The High Price of Free
The High Price of Free
The High Price of Free

An interesting confluence occurred a couple of years ago. Just as the economy was siphoning away money for advertising and marketing, a promising class of inexpensive tools was breaking out of the cutting edge and into the discussion. Blogs and tweets and posts and the like held the promise of connecting companies with their customers and their future customers, for a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising. However, along the way, someone forgot to set the expectation that “Free” comes with a lot of added costs.

If you’re on the cusp of your first foray into anything related to Social Media, pay attention and factor these costs into your budget:

free1) “Free” means instability

When you are paying for the services involved, you have a contract with certain guarantees of uptime. However, when you are building your online presence on someone else’s platform, you run the risk of their associated traffic outages. A couple of months ago, I was investigating how various businesses were using to generate their own corporate news and information feed. Rather, I was trying to investigate it, when I was suddenly unable to access their servers. Neither was anyone else, for that matter, for about a day-and-a-half.

Recently, while setting up a Posterous site for a co-worker, we ran into a major outage lasting hours.

If you’re trying to enhance a service or a campaign, you might be able to survive on free providers. But you are at their mercy.

2) “Free” means no support

Facebook, Google and Twitter support more than a billion accounts among them. How many people are in their Support departments? Are you ready to spend all of your time going through self-help and FAQs and user forums to find answers to your questions? Be prepared to find a small community of people who would be willing to help, if only they knew anything themselves.

Now, there are aspects of that connectivity that you can’t replicate anywhere else. If you’re going to be on Twitter and Facebook, then you’re on their platform because they own all the connections. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get great response times for your issues.

3) “Free” means you’re volunteering your labor

Sure, there’s no set-up fee and no hosting fee and no ongoing maintenance fee… but these social networks don’t populate themselves. More importantly, they don’t spend the time to research and discover the content you ought to be connecting to your customers. Most importantly, they don’t know a thing about your strategy, your needs, or your goals.

You obviously do know what all of those things are, and it makes sense that you would be involved in representing your organization online. But unless you’re willing to write off all your activity as pro bono, then there is a cost involved.

4) “Free” means vanilla

Vanilla is a fine flavor, and it goes with almost everything. Unfortunately, it also goes with everything else.

Prepare to spend a lot of time in figuring out how to make your social media destination look like everything else you own online – or be prepared to pay someone to do that for you. If you cut corners, you dilute your branding, and that isn’t getting you anywhere.

5) “Free” means starting from scratch

This may be the most important. It makes no sense to be in social media for your business or organization if you’re unwilling to put some advertising support behind it.

Let me repeat that.

It makes no sense to be in social media for your business if you’re unwilling to put some advertising support behind it.

Every Facebook page starts with zero fans – every Twitter account starts with zero Followers (and the ones you can buy are worthless to you) – and every blog starts with zero subscribers and no organic traffic.

If you don’t tell anyone you are out there, they will not find you quickly enough to matter.

The biggest mistake in “doing social” and the number one reason social media underwhelms is that there’s no support for it. It’s as though companies buy into the Myth of Free, and ignore the need for any promotion of how they are communicating. If you’re going to be on Twitter and Facebook, let’s see the logos on your site, and on your ads, and on your billboards, and on your email signature, and on your letterhead…

Calculating the cost of “Free”

Now we’re actually in a better position, because once you’ve eliminated all those false zeroes out of the equation, we can calculate just how much return on investment you will see from participating in Social Media.

The best way to think about this is compared to the cost of your current website:

  1. How much did you pay for pre-design research?
  2. How much did you pay for design?
  3. How much did you pay for usability studies?
  4. How much do you pay for hosting?
  5. How much do you pay for analytics/measurement/site-tracking?
  6. How much do you pay for integration with marketing resources and mail lists?
  7. How much do you pay for search engine optimization?
  8. How much do you pay to generate new content and update your site?

Now, look at those costs, and think about your social media outlets as microsites with much smaller costs. The platforms already exist, and they do many of those things on the list for you (specifically #s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7). Yes, there is skinning and additional content to deal with, but you’re not starting from scratch.

If you wanted to build a microsite that would attract 100,000 visitors in 90 days, how much would you spend on that page? Now, could you attract an analogous number of desired eyeballs to similar content through social media? For less?

