Woe The Digital Sale: Do I Hear The Word 'Free'?

Question from a media buyer: We're getting pressed by our clients to get more "free media" for them, but it's getting harder to do. They expect social media to cover the gaps, but even social sites can't guarantee anything. We have to pay for it all. Since we buy media on social sites, what about getting social media with other sites too?

Jason says: I'll get right on it as soon as I figure out how to get free WiFi and batteries. What is guaranteed these days? I think it's safe to say only death, taxes -- and that your video won't go viral.

Of course, as apparent as this is to those of us sitting on the sales side, it doesn't stop clients from asking. Advertisers are not exactly asking in the literal sense. Rather, they are regularly and generously hinting that it would sure help things if we can promise some viral (free) impressions for their video content. Duh.

I am far from an expert when it comes to what the value of social media is when compared to professional media. (My status on Facebook is, "Since you won't let me close my account, please stop stalking me via e-mail.") Many smarter people have tried to figure out the equation for that scenario. I actually think it's a false question. We try to keep things simple and talk about the value of the impression you are making on the potential customer. If that happens to be on a web site adjacent to professional brand-name content, fine. If that professional adjacency lends more credibility to your advertising message, fantastic. And if that piece of content happens to draw a large number of visitors because it becomes inordinately popular and your ad goes along for the ride, then it's quite the lucky break.



From what I hear, there are a few companies that will promise advertisers they can guarantee "earned media" over the course of a campaign. I am, naturally, skeptical. I find that it's impossible, in any way, to force a person to view any content.

So for all you sellers who are being asked to guarantee something viral, you'll need to assure your clients that the best means of getting attention for their brands is to place them in the best possible position, where their audience is receptive to their message.

The client needs to gather as much knowledge as they can about who, what, when and where their message is best received. Then they need to make a bet. There should be enough of an investment to ensure a real chance that this opportunity will play out and prove worthwhile.

There is clearly a lack of conviction in our business these days. The "let's test this in a small manner" attitude has led to small successes, not big victories.

As the saying goes, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Now, I'm off to try and figure out my neighbor's WiFi password in search of some "unearned media."

Amy says: Free media -- or added-value impressions, as we used to call them -- no longer exists. Sarbanes-Oxley regulation put a stop to that. Now we have social media which becomes the catch-all to extend any kind of campaign. Clients and agencies alike are asking, how can Facebook/YouTube/Twitter/NextBigThing make this campaign work harder, get more impressions, get consumers to start talking about our brand, etc. The paid, owned, earned media model is a holistic one. You can't just focus on the earned media and hope it works.

Also, do paid media properties or professional media companies even have the ability to generate viral interest from consumers? Media companies produce a product. That product is content and they make money when consumers view their content. It seems unlikely that media companies are going to be willing to try to divert eyeballs from their content to anyone else's content for free. And they are using social media themselves to try to do the same thing that advertisers are doing.

The best approach is to try to strategize at the beginning of a campaign of how to make the paid, owned, earned model work. Aencies need to be bringing this kind of value to their clients.

Social media as a discipline is still in its infancy. As a digital media professional who built a career in the paid media space, I'm constantly looking at social media properties and consumer behavior to find the best ways to impressions against owned and earned, because buying social media can really take a big chunk out of a campaign budget.

Social media seems to be stepping out of the earned media camp and further into paid media everyday. But consumers aren't necessary noticing this. And as the industry evolves and benchmarks are determined, we may be able to get back to a place where viral advertising can become a reality. For now, you get what you pay for in most cases -- except for that rare exception that keeps us all wanting.

My advice is to keep trying and you will figure out tactics that do generate interest in social media for "free." Social media now is what display advertising was in the early years. Then the IAB did XMOS studies and roadshows, leading digital companies did their part to educate clients -- and now display advertising continues to grow, mature and prosper. Social media is going to need this same kind of deconstruction and analysis so the industry can get on the same page about what to expect.

4 comments about "Woe The Digital Sale: Do I Hear The Word 'Free'?".
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  1. Rick Monihan from None, July 14, 2011 at 3:50 p.m.

    I'm not sure "Added Value" has ceased to exist. I'd say it's taken on new terminology, but it certainly still plays a role at alot of media outlets. I have always had a love/hate relationship with the concept, though. Why should "Added Value" be part of a package? Why not just build it in and lower the CPM? Let's stop playing silly games. The only "benefit" of "added value" is that it's not guaranteed. But it is, sort of, because if you don't deliver the impressions you said you would, the agency will make sure you hear about it. It's a slim benefit, at best.

    The concept of "getting something for free" is ludicrous. When I go to the Apple Store, the grocery store, or the liquor store, and make a purchase, then ask for Added Value - I get blank stares. Why is media so different? Maybe because when we head out to the pub after work, we're all hoping to get the bartender to give us our "buybacks" and that sets us in a particular frame of mind?

    When you tack on the "viral" question, I take another deep breath. The idea that you can successfully plan out and execute a viral strategy every time you're asked say the least. Viral works because, well, it's VIRAL for God's Sake!!! It vectors in ways we can't imagine. While it's possible to plan a viral campaign, there are never guarantees of any kind that they will yield results.

    It's time for business to be done straight up, in my opinion. If you purchase impressions, then you purchase impressions. The "free stuff" is part of your purchase. Come to think of it, maybe there's a reason it's free....perhaps it's "undesirable" to begin with? I can't remember ever giving away something as Added Value that I knew had purchase interest shown in it.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 14, 2011 at 6:46 p.m.

    Nothing is free.

  3. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, July 14, 2011 at 7:21 p.m.

    Amy and Jason,

    I own Sweepstakes Today, (ST) and is one of the sites tartgeted as "Free". There are several "Blackbook" companies that the PR agencies and marketing companies goto for the "Freebies".

    I have told many I don't work for free and they politely removed me from the blackbook. Others didn't. One yesterday sent for the 12th time, a PR email asking to put up their sweep for free. I was tired of trying to be nice. I called them up and called them every name in the book. They didn't it was right??? Well working for free isn't right either is it? Especially since I told them 11 other times.

    What you don't know is ST is now bigger in the USA in publishing sweepstakes than Facebook. Yes, this is correct. This came from 3 different large ad agencies and their sponsors after the sweeps were over.

    So, tell me, why should I work for free? Better, tell me why ST passing Facebook in sweepstakes is not a bigger story?

  4. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, July 15, 2011 at 12:13 p.m.

    GREAT insight from two very smart people -- and Richard, I get your take on "added value" but in the online space -- you can find examples of real value placed in the "added value column" -- for example, a site may build out a custom channel for an advertiser to sponsor but has no idea how much traffic that channel will get -- so that component may be priced at "zero" but to get that as part of the buy, the advertiser must spend X amount at a certain CPM. As always Richard, your comments really stand out -- you should write a guest column!

    Thanks again Jason and Amy for shedding such clear insight on a complicated subject.

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