Free Lunch isn't the best idea for marketing your business

I recently met a small business owner who proudly described his marketing strategy to me: “I’m focusing entirely on social media because it’s free.”

“What do you mean by free?” I asked.

“Well…” he said, “I don’t have to pay for postage or advertising or email software or anything like that. I just set up accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and go from there.”

“How are you updating those accounts? Who’s posting the updates? Who’s devising the strategy?” I asked.

“We all chip in when we have time,” he said.

“How’s it going? Are you seeing good results?” I asked.

Long pause…”Hard to tell,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

When it comes to social media — or any form of marketing for that matter — there is no such thing as a free lunch. Executing a social media strategy requires good planning, lots of time and effort, and careful analysis to determine return on investment. None of the above is free.

You have to calculate the cost of your employees’ and your time. Sure, you don’t pay to set up a Facebook account. But you pay your employees. And, if you’re thinking you can run a successful social media campaign with an unpaid intern (or your teenage son when he’s not doing his homework or playing video games),  you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I understand the need for businesses to control costs. And I understand the benefits of lower-cost digital marketing channels. Indeed, email marketing is a great medium, in part, because it costs less than other mediums.

But free is not really free when it comes to social media or any other marketing channel.

When devising a marketing strategy, you have to consider the return, not just the cost. I’d rather spend $500 to make $600 than spend $10 to make $11.

Social media should be part of your marketing mix, but not because it’s “free.” You should integrate social media with other marketing channels — email, your web site, offline media, etc. And you should be prepared to invest some resources to make it work — either dedicated employees who can generate positive return from the effort or third-party consultants who can do it for you.

As you drive to work tomorrow, consider this idea: Get rid of your car and walk to work each day. If you walked from your home to your workplace each day, you would save huge sums of money. No gas. No car repairs. No insurance. Getting to work would be free! But would your business be better for the cost savings? Would you accomplish as much each day?

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