Please stop saying social media marketing is free

They say that everything in social media is either free or close to free. Blogging and Twitter and Facebook and viral movies and webinars are sooo cheap, and yet sooo valuable!

So they say.

I completely disagree.  Social media is expensive. In fact, it’s more expensive than traditional media.  It just comes in the form of spending time instead of spending money.

The “cheap” claim is everywhere.  For example, Seth Godin suggests summer camp counselors should make videos:

Have your private school or summer camp record a 7 minute video on every student every month (that’s a seven minute a day commitment per teacher) and post them privately. Seven minutes is the equivalent of a three-page personal letter, with far less resistance on the part of the teacher.

Sounds so simple.  Seven minutes a day — that’s nothing.  All you need is a desktop tripod and a computer-quality video camera — both inexpensive one-time costs.  The result is personal and distinctive and a great reason for parents to send their kids to your camp.

Except….  a three-page letter?  I don’t know about you, but it would take me a while to write a three-page letter about each kid… every day.  And then I’d have to read it in front of a camera, which means I have to wash the mud off my face and cover my zits.  (Am I the only guy who wishes it were socially commonplace in America for men to use foundation?  I sure would like to hide these blemishes…)

No, this is not a seven-minute job.  It’s at least an hour.

I’m not saying it’s not worth it.  I’m saying it’s bullshit to say it’s “just seven minutes a day.”

Here’s a different example from the Hubspot blog:

To get into newspapers or on TV you had to pay a lot of money for advertising. On the Internet, you can publish your own blog, pictures, videos and more for very low cost. This is another proof point that inbound marketing is the next phase of marketing.

But wait, when I paid a lot of money to get into newspapers and TV, my message got in front of people. If I publish a blog, no one cares. Unless, that is, I also do SEO and participate in forums and guest-post on blogs and host events and….  oh, hey, what do you know, that all takes a lot of time!

And there’s that “very low cost” phrase again. Let’s ask if it’s low-cost for Hubspot itself.  They’ve built a good blog with 8000 subscribers, and they’re driving customers (including myself!) to their Hubspot software.  All for “very low cost,” right?

Well they’ve raised $17m and employ over 70 people, over 20 of whom are “Marketing Specialists” whose job is to live and breathe SEO, make blog posts, publish interviews, compile reports, create videos, make podcasts, run webinars, and even draw cartoons. Oh, and they still pay for ads:

Mind you, they’re good at this stuff!  Great blog, useful product. And they walk the walk — notice that the #1 natural search result above is Hubspot.

But “cheap?”  No way.  Want to be successful like Hubspot? All you need is millions of dollars and twenty-odd specialists earning Boston pre-recession salaries.

I’m not saying it’s not worth it.  I’m saying it’s bullshit to say it’s “very low cost.”

Of course it’s worth it.  Of course this is the “next thing.”  Of course those who ignore new media will be left behind.  But blogging properly is a full time job in itself (notable exceptions notwithstanding), and a “full time job” is expensive — whether you’re paying someone to do it or spending the time to do it yourself.

If you’re doing it right, social media marketing is probably your largest marketing expense.  Let’s stop pretending it can be done on the cheap.

What’s your take on this? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

29 responses to “Please stop saying social media marketing is free”

  1. I agree with you Jason. It’s both expensive and worthy.
    Once I was asked in an event how much time I spend per day with my company blog. I said something like 2 hours, including the time that I have to study and research the market to actually provide valuable content.
    Then the same guy asked me how much that’d cost per month if I decided to sell those working hours. I answered that that was definately a good money, but in no way I could generate similar results spending the same amount of money on advertising.
    Thus, I think social media takes a lot more time to generate results than advertising, but you get compound return over time.

  2. Jason: Great article.

    Your fundamental premise is mostly right. Inbound marketing is not easy or cheap. Particularly in the short-term. It takes some learning, takes some adjusting and takes some experimentation.

    Our argument at HubSpot is that things like search and social media have a stronger payback over time than classic outbound marketing like advertising. The reason is simple, it’s getting harder and harder (and hence more expensive) to reach people with outbound techniques. We’ve become immune to these.

    So, the question is not whether inbound marketing can be done at low cost (or not), the question is, what’s the alternative?

  3. @Eric — Yes, like it or not, social media is the way forward. There’s only going to be more of it, not less. Traditional advertising is the reverse.

    @Dharmesh — As a customer of HubSpot myself, of course I agree with you. :-) And I agree that the question isn’t one of low/high cost, but rather: Since advertising is dying (dead?), what else can you do?

