The High Price of Free

by Ike Pigott |

An interesting confluence occurred a couple of years ago. Just as the economy was siphoning away money for advertising and marketing, a promising class of inexpensive tools was breaking out of the cutting edge and into the discussion. Blogs and tweets and posts and the like held the promise of connecting companies with their customers and their future customers, for a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising. However, along the way, someone forgot to set the expectation that “Free” comes with a lot of added costs.

If you’re on the cusp of your first foray into anything related to Social Media, pay attention and factor these costs into your budget:

free1) “Free” means instability

When you are paying for the services involved, you have a contract with certain guarantees of uptime. However, when you are building your online presence on someone else’s platform, you run the risk of their associated traffic outages. A couple of months ago, I was investigating how various businesses were using Tumblr.com to generate their own corporate news and information feed. Rather, I was trying to investigate it, when I was suddenly unable to access their servers. Neither was anyone else, for that matter, for about a day-and-a-half.

Recently, while setting up a Posterous site for a co-worker, we ran into a major outage lasting hours.

If you’re trying to enhance a service or a campaign, you might be able to survive on free providers. But you are at their mercy.

2) “Free” means no support

Facebook, Google and Twitter support more than a billion accounts among them. How many people are in their Support departments? Are you ready to spend all of your time going through self-help and FAQs and user forums to find answers to your questions? Be prepared to find a small community of people who would be willing to help, if only they knew anything themselves.

Now, there are aspects of that connectivity that you can’t replicate anywhere else. If you’re going to be on Twitter and Facebook, then you’re on their platform because they own all the connections. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get great response times for your issues.

3) “Free” means you’re volunteering your labor

Sure, there’s no set-up fee and no hosting fee and no ongoing maintenance fee… but these social networks don’t populate themselves. More importantly, they don’t spend the time to research and discover the content you ought to be connecting to your customers. Most importantly, they don’t know a thing about your strategy, your needs, or your goals.

You obviously do know what all of those things are, and it makes sense that you would be involved in representing your organization online. But unless you’re willing to write off all your activity as pro bono, then there is a cost involved.

4) “Free” means vanilla

Vanilla is a fine flavor, and it goes with almost everything. Unfortunately, it also goes with everything else.

Prepare to spend a lot of time in figuring out how to make your social media destination look like everything else you own online – or be prepared to pay someone to do that for you. If you cut corners, you dilute your branding, and that isn’t getting you anywhere.

5) “Free” means starting from scratch

This may be the most important. It makes no sense to be in social media for your business or organization if you’re unwilling to put some advertising support behind it.

Let me repeat that.

It makes no sense to be in social media for your business if you’re unwilling to put some advertising support behind it.

Every Facebook page starts with zero fans – every Twitter account starts with zero Followers (and the ones you can buy are worthless to you) – and every blog starts with zero subscribers and no organic traffic.

If you don’t tell anyone you are out there, they will not find you quickly enough to matter.

The biggest mistake in “doing social” and the number one reason social media underwhelms is that there’s no support for it. It’s as though companies buy into the Myth of Free, and ignore the need for any promotion of how they are communicating. If you’re going to be on Twitter and Facebook, let’s see the logos on your site, and on your ads, and on your billboards, and on your email signature, and on your letterhead…

Calculating the cost of “Free”

Now we’re actually in a better position, because once you’ve eliminated all those false zeroes out of the equation, we can calculate just how much return on investment you will see from participating in Social Media.

The best way to think about this is compared to the cost of your current website:

  1. How much did you pay for pre-design research?
  2. How much did you pay for design?
  3. How much did you pay for usability studies?
  4. How much do you pay for hosting?
  5. How much do you pay for analytics/measurement/site-tracking?
  6. How much do you pay for integration with marketing resources and mail lists?
  7. How much do you pay for search engine optimization?
  8. How much do you pay to generate new content and update your site?

Now, look at those costs, and think about your social media outlets as microsites with much smaller costs. The platforms already exist, and they do many of those things on the list for you (specifically #s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7). Yes, there is skinning and additional content to deal with, but you’re not starting from scratch.

If you wanted to build a microsite that would attract 100,000 visitors in 90 days, how much would you spend on that page? Now, could you attract an analogous number of desired eyeballs to similar content through social media? For less?

Often, the answer is yes. Even better, the answer becomes “Why not do both?”

The Hidden Cost of “Free”

That’s the real secret of social media marketing: it’s not free and it’s never been. What it does is give you additional tools to use to achieve your outcome.


About the Author

Ike Pigott

In his previous life, Ike Pigott was an Emmy-winning TV reporter, who turned his insider's knowledge of the news cycle into a crisis communications consultancy. At the American Red Cross, serving as Communication and Government Relations Director for five southeastern states, Ike pioneered the use of social media in disaster. Now -- by day -- he is a communications strategist for Alabama Power and a Social Media Apologist; by night, he lurks at Occam's RazR, where he writes about the overlaps and absurdities in communications, technology, journalism and society. Find out how you can connect with Ike or follow him on Twitter at @ikepigott. He also recently won the coveted "Social Media Explorer contributing writer with the longest Bio" award.