The Cost Of “Free” Tools

Money down the drain?At the risk of flogging a dead horse here, I want to address something that I keep hearing from people who don’t seem to understand the way social media outreach and engagement works.

Social media isn’t free.

Mitch Joel wrote recently that “there is a cost to free.” He was talking about the costs of “free” content, but the same applies to applying free tools.

Yes, some tools are free. It costs nothing to set up a Google Alert. It costs nothing to establish a Facebook page. It costs nothing to download and install Wordpress.

Nothing, that is, except time.

Never underestimate the amount of time that social media outreach can take.

While you may choose to use free tools to monitor conversations about your brand (we use both free and paid tools at our agency), it takes time to measure and analyze the results of that monitoring.

You may decide to set up a blog, but it takes time (believe me) to consistently put out good content.

You may decide to produce a video podcast, but it takes time to plan, record, edit and post the episodes.

What’s more, to do any of these things well it takes even more time. Yes, I could blast out an email to 100 bloggers for you, but I won’t. Not only because I don’t agree with the practice and because it would be close to career suicide (though they both factor into it), but because it’s far more effective to carefully and thoughtfully pitch a smaller number properly. Better results take more time. More time means more cost.

Fancy that! You don’t get good results on the cheap.

If you work on the corporate or public sector side, it’s easy to forget that time has a cost. Working in those environments the cost may be more of an opportunity cost – of other things you can’t do because you’re working on this – than a hard cost, but it’s still there. On the agency side, the cost of time is clear as day to us, every day.

I’m not saying that social media tools are unique here. Traditional PR tools cost money, too. The difference is that I don’t hear people say “there’s no reason anyone shouldn’t do media outreach; it’s free.” I do hear that said about social media.

Next time someone tells you that social media is free, back away slowly.

(Image credit: thebmag)

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  • It’s a great point! Although all these social media tools are free, they definitely require an investment of time. It takes a lot of time to update all your social networks, as well as keep up on Twitter. And that doesn’t even include producing content!

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  • Tay Exley

    The difference is in whether the time spent is understood as an asset (or in the pursuit of assets) or as something only marginally important to the success of any project. In the end, the public can always tell which side social media falls on.

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  • Dave – couldn’t agree more. The single largest line item on the expense side of most P&L statements is labour. Time is money – literally.

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  • Agreed. Everyone says SM is free. However, you cannot straight line the cost of time, I think there are diminishing opportunity costs as you spend time. Though I think it’s better to focus on a couple of SM tools and do those particularly well, as oppose to spending little time on everything.

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  • I completely agree with you, BUT getting people to actually track the time they put into them is something else completely. I’ve heard folks rave about how much money they are saving with Craigslist, etc., but they really aren’t monetizing anything. Granted, this applies to businesses rather than the one-offs who use SM for just a few things now and then. But I’d love to see a time study on utilizing some of these SM sites.

  • Amen. I’ve been hammering on this for a long time. I have an agency background, and just for fun, I started to play around with estimates on how much it would cost in billable dollars to dedicate the time to a) research and locate appropriate bloggers, b) estimate the amount of time to thoroughly read their blogs, c) guessed at how long it would take to build a relationship and then pitch them on an idea.

    It most certainly was not free, and in fact made me think that for a number of reasons, blogger outreach would only be cost-effective in a handful of situations. Oy vey.

    And, regarding the notion that it’s easy to forget time has a cost–I have a hunch that most businesses *haven’t* forgotten this. It may be why social media adoption has moved at a slower pace in corporate settings than many in social media would like. 😉