Social Media Strategy: Free Is Nice, But Is It Good For Your Business?

free social media marketingSocial networking technology has made it very easy for people to share their opinions, rate favorite products, and communicate with others. This activity is happening every day, everywhere, and for practically every product that exists. No matter how big or small your company is, if you have customers, you can bet they’re talking about your brand or product somewhere. So what are you doing to influence that conversation?

As a small business, you probably have limited budget and resources and you need to be sure any investment you make in social media is worthwhile. Does it make sense to pay for a branded online community or can free public social sites deliver the same benefits? Where do you start? What do you need to know?

Before you start any social media campaign, it’s important to identify your goals. There are many reasons for small businesses to adopt a social media marketing strategy, including:

  • Increase brand awareness for your company
  • Drive improved customer relationships and better corporate reputation
  • Gain a better understanding of emerging issues and trends
  • Enhance product development and improvement efforts
  • Generate increased sales and incremental revenue

Free For All

If your goal is simply to get started with social media, build up a presence and start attracting followers, a free social strategy may be the answer. You could tap into online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to build a fan base for your brand and communicate directly with “friends” to glean the data you need to reach the business goals noted above.

Many companies adopt this tactic, to mixed results, but ultimately that network doesn’t belong to you and you have no control over the conversation around your brand. It’s the mass aggregate social networks like Facebook that control your digital assets and even monetize them. Your opportunity to reach interested consumers with creative, engaging content is not only restricted, but your control over the content others may post or the ads that may appear is also severely limited, putting your brand reputation at risk.

While “free” is a compelling enough reason for many organizations, the two concerns we hear the most from our customers, small and large, are brand safety and control, both of which are compromised when using free social networks. A public social network allows only limited control of the customer experience.

Niche Is Nice

So what’s the alternative? How about launching your own branded destination where the users are yours? What about being able to offer the mix of social networking features that is appropriate for your community? And what if you could make money via advertising, sponsorships, or other means?

Fortunately, there are affordable, yet highly effective solutions on the market today that can put the brand owner in the driver’s seat and offer a rich media environment where consumers can network with each other, contribute their own content, and safely interact with the brand.

Companies typically adopt a social community in order to create an environment where consumers will connect with each other, but also to enhance communications with them. In addition to total control over the content and advertisements that appear on your site, a private niche network allows businesses the opportunity to provide a much deeper engagement with their brand.

For instance, a small business might share some photos of its newest product, post a video, or poll its fans on Facebook, and that’s a great use of this medium. By combining this activity with a branded social media solution, they could enhance their marketing impact and communications with interested consumers in a variety of ways. Some examples include:

  • Customized fan page
  • User-generated video-contest
  • Interactive customer community for product feedback
  • Sponsor advertisements

Before you decide on the tools and strategy for your social media campaign, think about these important considerations:

  • Budget – Obviously, budget is a deciding factor for many small businesses, but you’d be surprised how affordable a branded online community can be.
  • Internal resources – An often overlooked element of any social media effort, internal resources will determine how much content you can create, how much time is dedicated to maintaining your network, and more.
  • Content – What kind of content do you want on your site? Do you plan to allow/monitor user generated content? Will you host video or photos?
  • Control – How much control do you want to have over the content that appears alongside your brand?
  • Monetization – Do you plan to monetize your content through advertising or ecommerce?

The answers to these questions will help you determine your level of investment and which strategy best meets your needs.

Get What You Pay For

There are certain situations where a free social marketing strategy can be effective and appropriate, such as to drive traffic and awareness back to a company’s private social network. For organizations that want to provide deeper user engagement through a brand-safe niche community, it’s worth the moderate expense to put the brand in control of the experience. No, these niche social media tools are not free, but if your business decides to limit social media marketing to the free public social networks, you’ll not only get what you paid for, you might get more than you bargained for.

Cynthia FrancisAbout The Guest Author: A serial entrepreneur, Cynthia Francis has extensive experience building and leading pioneering companies in digital media management and online media technologies. In 2003, after more than a decade of leadership in digital asset management, Cynthia co-founded Reality Digital where she shapes the company’s vision as CEO. Cynthia is a frequent speaker at industry forums and events, including iMedia Summit, NAB, OMMA, Streaming Media, and many others.

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7 Comments Social Media Strategy: Free Is Nice, But Is It Good For Your Business?

  1. Donagh mc Sweeney

    Is social media good for business? Im my opinion, quiet simply ‘Yes’. The benefits of getting involved in social networking far outweight the negitives if a business can spend the time to conduct a organised and professional social networking campaign.

    The public sites are where the action is and many businesses are having great success when they interact correctly. Behave online exactly the way you act offline. Don’t spam!

    Interact, be professional and be there!

    Reply
  2. JJ Reich

    Great Post.

    Nothing is FREE – it may not cost “money”, but it does cost time, and to a small business owner, time is often just as valuable in and short supply as money.

    Please, take the advice of the author and make sure you have a strategy in place with specified goals. Otherwise the social media monster can begin to dominate your time and cost you more than you bargained for.

    Reply
  3. Martin Lindeskog

    Cynthia Francis, Have you read Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff? I am reading it right now. It is a fascinating book.

    Reply
  4. Donovan McFarlane

    Having an action plan is really a must for small to big business. Yes, money is an issue, but time and effort are also major concerns. I applaud the author for sharing such interesting stuff.

    Reply
  5. simon87781

    Free social media marketing tools are definitely nice, but you are right that they need to be considered in context. Businesses need to pursue a plan. It’s no good if you post a video on YouTube and AdWido but don’t set a strong, positive message. Too many different kinds of signals will definitely leave your potential market confused.

    Reply
  6. Bill Rowland

    Cynthia,

    I enjoyed your post and I agree with most of what you have to say. However companies concerned over “brand safety and control” will probably find their success in social media limited.

    Past, current and prospective customers are already talking about these companies in uncontrolled environments; to think that they don’t is naive. Furthermore, created a “walled environment” to manage these conversations is a challenging prospect for any company, let alone a smaller business with limited resources.

    You hit the nail on the head when you stated that “you get what you pay for.” In my opinion, smaller companies should develop a plan;use appropriate free/low cost tools and then invest the time necessary to develop relationships with their target market. Sure, the tools can be free, but social media cannot be successfully pursued without an investment in time.

    Reply
  7. Todd

    Great article, Cynthia. I think a lot of small businesses struggle with thinking that they NEED to do something just because it’s the hot topic in the press. How many Facebook business “fan pages” are there that were built and now just don’t do anything!

    Personally I think there is a lot of opportunity with Social Media, but business managers and owners need to think about what’s best for them and their business. I thought you might like to see some of the recent articles that we’ve written on the subject:

    http://features.bizmore.com/blog/ceo-solutions/7-ways-business-owners-can-use-twitter

    http://features.bizmore.com/blog/must-read/social-media-musts-before-you-begin

    Reply

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