Social Media Marketing: Free Or Not Free?

Social media is free. This is commonly accepted. I have personal accounts with all the usual suspects: Facebook, Twitter (three different handles), LinkedIn, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, Letterboxd—plus a few other niche platforms—and I’ve yet to spend a cent on any of them. I also work with many clients to establish or nurture social media presences for their businesses. Establishing accounts for these businesses was also free. But this is where the free-ness of social media, and social media marketing, becomes a bit more complicated, and even a misnomer.

It turns out that having social media is not synonymous with doing social media well.

Business owners who have taken the initial step of creating various accounts with an eye for brand consistency deserve credit for doing so, but to drop the ball at that point would be unfortunate. Presence does not maintain itself, and while content has its own unique half-life on each platform, no platform is designed to benefit an account that lies idle.

If you use Facebook, you’ll notice that some people are always popping up in your feed. This is how you can spot someone who posts content frequently. The more often you see their posts in a general news feed, the more they are posting. Within the “Facebook universe,” these folks have top-notch search-engine optimization (or in this case, feed-optimization). Posting frequently helps to keep ahead of the always-decaying vitality of your posts. Posting frequently also requires time spent. Whose time? That’s the question.

From Social Media to Social Media Marketing

Okay, let’s take a step back so we can take two forward.

So, you’re a business owner. You have the good sense to know that social media is important, and you have an account for each platform relevant to your brand. You’ve also established that you need X number of posts per week to guarantee an acceptable level of exposure. Even though it was painful, you’ve come up with a plan for who will be making these posts and when. These are all good things, but they are still not the only things. You must also be concerned about your content.

Even with the right social media accounts, and the proper number of posts per week, per account, your social media plan will not be bulletproof. Let us even take for granted that you have your brand voice down pat, and know the kind of language/images/video clips that work best for your audience. Any good businessperson should be able to articulate the importance of such things. Many business owners probably had their message down before they owned a business.

But there’s another element of rocking a killer social media presence that can sometimes fly in the face of good business sense. Striking an appropriate balance between reader content and promotional content is yet another obstacle that trips up some campaigns. In print media, this issue is thought of in terms of editorial versus ad content. If you have a magazine that is nothing but advertisements, then readers have no incentive to read your magazine. A balance must be struck between delivering your sales message and providing your audience something engaging and with no strings attached. I like the magazine analogy, but you can choose your own cliché here (“you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” et al.).

Take it from someone who does client work for a marketing agency, and who also spends an inordinate amount of personal time on certain social platforms (while neglecting others), that it takes time and organization to do social media well. Sure, there’s no real risk involved if you’re just hobbying, but in business, social media works best when the business’s vision extends into social media marketing. It really ought to be fully integrated into the rest of the business.

social media marketing quote

Therein lies the rub: a free service that grants businesses unprecedented access to consumers, and yet, one that demands a level of attention and dedication that doesn’t come cheap. Chances are, if you’re a business owner who’s taken the plunge into social media, you’ve come to realize the not-so-free-ness of social media. Whether it’s spending your own time, someone else’s time, or spending actual hard currency to use in-platform advertising tools, the cost of social media begins to reveal itself.

Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

Why am I taking time out of my day to write about certain grim realities of using social media for business? In my zeal for dispelling the urban legend of “free” anything, I recognize that I have been at least partly responsible for perpetuating it in the past. It’s so easy to get caught up in the immediacy of basic, free social media use, which brings me to my next reason for writing: social media is such an amazing tool that, free or not, it remains essential. Any sensible business plan written today has to account for social possibilities, but it needs to be conceived as a full-fledged part of the business rather than something done just for fun. So allow me to amend a past statement: Knowing you need social media for your business is no longer enough; you must build social media marketing into your budget.

Time is money, people.

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