Often, the answer is yes. Even better, the answer becomes “Why not do both?”

The Hidden Cost of “Free”

That’s the real secret of social media marketing: it’s not free and it’s never been. What it does is give you additional tools to use to achieve your outcome.

About the Author

Ike Pigott
In his previous life, Ike Pigott was an Emmy-winning TV reporter, who turned his insider's knowledge of the news cycle into a crisis communications consultancy. At the American Red Cross, serving as Communication and Government Relations Director for five southeastern states, Ike pioneered the use of social media in disaster. Now -- by day -- he is a communications strategist for Alabama Power and a Social Media Apologist; by night, he lurks at Occam's RazR, where he writes about the overlaps and absurdities in communications, technology, journalism and society. Find out how you can connect with Ike or follow him on Twitter at @ikepigott. He also recently won the coveted "Social Media Explorer contributing writer with the longest Bio" award.
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  • Npapazoglou

    “Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.” Please see: “…” to be informed.

  • 10communications – amsterdam

    Great way to put it, thanks Ike.
    One extra point to think of: companies that use 'free' web2.0 platforms to interact with (potential) customers, give away all that fine customer data to the platform-owner. They can do with the data as they like, even sell it to competitors.
    On the way of landing on this blog, at least 10 companies traced my data. Disqus has grreat profit from the content you create. Do you get paid for that ?

    • I am not the webmaster here, but I would think that paying customers of Disqus would also have access to that data. Sounds like a win/win.

  • Great analysis Ike. Just because it's free does not mean its not worth anything. We have to make it valuable by making it work for us. Thanks.

  • A very practical post,and brilliantly written, Thankz

  • I wrote about this last year as well Ike good take and a good look at how and why Free is not always best!

    • Thanks Jim… I'm starting to think that the really good advice needs to be shared more than it is. ;)

  • Just loved your post IKe… Free is really costly I must say :) It was nice to read such beautful writing sometimes. Thanks for the post!!!

  • Aurelius_Tjin

    I love “free” . :)) Thanks for this good post. It's worth to read.

  • Xavier Guilera Alemany

    I would like to add another argument: free sometimes means that the platform includes ads from third parts. That's advertising from others. And you are not controlling it.

    • Couldn't agree with you more. Particularly when your competitor's ad ends up with your content — or even worse, something distasteful that becomes associated with your brand.

      I'm a fan of using YouTube as a search engine, but you have to be careful about embedding videos on your site lest you invite incongruous ads in.

      Thanks for weighing in, Xavier.

  • Gail Kent

    A platform is only “free” until it's saturated with everyone else's “free” stuff. Then you lose the advantage of being first, so you have to up the ante by customization, advertising, integration, etc., to gain the edge once again. And it continues to spiral.

    • Great point… what worked for early adopters in a virtually blank canvas doesn't work when there's noise and people chasing “optimization.” Thank you, Gail!

  • Twitter, for one thing, is prone to downtime from over-capacity and hacking. During times like those, your social media marketing goes to sleep. You lose out on revenue and you won't have control over it.

  • “It's just ONE of the channels.”

    I wish everyone else got that too… Thank you!

  • I find it interesting that sites such as facebook with their busienss page changes coming soon are actually giving people and businesses more reason to hire the right team to assist them.

    Free will look more like free.


    • First, you have to demonstrate the value — and that phase is finished. But the scale and manpower required to run a full-blown project with goals is very different than the prototypes and pilots you can accomplish with Free.

      Thanks Rosh…

  • Monsieur Pigott, Thank you for the excellent points which I can share with clients. Social media is no different than any other channel: It benefits from support/integration with both advertising and, yes, SEO. Shelly is right: Avoiding any middle management budget wars of these separate factions, it's the C-levels that need to read your impeccable logic here.

    • “It's just ONE of the channels.”

      I wish everyone else got that too… Thank you!

  • Zane, it's been too long since we crossed paths. Thank you!

  • Shelly, you're a peach. Thank you.

    And you're right. The myth needs busting for there to be any appreciation of the value it can bring.

    If you think of ROI as a fraction, it doesn't matter where you put the zero, the math looks ugly anyway.

  • davevandewalle

    I once ran a startup that could not give its product away for free. So I stopped doing it and jacked up the price. Worked.

