Social media evangelists have done miraculous work in many ways by motivating and encouraging enterprise marketers to journey into the unfamiliar territory of online promotion. But while the premise of interactive communications is solid, the question of what you should be offering and for how much is far from settled.
Read the blogs, tweets, and comments from self-styled social-media anthropologists, gurus, and experts, and you might think you’ve stepped into a Field of Dreams laced with a good dash of Depression-era fantasy. While listening to calls to “plunge in—your audience is waiting!” you should beware a central strategy worth questioning: Whatever knowledge it is that sets you apart, these folks are telling you to give it away for free.
In some instances, that could be the right thing to do, but as an overall strategy, it’s radical enough to deserve more skepticism than it has received thus far. What you know, after all, is what you’re paid to provide—so how exactly does putting your product out there for free add to your bottom line?
Back in 2007, the alternative rock band Radiohead bought into “free” and released its seventh album, In Rainbows, online for the price of. . .well, whatever purchasers thought the music was worth. Was it radical? Yes, enough to get significant attention. But was it profitable—or lasting? The band called the gambit a “financial success,” but never released information about either the average amount paid or the total profits it brought in. Unofficial reports indicated that more than 60% of “purchasers” chose to pay nothing. Take note: When Radiohead’s eighth album came out, in February, it came as no big surprise that “free” was not an option.
Proponents of content and new media marketing will often point to examples such Google and Facebook to back up their assertions—no question, amazingly successful companies that have become extremely wealthy by providing something for nothing. But there’s a crucial aspect to their business models that can’t be ignored: Those free-service users aren’t the customers; they are, instead, the commodity being sold as advertising targets to a sprawling market of paying clients. Google and Facebook do give out gift certificates for ad space (on the model of a dealer offering a taste), but we’re talking about a very limited sample for free, not a smorgasbord.
So how should we view “free” as a key concept for business promotion? In a word, it’s poppycock, like most one-size-fits-all strategies. Demonstrations and free help have their place, but that place isn’t central unless you want to be very well-liked and out of business.
Content promotion is a tactic designed to build relationships and trust with the people with whom you want to work—it’s not a nebulous quest for good karma. To that end, there are realistic guidelines you should keep in mind for responsible social marketing and PR:
- You must know who you are trying to reach and why.
- Your content must not only be useful, but should demonstrate why your product or service is worth buying.
- You must track metrics and judge your success—always remembering the fundamental question of any PR campaign: Is this working?
“Free” has a nice ring to it, but like having loss leaders in a store, the point of taking a hit in one area has to be a strategic gamble to profit in another. Your free content has to work for your sales goals, not against them, by enticing prospects and generating attention for your brilliant insights and novel approaches. Do as the gurus say and you could very well find yourself on the losing end of a fire sale, having liquidated intellectual capital that’s hard to restock.
Do what the gurus do, however, and you’ll be on the right track. Check any social media expert’s Web site, and you’ll find short, inspirational posts, longer case studies, exhortations to jump on the bandwagon, and links to downloadable resources promising more insight—all for a price. That’s right: Even among its biggest proponents, “free” has its limits.
Consider carefully what messaging will build relationships that result in sales, not just “likes” and a high visitor count. Used—and gauged—properly, content marketing is worthwhile and effective. But done thoughtlessly, without audience targets and some serious strategy behind what exactly goes up on that blog or Web site, it’s a waste of time—or worse. Never forget that the audience you want is one that’s willing to pay, so don’t give away all of the milk for free.