Are Free Tools Worth the Cost?

There’s lots of talk lately about cost-effective e-strategies for budget-challenged 2009 marketers. But the two standouts for this year often touted as free — SEO (define) and social media marketing — are anything but free. If free means the absence of a media line item on your budget, maybe you could call those approaches free. But the strategic application of organic search and social media requires time, labor, and expertise — none of which come cheap.

Lately, marketers have been forced into short-term thinking, to win much needed leads or sales and to safeguard their own jobs by showing performance — all with reduced budgets. This makes the online channel’s accountability attractive right now. Veteran marketers increasingly turn to proven digital tactics and those with little digital experience find the time is ripe as they try to stretch budgets. But as budgets continue to decline and planning timeframes are shortened to nanoseconds, the misnomer of free search and free social programs hampers the ability of marketers to appropriately plan for or obtain success.

Work With Professionals

Technically, you could execute organic search and social media for free but the DIY kit comes with a big caution. Meta-tagging and optimizing your site’s content can be done by existing IT staff, if you have it, in their downtime, and you could get your VP’s nephew to build a Facebook page and set up a Twitter account. You could also recruit someone from the local dive bar to extract an aching tooth for you, but that wouldn’t make it a good idea.

Working with experienced teams to conceive, plan, and implement programs that publicly position your brand or company seems like a prudent move. Organic search is a dynamic field best left to those who can devote the necessary time to stay on top of daily changes in vendors, tools, and competitive techniques. Done poorly it can hamper your efforts at visibility or mark you as a spammer and get you removed from important search engines. Social media requires a delicate and experienced touch to reach out to audiences and engage them in relevant conversations. Many brands have stumbled while learning the ropes here. Better to partner with someone who can spare you that pain.

Let the professionals work within your budget limits to execute plans that maximize your opportunities. They have the experience and tools to do the job and can provide reports that demonstrate the efficacy and efficiency of your efforts. But true expertise comes at a price and both SEO and social programs can be labor-intensive efforts that span many months to plan, execute, and report. Both require regular testing and tweaking to get results. An added advantage of a professional team is its ability to estimate effort levels and narrow objectives to fit the defined limitations so that everyone has the same definition of success from a program’s start.

Know Your Time Horizon

Both SEO and social programs need time to seed and nurture results. There is an element of investment in your Web site for SEO, in your audience relationships, and in learning for social programs that make both tactics better suited for longer-term evaluation. I would be concerned about marketers who want to test either tactic without a sufficient budgetary commitment to the effort and a long enough time horizon to really establish the results. If quick results are required, then neither SEO nor social fit the bill. Only paid media like PPC (define) can reliably and predictably produce a given result within a given time frame. If that’s the objective, choose the course that matches your needs.

Match Tactics and Strategies to Objectives

While the lack of confidence in the marketplace has many marketers looking for a magic digital bullet, they will find the fundamentals haven’t changed. Start by choosing an approach that meets your needs along many vectors, including required personnel or expertise, expected results, audience, competition, time frame, and budget. If your strategy is led by least cost, it will be least result.

Solid SEO and social programs are rarely, if ever, free. The appropriate staffing, technology, and time are important investments to avoid costly mistakes and build long-term equity in your site and your customer knowledge and relationships.

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