‘Free’ Is a Fighting Word: Battling the Perception of Social Media as Free

‘Free’ may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, it’s become something of an obstacle.

Sixty-five percent of businesses cite “free” as the single largest barrier to social media success – a larger barrier than other common obstacles such as responding to unhappy customers on social media, or developing the right expertise in house.

“Social media IS free if your only exposure to it is the kids’ opening up a new Facebook page,” says Mark Schaefer, an author, professor and consultant, who once studied under Peter Drucker.

Time is often cited as the key social media constraint because it is a finite resource and can be easily squandered by dabbling in many new tools while being productive with few.  Schaefer argues that using social media for marketing is in fact quite challenging and requires considerable commitment.

Where the perception of ‘free’ comes from

John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, points to technology as the catalyst for the perception of free.    He believes that it comes in part from the notion that many tools are available at no cost. He also points out this is not a new or unique problem.

“This is a perception that pervades small business in many areas,” said Jantsch.   “Email is free, networking is free, cold calling is free; of course, nothing is free when you measure the time cost involved.

Elena Verlee says some social media consultants use “free” as a sales pitch – it is a way “to get in the door to consult.”  Verlee who founded her own PR firm and pens the popular blog PR In Your Pajamas, adds “The true cost becomes evident when you need to invest heavily in the resources you’ll need to effectively run those pages, blogs and convert prospects.”

Is this perception really a problem?

According to the same survey, thirty-six percent of mid-market businesses pay for their social media tools.  Many businesses use three different tools, spending a median of $845 per month.   Another thirty-six percent, however, say they use free tools – so what’s the big deal? Is the ‘free’ perception really that big a problem?

Jantsch calls it a “huge problem” because it often predicates confusion and misuse of social media tools.  Verlee says the “problem lies in expectations,” which is a sentiment Schaefer echoes, especially with small- and medium-sized businesses.

“They have been conditioned to pay an ad agency to create some ads, then step back and wait to see what happens,” says Schaefer of SMBs.  “The funding and resource model are very different now. The timeframes are different. Customers’ expectations are different. If this isn’t clearly understood by company leaders there is going to be a lot of frustration out there.”

How to overcome the barrier of ‘free’

One easily-overlooked  approach is to call it like it is and explain that social media is not free.

In a compelling presentation on social media in the corporate trenches, Rachel Metscher parried questions about ROI by pointing out there has  be an investment before you can earn a return on investment.  And investments usually require a strategy.

“Strategy is a great medicine,” says Jantsch.  He explains that today’s markets demand that organizations are social, and that organizations which build social interaction into the fabric of their business have an competitive advantage.

However, that advantage doesn’t come easily. It requires a completely different way of thinking about business and how social media is integrated across various business functions.

“Social media isn’t a marketing function. It’s a leadership function and must be baked into the culture,” adds Jantsch.   “When we continue to view it (social media) as free, we continue to value its importance as such.”

Photo credit:  Flickr.

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