There Is No Free Lunch. Or Free Media.

In his post on Advertising Age’s Small Agency Diary, Marc Brownstein offers some thinking on ‘free media’ and whether or not it poses a threat to advertising and media agencies.  Despite the soaring popularity of social media, do brand efforts in these media advance the strategy and differentiate the product?  Can a fanpage create enough attraction on its own without an introduction via a TV commercial?  Is the platform even viable for self-promoting sales messages?

What?  All You Got Is A Hammer?

What? All You Got Is A Hammer?

In the end, Marc gently and tactfully demurs, his answer boiling down to “possibly, kinda, but not really…’  I’ll be more direct; absolutely not.  There is simply no way ‘free media’ will usurp paid media. First of all, the entire notion that there are ‘free media’ is flawed.  The placement of brand messages within social networks may not have an associated cost the way a spot does, but the time required to create bespoke responses to each individual inquiry/complaint/compliment/request for more information can be staggering.  For most companies, the current means of working social media amounts to little more than a new take on the old department store complaint office; you create a human face for the brand that allows people to talk and engage directly and conveniently.  But that requires staffing.  And man hours.  And training.  None of which come free.  I far prefer the title ‘earned media’–and savvy companies that commit to that investment are very likely to earn meaningful media placements in this emerging space, if for no other reason than there efforts will be have a strategic foundation.

Second, advocates love to trot out a few high profile examples of success in these arenas to demonstrate the emerging power of social media.  While a few efforts merit our attention, even those require a bit more sober assessment.  Yes, @DellOutlet is a notable success story for social media with it’s Twitter-exclusive offers and 600,000+ followers.  Its growth has been phenomenal, earning two million in annual sales in less than two years.  All of which is remarkable.  But it’s chicken scratch compared to the company’s total 2008 revenues of $61 billion.  Twitter sales represent maybe .003% of total Dell revenues, which makes me think it’s a bit premature to toss aside the traditional media powered sales channels and throw everything into free media.

And lastly, do consumers really welcome brands as active participants in these spaces?  They are, after all, social networks; the ‘social’ notion comes first and foremost.  Some brands can navigate this challenge, offering enough interesting content to keep people engaged, but that requires consistent, steady effort to insure your exchanges mesh with the brand’s strategic voice.  Treating social media as a separate silo will inevitably create dissonance between brand messages.

I believe every brand should engage with social media because brands are opinions and social networks let marketers assess ever-shifting consumer opinions of their brands in real time basis. Since social networking provides opinion with a powerful mass channel, marketers must take steps to actively influence brand opinion in that channel.  This is why we see such powerful convergence in the form of advertising and word-of-mouth.

If you truly want to integrate your messages, you can never rely on simply one tool.  You need to use you entire toolbox in thoughtful, strategic concert to build a truly great brand.

by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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