Social Media Is Free: Social Media Marketing Is Not

I’ve heard this constantly from self-professed social media marketing “gurus”: social media is free! You should take advantage of it to promote your company! Why drop mail when you could market without spending a dime?

It’s seductive thinking, of course. With budget scrutiny perpetually on the rise, it’s natural to want to curtail expenses, especially if there is no net effect on the returns you could generate. The urge to fire your PR agency, stop dealing with direct response rates and just tweet like crazy can be difficult resist … but don’t do anything hasty. Like other forms of marketing, social media really does come with a cost. So, the issue becomes typical of all forms of marketing: how do you generate a return?

Many of the costs associated with social media marketing are not immediately evident. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms are free, as is widely known. There’s no cost to register, pop up a profile photo and let the world know what you think. Blogging can be virtually free, as well, if you use a hosted service such as WordPress.com or Blogger. There may be some mall design costs – for themes and backgrounds, for example – but companies with in-house designers won’t notice the costs, and even external design expenses tend to be manageable. The explicit costs, therefore, aren’t intimidating. Rather, it’s people that generate the expense.

The primary issue is content: you need to be able to publish blog posts, tweets and status updates. Depending on the nature of your organization, content development may require the collaborative efforts of a writer and internal subject matter experts. On top of that, there’s likely to be an internal approval process. With all these people involved, editorial planning enters the equation. Producing and publishing content is time-consuming.

In addition to content development, you need to think about content promotion – i.e., getting people know about and read your content. There can be public relations efforts, search engine optimization and community development and management involved. This involves more people, more time and more expense. Your company may not need to write additional checks, but decisions about how to direct your employees have to be made, and there can be times when additional hires become necessary.

As with any marketing activity, measurement is necessary – otherwise, you’ll never gauge the true impact of your efforts. Google Analytics, Facebook Insights and time with the likes of bit.ly and Topsy, though free, require someone to look at them, crunch the numbers and draw conclusions. And, all of this has to be integrated into your broader marketing strategy.

So, is social media marketing really free? Well, anyone who’s made a serious effort to do it knows that there are expenses all over the place. Don’t take this as a reason not to hit the social media world to market your company, though. There are still large concentrations of people available, and the tools afforded by these platforms can make targeting relatively easy.

When you start putting together your social media marketing initiative, take a realistic look at the hard- and soft-dollar expenses involved. Identify the results you’ll need to generate a sufficient return on your marketing investment. Quite frankly, you need to engage in the same marketing discipline you would exercise in other activities, such as direct mail, telemarketing and advertising.

Social media marketing doesn’t have to be free to be effective: it just has to be well-planned.

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