  4. Jason, you make some great points here. Anyone who thinks they can just "dabble" in social media marketing and achieve success is in for a rude awakening. In fact, you can measure ROI directly by accounting for all your time and comparing against sales arising from brand awareness (i read about your business @ Twitter) or the occasional promotion. The more effort you put in, the bigger your network grows and the more likely your ROI goes up. I would argue the point that traditional advertising is "dying". It’s certainly losing steam, but hardly on its last breath (yet).

  5. @John  — It’s true that print isn’t dead; in fact we get a lot of traction with print here at Smart Bear even now. Still, readership is down, magazines are folding up, and they’re lowering prices. The trend is bad; if you’re betting on how things will be different 2-5 years from now you have to say "social up, print down."

    I like your ideas about ROI. Mostly social media folks claim a "soft," unmeasurable, indirect ROI, which is just what the print folks say as well. I think that’s an area we all need to improve on; in fact I plan on writing about how to measure softer ROIs like these.

  6. As owner of a social media agency charged with managing social media for our clients, I can say that only the raw materials are free. Aside from creating a membership to a social web site and managing it by yourself, the planning, strategy, implementation and execution of a social media marketing effort can be very costly in terms of time, tools and resources. If anyone needs an assessment of their project or budget recommendations, please get in touch.

  7. Well, I used to run a summer camp. I know that getting a staff member to write a three page letter is essentially impossible. Getting a counselor to talk on camera for seven minutes is so seductive that they might even pay you for the privilege. So, if that doesn’t count as free, then nothing is free.

    That summer camp I was talking about could hire one staff member for the summer (17 years old) for $900 plus room and board and cute dates. If he spent the whole summer making these videos and spreading them around, it would have an impact comparable to $25,000 in old media spending. I think that’s close enough to free, don’t you?

    Mostly, people like me use the word ‘free’ hyperbolically, to make the point to selfish businesses that they need to count the $3,000,000 they spent on ads (that didn’t work) last month in calculating how much they should be investing in better products and generosity that hold up under the scrutiny of the web.

    Communication is not the same as writing a legal brief. Sorry if I annoyed you.

  8. @Seth

    Thanks very much for responding to my blog post. Dissent always improves the conversation!

    I won’t argue the fine points of the camp example since you obviously have superior experience and perspective. However I still maintain my conclusion as it relates to business.

    Continuing the analogy, could I pay a 17-year-old (or anyone) $300/month to blog convincingly about our philosophy of software development or our philosophy of business or about how to determine whether your code review metrics are statistically significant?

    Perhaps I could, but I argue that this is contrary to your own philosophy: That "social media" is about deep and authentic communication between individuals. Surely you’ll agree the idea isn’t to pump out blog entries or Twitter every 10 minutes with a cool thing you found on StumbleUpon.

    To generate deep, useful content and to cultivate individual, genuine relationships, you can’t do it with $300/mo interns who are going back to school in the fall. For camp, yes! For most businesses, no.

    Finally, I do agree with you that "old media spending" is dead (or close), which I did say specifically in the article. But as a company (Smart Bear) who is currently doing both social and traditional media (and more of the former all the time), it’s clear that (1) social media is more important and powerful and cheaper in the long run, but that (2) it is very far from free or low-cost.

    P.S. You are legendary for the quantity of your insightful blog posts (which I read religiously of course!), and for your astonishing responsiveness to email (which I’ve experienced first-hand), and for your prolific output of books. I’m curious — if you took your consulting hourly rate and multiplied by the amount of time it takes to do all of those things (your personal, social marketing), how much does it cost you?

    Clearly what you’re doing is (infinitely?) more valuable and successful than traditional advertising! No argument. But is it "low-cost?" Is it "free?"

    I’ll bet it’s your biggest expense.

  9. Jason, of course it’s not free. Free obviously does have value but the value in social media is definitely based on the time and care that we invest in it. I’ve heard Twitter idiots brag about their thousands of followers but by just collecting followers and not adding value their "free" is certainly worth less than the "free" of someone who takes the time to truly connect.

    You’ve spoken a truth here that we all need to be aware of.

  10. Jason,

    Exceptional point!!! It’s so COMMON for business people to FORGET the value of their time.

    Bootstrapping entrepreneurs LOVE to sing the "social media is free marketing" mantra. However, one colleague of mine has spent the last three weeks- and at least 90 hours – trying to figure out all the ins and outs of creating a "quality" video to post on YouTube. Even if she valued her time at $20 an hour (20% of her billable) – she would have been MILES ahead to hire someone to create the video for her so she could get back to work. (Oh, and I’ll bet the video she eventually creates won’t be NEARLY the quality as the one she could have paid to have created for her!!!)

    A hearty AMEN to your "I’m not saying it’s not worth it. I’m saying it’s bullshit to say it’s "very low cost." There is indeed a VERY high "opportunity cost" in participating in social media.

