Social Media? Do It For The Free Advertising!

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The past couple of months have been interesting. The conversations around the ROI in Social Media have increased. Understandably.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been caught in the middle of a debate discussing the value of Social Media within the organization or a debate about the value of Social Media in terms of building a brand. My default position on Social Media ROI is based on something I’ve heard Richard Binhammer over at Dell say on countless occasions. Binhammer believes that ROI is both an accounting term and something that needs to look at every aspect of the business (and not just one department). His preference (and mine too!) is to look at corporate business objectives and figure out from there if there is a way for Social Media (or any other Digital Marketing platform) to help the business achieve those goals.

My personal experience tells me that there is always some kind of way to make it work.

As pragmatic as that may sound to you (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this Blog… or any Blog… you’re already a believer), I’ve often been confronted with senior executives who think the ultimate value of doing anything in Social Media is the free advertising. Now, before you go snorting whatever beverage is in your hand right now all over the screen you’re looking at, it’s a sound argument. The logic is that as long as a brand is being mentioned anywhere and everywhere (and that the brand is not paying for it), than it’s as good as free advertising. And yes, we’re making a general assumption that what is being said is both positive or neutral (and not negative).


Pushing that further, if a brand wants to do their own thing, and not just sit back and let their consumers talk them up for free in Social Media channels, it’s also free and simple to do it on their own. Afterall, how much does it cost to set-up a Facebook page? Free! How much does it cost to tweet? Free! How much does it cost to post a video to YouTube? Free!

Get the picture?

They’re not wrong… and that’s why they’re doing it. It’s free, fast and easy (plus, if you’re not serious about the channels, it doesn’t take much time, cost or energy to get an intern or entry-level person to do the manual labor). In my first book, Six Pixels of Separation, I had a section titled, In Praise of Slow. The point of it? Slow simply means that long-term results take time. Building relationships where people actually talk positively about you take time. Building trust, credibility and alliances takes a whole lot of time. The only shortcut and the only free lunch is if you use these channels as a repository for everything you’re doing within the broadcast media channels (and hey, if that works for you and people care about that type of engagement, more power to you). If you’re starting a Blog and you pre-load posts with made-up questions, or semi-edited snippets of old press releases, you’re not really adding much value, and you are not speeding up the process for you to become successful (because it’s not authentic and valuable). In fact, you are probably slowing it down – it will take you even longer to correct course and build the right conversation.

If the only corporate imperative is to do this for the free advertising, something tells me that Social Media will, undoubtedly, let you down. Hard.


  1. Hey Mitch –
    Another great post, as always – thanks for sharing! I completely agree that there is a certain “free-ness” to the world of social media, which is great for business. But I hesitate in stating that it is completely free – even if there is a low cost to entry based on the small time investment for an intern or entry-level employee to support, we have to remember a couple of things:
    1/ Not everyone knows digital like those of us who live and breathe online. They may want to, but aren’t quite sure how… so they research, they learn, they attend conferences (or unconferences…), seminars, webinars, etc… The cost of their time to do this research and the cost of entry to any of those “learning components” needs to be considered as a cost of entry.
    2/ We all know that success in social media (I’m not saying ROI, I’m saying success) revolves around frequency, consistency and value. This requires more than the entry-level person to post a video. This requires either a full-time position or someone who’s mandate is very clearly and deliberately linked to the success of the social media activity… There is a cost to keep it up!
    Now, the question of ROI comes back… if you’re going to invest this time into social media, and I agree with you: you should, what are the real metrics you want to measure which make the equation valuable to you.
    My personal opinion: building a community of brand ambassadors is priceless!

  2. Mitch,
    The idea that social media equals free advertising is a valid idea that I have seen applied in multiple organizations, especially nonprofits. In the cash-strapped atmosphere, the ability to spread one’s name and message without spending money appears ideal.
    You illustrate a strong stumbling block in your statement “building trust, credibility and alliances takes a whole lot of time.” Thus free advertising but time cost result in my question “how do you determine the break even point?”
    Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

  3. Mitch,
    Too true. It’s unfortunate that the call of “free advertising” seems to be what draws so many businesses, especially small businesses to the medium. But it’s there that they find that the part of SM where the real work is, developing the relationships. And they just can’t maintain. Well, bad and good at the same time. Good for those of us who do see the true potential the medium has to completely reshape most industries.

  4. Mitch,
    Your take on Social Media ROI is bang on. While I agree that companies engaging consumers via social networks offers “free advertising” in that it’s free to setup profiles and begin the process, all too often companies miss a critical factor in achieving success in social media, they fail to consider the ‘social factor’.
    By assigning community management to interns and/or entry-level employees without first assessing their natural social abilities and often providing them with little or no guidance as to how to represent their brand in the Social Web, they are setting themselves on a collision course with failure (dramatic I know, but I couldn’t resist).
    As SMM and the Social Web continues to evolve at the speed of light the one true constant is the social factor. There are individuals who are genuinely empathetic and intuitively know how to engage diverse sects of personalities successfully, who cultivate a natural rapport that yielding trust with each successive exchange. There individuals who possess these natural talents are rare and valuable to the brands they represent for they achieve far more in less time than those who simply dive-in without a clue. They are also far less likely to cause damage via ignorance.
    Thanks for all your great work!

  5. Agreed. Social media should not be thought of as just another channel. It then continues the tradition of shouting at customers, when it better works as a channel for conversation and building relationships with one’s consumers.

  6. Of course I am a believer in the value of social media, but the “free” ends pretty soon, exactly when you have to dedicate people to your social media efforts. Unless they can squeeze it between their assigned tasks, or an executive takes charge of it in his, so to say, “spare time”, you’ll have to spend money to train and maintain people on it, so I wonder, when do you draw the line?

  7. Sure it may be free to sign up for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but it takes a lot of time and effort to make having an account worth anything. If nobody sees your page, does it count as advertising? It’s important to always provide relevant and engaging content in order to make social media marketing work.

  8. Great post Mitch!
    Advertising in a social media depends on the worth of the account just as Nick said. It just needs effort and time to maintain a good value of your social media account, which does not cost any money meaning it’s FREE. But people want’s to use the full capacity of social media which includes ads with payment which will obviously rise among other ads.

  9. Social media “marketing” takes muchos time! Time IS money “it ain’t free”
    @Mitch speaking of “engagement” it’s interesting that you haven’t responded in the comments to any of your readers? I personally couldn’t care less but I would think your readers might appreciate you responding. Or not.

  10. Not true… I jump in when there are questions or things I’m not sure about. If someone is just adding more super-goodness and their own perspective, I don’t feel the need to add/take-away from their thoughts or ideas. The platform is open.

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