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Social Media Is Not Free: Here's Why

  |  August 25, 2010   |  Comments

Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare are free. TweetDeck is (still) free. So, social media is free, right? Wrong.

Twitter is free. Facebook is free. Foursquare is free. TweetDeck is (still) free. Google Alerts is free. So, social media is free, right? Wrong. Beyond even the obvious costs - designing and building a Foursquare application, or stepping up to a fee-based listening platform like Alterian, Collective Intellect, Cymfony, BuzzMetrics, or Lithium's Scout Labs, social media is far from free.

In fact, social media-based marketing costs real money. While it may not be millions of dollars for 30 seconds of air time, making sense of the social Web and really getting it right takes planning, creative insight, product management, and other internal resources, all of which have costs associated with them that you may not see at the outset.

One of the mistakes often made when contemplating the addition of social media to an existing marketing program is failing to account for the significant amounts of time that are required by a social media program. For example, if your CEO begins blogging on a regular basis, what's the cost of that person's time? If your marketing communications team finds itself staring at 10,000 unfiltered listening results, whose profit and loss gets hit for the hours associated with sorting them out? Finally, if Facebook and Twitter are available to employees during work (and for the record, I think they should be), where does this time get accounted for?

To be sure, social media-based marketing and product development programs can be incredibly beneficial. Insights gained often lead to real innovation, and frank conversations with customers can be eye openers that lead to beneficial change. Taking the time to track applicable KPIs (key performance indicators) or, where appropriate, to assess ROI (for example, through call center expenses avoided as a result of a support forum implementation) are important in their own right. But getting back to the core thought here, all of this again adds up to the reality that social media is not free.

What are the real costs of social media? Start with the opportunity cost to the business or organization, as a result of employees or staff listening, analyzing, participating, collaborating, and in general doing exactly what they should be doing to ensure a successful social media implementation.

More so than many other marketing activities - which benefit from years of standards, best practices, and relatively clear separations between work and personal use, social media and its use in business is still a newcomer. Adding to this, there is essentially no separation between "personal" and "work," since by definition social media revolves around connected profiles (aka "people") rather than a specific location or context (work vs. play). As a result, the level of maturity in processes and tools and understanding is only beginning to ramp up to where it needs to be, outside of the handful of technology firms, brands, and industry thought leaders that have put in the time to really understand social media and its use in business.

I was asked to write the closing chapter of Mitch Meyerson's "Success Secrets of Social Media Marketing Superstars." I looked at what makes people like Mari Smith, Gary Vaynerchuk, Brian Clark, Ann Handley, and Keith Ferrazzi successful, and boiled it down to a handful of best practices that would serve well any organization considering a social media program. Here are some of the highlights. Unlike larger firms that can often spread the work required for a successful media program across a team, in a small business that team is often one person. And, that person already has a full time job! Managing time, and getting work done, is a task in itself; a task that is complicated by the onrush of social media.

For starters, plan for - and by so doing, account for - the time required to listen, post, respond, and manage a social media program. Creating a Twitter presence, for example, is easy: participating, responding, and building that presence into a brand asset is the real work. Don't shy away from social media out of fear of being swamped: instead, plan for it, and set daily limits that balance social media marketing activities with other duties.

Likewise, take care not to "socialize" personally while on the job: many organization's Facebook business pages are associated with an administrator's personal Facebook page. Why is this a potential problem? Because in order to do the work you need to do, you have to navigate dangerously close to your own personal activities. Take care not to mix the two: the easiest way to blow your work-related time budget is to get wrapped into a conversation about last weekend's off-work party. Facebook may not fully separate personal and business activities, but that doesn't mean you can't. Word to the wise.

Finally, spread the work. Even if you're a one-person media and communications department, you still have a team around you, and that team plays a role in the conversations you discover by listening. Got a complaint or accolade due to a customer service interaction? Show the customer service manager how Twitter works, and put the responsibility of creating a genuine, thoughtful response where it belongs. Build a cross-functional team, even if it's only a handful of other people. Your customers will love hearing directly from other managers, engineers, and company founders. Invest in listening tools that support automated work flow so that conversations are routed to the people most able to effectively respond.

Finally, if you undertake a social media program, make your participation a regular part of your day. If you prioritize it behind "everything else," you'll never get to it. Not only will that create a mountain of work that you'll all the more avoid, you'll also miss out on the best part of incorporating social media-based marketing practices into your business: social media builds businesses. Be a part of it.


Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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