Interest in so-called free media is a big driver of advertiser interest in social media, but do companies achieve value in free media that is out of proportion to their investment in earning it? Does the advertiser pursuit of free media kill the social media party?
Early adopters love social media for the cachet and for the new freedom and power they find and build. Early adopters -- trendsetters -- populate and build the content of social media and when they achieve critical mass social media can grow very fast and become very large. Mainstream users follow the cognoscenti, helping the service achieve a scale that makes it a beacon to marketers. Then marketers move in, polluting the purely social interaction, the content and the social flow -- that was formerly so attractive to its audience -- with advertising messages. It is like having people in sandwich boards at your party.
Marketers who are ahead of the curve adopt smart media strategies to earn their free media that are indeed successful in these environments. The emphasis here is on the "earned" part of that thought. The smartest marketers invest brains, innovation and time -- and get a disproportionate ROI because they are first. Then they tout their efforts at conferences, and others follow -- only to achieve less stellar results. So then these advertisers figure they can't get the free media they have heard about, but maybe a media company can, so thy ask for it in the media RFP. And finally the social media company itself decides it can sell some of that so called free media. With advertisers actively inserting their marketing in social media- -- trying to earn their media -- it becomes less natural and social. Add on paid messages, like Promoted Tweets, and it becomes less natural, and necessarily less social.
The real free media available takes a lot of time and effort and money to earn.
As more commercialization moves in, marketers have to work harder and harder to "earn" their "free" media.
After discovering and building a social media environment that makes them feel special, early adopters discover that too many followers make their online social home not so attractive anymore. The market leaders then find a newer, cooler, and commercial-free environment and begin to migrate there just like hipsters move on from the formerly cool night spot when the hoi polloi begin taking up too much space.
The phenomenon of the trendsetters moving on may be pre-destined. Or it may be that the marketers' search for free media finally makes the migration all but certain. Paid tweets in the Twitter stream, and too many commercial messages from marketers I "like" crowding out the value in the Facebook message wall, are the seeds of the decline.
With so much pressure on marketers to generate ROI, it is no wonder they will explore every angle to get more for their fixed marketing spend. I coach salespeople to agree with advertisers that they should should get as much for free as possible, but then point out that business works on the basis of getting what you pay for. That is what we strive to do for marketers: promise they will get what they pay for. We succeed by doing a really good job of that. If we deliver with efficiency -- and as promised, build our marketing partners' business -- they will buy more the next time.
Perhaps that illuminates the other part of the problem with free: It doesn't scale.