    Thanks for pointing out that there’s a price to be paid for those paper cups filled with Grape Kool-Aid. Maybe the Kool-Aid stand vendors don’t appreciate your candor – but I surely do! :)

  11. @Tom — Yeah I’m still trying to figure out Twitter. I get it when it’s a few hundred people who I would recognize by face (or at least by blog or other high-fidelity communication) but not when you’re just blasting things into the void.

    @Kathy — You’re right about the outsourcing. When you put the time into perspective it starts making sense. At least it can help to outsource the "static friction" of getting something (like a video set-up) started.

    Also it’s clear to me that since some people (not you guys!) seem to think I’m poo-pooing social media generally, I’ll follow up with a post about how social media is necessary.

  12. Hi Jason – Thanks for pointing this out. Social media takes up a lot of time and time is money. I admit that I don’t spend near enough time using social media sites like Twitter as many people do.

    But I’m also willing to bet that there’s tens of thousands of people using those sites that will never see any financial benefit from doing so at all – no matter how much time they invest.

    I’m not saying social media is a waste of time for everyone. But I do believe a lot of people may be wasting a ridiculous number of hours, with no hope of a possible return.

  13. Hello Jason,

    I have recently discovered your blog and subscribed to it. Good job!

    Regarding your post, I must admit: good point. As a copywriter, I do agree that the message should not be ¨Photoshoped¨ and I do hate the word ¨free¨when you´re trying to convince someone to get a lot in return: time, attention, interest, and if you´re lucky: a relationship.

    One thing that the provider can do for what his user invest in his/her app is provide a quality service and be honest. All the time.

    There is another thing that I disagree with, though. When we, @Qapacity, say, it will take you two minutes to register, we mean it. But it takes people less, or more, depending on their internet-usage-style and their needs. Sometimes it is not easy to predict even the simplest things like this.

    What do you think?

  14. @Cath — You make an interesting (and counter-mainstream!) point about social media perhaps not been worth it after all. I’d love to hear more about this… perhaps you’ll post about this on your blog?

    @Ina — If you say "two minutes" and you mean it, I think it’s fine! I don’t think that saying "it’s free" or "it’s easy" is bad; it just has to be true through-and-through.

    Furthermore, it’s powerful if you focus on just one thing. That is, if you say "fast and easy" but then also say "secure, reliable, cheap, fun, …" then it dilutes the message and I don’t believe you anymore. If on the other hand you pick one thing and beat it to death (e.g. Zappos with "customer service"), then it’s powerful.

    We’re glad to have you aboard and I look forward to more conversations with you!

  15. Very true. I think many of the people who write copy are down-to-earth people. They would never try to sell THAT to the people who know and respect them, but somehow in "the fire of battle" they feel they have to pack it all – now or never.

    Looking forward to it too. :)

  16. THANK YOU! Not only is social media marketing time consuming, it really is best WHEN YOU ACTUALLY SPEND MONEY. The medium has changed–but people haven’t. And if you are cheap and expect people to just flock to you just because you are using it, you are not very smart.

    The most successful campaign I ever ran involved giving domains away on Twitter for free from my client NameCheap. We spent about $15,000, my time, and my CTO’s time. We got a 20% increase in new registrations, but it took planning and money. If you think I’d just go on Twitter with something as boring as a domain registrar, you are just nuts.

    It’s free like kitten. You get the kitten and then it takes some upkeep to make sure it’s healthy.

  17. @Michelle — I love that you used the kitten analogy! Social media is exactly like a free kitten. We use the same argument about our open source software competitor. Thanks!

  18. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  19. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  20. Thank you , thank you, THANK YOU!
    Am I the only entrepreneur that cringes every time some "new media" guy says how easy it is to get that blog going? One famous person, who I won’t name because it will just give him better SEO, recently said to start out small on twitter. Half hour per day and work your way up to an hour a day. What full time small business owner can waste (I mean invest) an hour a day on twitter? Plus for most of these guys their blog IS their business! They all write books and go on speaking tours. I write and sell software.

  21. Absolutely there is a time commitment involved with advertising via social media tactics, and if you are outsourcing there is money involved. However, there is time leverage involved. For example, if I create a video to post on YouTube, I can submit that same video to Adwido, Hulu, and Vimeo. So the time commitment is minimal but the results are dramatic.

  22. Jason –

    Fantastic post. Nail on the head. Especially as a content creator who “just makes” 5-10 minute videos 5 days a week (yeah, it takes a little more than 5 minutes, *wink*).

    I’ve said this to a bunch of folks this past year at speeches. Social media isn’t free. Unless your time is free. In that case we are hiring.

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