The Biggest Problem with Social Media Marketing? It is Free. Sort of.

I was doing a keynote speech for a trade show a few months ago and was asked why so many companies struggle with social media marketing.  You don’t hear that people don’t “get” TV or radio.  Why is social media so hard?

There are probably many different reasons for this – it is new, it is experiential, many marketers are not participants and it is free.  I’m going to focus on what I see as the two biggest problems.  It is new and it is free.

Social Media Marketing Problem #1 – It is new.

Social Media and social media marketing are relatively new fields.  Maybe 5 – 10 years old at best.  Most other forms of marketing are much, much older.  They have been refined over time to “best practices” that are now the standards of the industry.  The TV commercial below is a Cheer laundry detergent commercial from the 60’s.  It is a full minute long and features a man from space that kind of looks like Spock.  Creepy.

Over the last 50 years we have refined television commercials to know what works.  We know how to sell a product effectively in 15 or 30 second spots.  They are highly effective.  I bet that the ROI of early commercials was tough to measure, but after years of experimenting we can deliver pretty effective TV commercials.

As we gain more experience with social media and create new metrics we’ll have a better idea of the elements of success.  It just takes time.

Problem #2 – Social Media is “free”.

Sticking with the TV comparison, imagine if it was free to air TV commercials.  Anyone could air any commercial on TV just by sending it in. No costs except production.  What do you think would happen?  First there would be TONS of ads – probably almost every business would have a tv commercial.  Second, the quality level would be lower.  If there is no barrier to entry or cost to play, any business with a flipcam would create an ad.  Many of these ads would lack strategy or production quality.

Instead, it costs a lot of money to run a TV commercial, so brands invest a LOT in strategy and production to make sure that their commercials will deliver ROI.  They plan and test prior to running and campaign so that they don’t waste their money.  The content of the commercial is strategy and really well thought out.

Now, think about social media.  It is “free” to run a social media campaign.  So, there are TONS of social media campaigns out there, many of which are poorly thought out and don’t include any real strategy.  Hey, it costs nothing to run them, so why not just launch something?

This is why many businesses don’t get results from their social media efforts.  They don’t invest in the strategy and production of their social media efforts.  As a result they have a social media campaign that lacks strategy and production value.  If the same effort was put into social media as it was into paid media we would probably see more success.  Businesses would spend some time thinking about the strategy and the content prior to launching.

A “cost to play” increases the quality of the entrants.  Think about dating sites.  You get more serious daters on the sites that charge vs. the ones that are free.  If you have to pay for something you want to make sure that you will get what you need out of it – so you invest more in the strategy and planning.

What do you think?


  1. I think you’re right, but I ALSO think that lowering the barrier to entry fosters a much quicker evolutionary process and results in a lot more innovation, meaning the game changes quickly and often, even if its not always for the best.

    A lot of industries that have a high barrier to entry are stale, lack innovation, and often lack creativity because they need to stay safe and ensure that they get good ROI.

    As a consumer and a producer, I’d much rather see some junk laying around as long as it means that EVERYTHING isn’t middling boring crap…like Hollywood.

  2. You make very good points and I would like to add that I see more and more of the social media tools are adding a paid level to play and its starting to separate those in social media marketing.

    The fact that this is still a new medium and best practices have not been solidified those businesses who choose social media as apart of their marketing strategy should seek the help of a social media expert or social media management company to handle their campaigns for a better ROI.

    But common sense should definitely lean towards a more conversational, educational, & value driven style of social media marketing vs. “hey buy my sh*t”.

  3. Good points! We’re so early in the game with social media when compared to more traditional marketing methods. However, you can use the strategic planning tools that work well with older methods to help you create a strategy for your social media tactics.

  4. Twitter is a powerful tool for your business. It has 620 million users and should not be overlooked as a way of generating marketing leads for your company. The problem is how to get noticed in all the noise these days and there is a lot being said in that noise. To find out how to cut through the noise in your social media marketing visit the link for the best way to get more traffic.

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