant goes away, your audience will still be there for you.

And probably the best way to ensure that is to be there for them.

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