    Great post, Ike.

    • Dave, you raise a great corollary for internal purposes.

      The larger your line-item in the budget, the more likely it is your supervisors and managers will pay attention to what you do.

      It's GREAT that you might be able to deliver results on a much smaller seed… but if you're not costing them anything, they aren't as prone to care about what you need. And NONE of this stuff works in a silo, you need buy-in across departments.

      Thank you!

      • davevandewalle

        Ike – more deets on this particular story; we were selling higher ed web

        portal access. After one chat where I said “you should try us out for

        free” and the guy on the other end said “no, thanks,” I realized that I

        had more than discounted my product. I had put it in the bucket of “free

        web crap” as opposed to “solution that will make your life easier, and

        should be priced as such.”

        I also had ignored his point of view; free allowed me to add one to the

        win column, and earn future business. Free, to him, was “just another

        thing I can't invest time in, because it's free.”

  • Vanilla. Illa. Illa. Illa. Ay. Ay. Ay…heh.

    Great Post!

    • Zane, it's been too long since we crossed paths. Thank you!

  • ShellyKramer

    Oh I do so say this constantly. Like a broken record.

    Great post, Ike-ster (as usual) and one I hope is shared far and wide. And not with folks like you and me and some of the commentors here — I hope this is the post that is shared with the people in the C-Suite and the people responsible for hiring people like you and me to “do that social thing” because those are the people who need to understand this. And need to understand exactly what you get for “free.”

    Mwah to you.


    • Shelly, you're a peach. Thank you.

      And you're right. The myth needs busting for there to be any appreciation of the value it can bring.

      If you think of ROI as a fraction, it doesn't matter where you put the zero, the math looks ugly anyway.

  • great article! this magic word 'free'… it attracts lots of people… they never even think that this free can be eventually more expensive than something that has a definite cost from the very beginning. i suppose there is no way to make them think about this hidden problem. only if they had already tried it on themselves.. but even in this case there is no any guarantee

  • Stephanie Schwab:Socialologist

    Ike, you're singing my tune here! I second everything you've said. Particularly the concept of volunteering your time to support social – particularly for small/medium businesses, this is the downfall which makes them abandon their social efforts (when they get too busy to maintain them).

    I also totally support the premise that you need to spend some money on advertising, particularly in the beginning – having 50-100 Twitter followers in your account makes it all the more likely that your target followers will actually follow you; ditto for Facebook. Yes, the “paid” fans/followers may not be your best, target users but you won't get the ones you really want if you look like you're starting from zero.

    • Stephanie, there's a practical reason for building your following quickly. You want people to feel like they're joining something stable, and in progress. If they see you've been online for 2 months and only have 18 fans, it doesn't communicate your commitment to stability. So why should they join?


  • Excellent. “Free” the most powerful word in the English language – but a difficult power to harness.

    • “Free” was a great way to get people to try the technologies, because there was nothing to lose. But if you want to do it right, you can't skimp.

  • Ike, I couldn't agree with your premise more! I have been advocating that the true cost of social media goes far beyond “the sticker price” and your post outlines the whole idea beautifully. I have insisted that the “free” model (even the “freemium” model cannot be sustained long term.

    I'd love to add to the point to anyone considering free services: if you don't value your products or services, why should your customers?

    • “Social” gets jammed in a silo, and it tends to get neglected because there's no line-item associated with it.


  • Ike, great post explaining in excellent detail why free isn't really free, but I would like a little clarification on this point:

    “It makes no sense to be in social media for your business or organization if you’re unwilling to put some advertising support behind it.”

    What do you mean by advertising? Actual paid ads? Or a good content generation system/response? I'd argue for larger brands the answer is both.

    I'd also argue for a small business that gets all its business via word of mouth, the answer could be only content creation, not paid advertising.

    • You don't have to take out ads announcing that you're on Facebook now, but it certainly doesn't hurt to use your existing channels to point people there. Drive traffic, and make those platforms useful.

      If you had five locations to serve customers in your city, you wouldn't run an ad telling people about just THREE of them. Same holds true here.

      Wherever you're promoting your brand, include the icons (and maybe even more if you think you need to point people to the right spot.) Icons on the billboard is a no-brainer.


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