Social Media Isn’t Free: Buy or Build


One of the first concepts that confused me in Ec 10 my freshman year at college was opportunity cost—yes, it’s free to watch the Red Sox game on TV, but it means you miss out on the opportunity to hear your friend’s band play a gig.

There’s only so much time, and you have to pick the activities that will create the most value for you. Every time you choose to do something for an hour, you are losing the opportunity to do something else with that time. (This wasn’t as confusing as David Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage, which I still have trouble with.)

Even though you have a whole new set of marketing tools that do not have fees associated with their use, they are certainly not free. Any time spent on social media is time spent not doing something else — handing out flyers, wearing sandwich boards, or improving conversion rates on the website. We always say that most companies don’t need to worry about bad social media, but they do need to worry about mediocre social media.

Bad social media results in visible crises. While crises are not fun, they have a natural stopping point, after which you can repair the damage. We live in a world with a short attention span. Even if your brand goes through a crisis, people will move on quickly. (Hey, Anthony Weiner is running for Mayor of NYC.) The problem with mediocre social media is that the crisis never comes — you go on for months or years doing something that seems like a good idea, but it does not create value. Money and time just leach away, and you have little to show for it.

We believe that social media isn’t magic, and that anyone can do it well. They have to commit. SBI has an insightful blog post that lists four drivers that determine whether or not you can do it yourself, and we’ve added another two:

▪   People:  Do you have the horses?  Do you have people who understand (a) the tools (b) your customers and (c) your strategy?  You probably do, but they may be working on something else.

▪   Time:  How long will it take for them to get up to speed?  How long will it take them to get the requisite work done?  If you’re at scale, this is easy.  If you’re not at scale, you can spend a long time getting up the learning curve.

▪   Expertise:  Do you understand changes in the space?  Do you know how other people have solved this problem before?  Do you have a knowledge base that helps people find the answer quickly?

▪   Financial:  Do you understand how much you will be spending?  Do you have a target ROI?  How do you know if it’s working?

▪   Strategy:  How explicit is your strategy?  Can everyone on the Social Media team respond to opportunities online quickly without having their hand held?  Do they know what to look for?

▪   Culture:  Can you trust your team to be professional about social media?  Are their personal social media presences managed appropriately?  If they cross-post something, what’s the possible downside?

You don’t just pay for social media in time. The other way you pay for social media is in attention. There is a limited supply of it, and we are all fighting for it. If you’re not putting out enough content, no one will notice you. Even if you get the right quantity of content out, you have to be consistently on message.

If you’re not putting out information with a strong signal, you are becoming part of the noise.

Reprinted by permission.

About the author: Adrian Blake

Adrian began his career in the television industry, leading the international growth of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central. Adrian has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an A.B. from Harvard.

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