No More Free Lunches: Should Your Business Spend on Social?

Social media have now expanded into all corners of our lives. Whether reconnecting with long lost friends or researching review of our purchases, the eyeballs available on social channels almost rival those of more familiar mass media. [caption id="attachment_1177" align="aligncenter" width="500"]couple staring at smartphones "Social" Media?[/caption] Television still rules the roost, while radio and print remain strong marketing options as well but, in some cases, social has surpassed traditional channels for both audience and engagement. Aware of this shift in focus, many businesses are quickly making the move to these alternative online channels, eager to attract and inform potential customers, answer questions about their industries, and be there when those browsing are ready to buy. 

Free Lunches at Facebook (and Twitter)

What started out as an affordable way to connect with consumers organically on exciting new media channels has become a noisy environment with a lot of competition. While the only cost a few years ago was the time an employee spent on crafting social content, the times they are a changing. In the early days of Facebook, a business page had similar reach to that of a personal profile. People like your page, you post your content, fans see updates from your business. Twitter had a similar situation, albeit with little distinction between professional or personal accounts and much more of a firehose feel to the feed. Facebook's Edgerank algorithm had some power to filter out uninteresting content, but for the most part businesses could rely on accessing their audience. This gave an early adopter advantage to businesses brave enough to jump into the social stream without knowing exactly what would work. They were able to build up significant fan and follower bases with no advertising costs and use those channels to reliably reach out customers with relevant messaging. Not everything could be a hard sell, of course. Social media marketing has always been about communication over commercials. But this more consistent connection was based on the assumption that most fans, who remember have voluntarily liked the page and effectively "opted in" to receive these updates, would at a minimum see the posts. Likes, comments and conversions were the measures of success, with reach something of a given. Around the time of Facebook's IPO, however, things started to change. 

The Final Days of Free Reach?

For business pages at least, it appears that the party is over when it comes to free reach and (almost) unhindered access to your Facebook fans. Despite the fact that these folks have liked your page voluntarily, there’s limited space in the social network's News Feed and that Edgerank algorithm we mentioned is slowly being adjusted so that only the most engaging content surfaces. That's Facebook's public relations rationale, anyway. Behind closed doors, Mark Zuckerberg's college project is now a multi-billion dollar business that must answer to shareholders and prove its revenue growth each and every quarter. Whichever is true, and it's likely to be a little bit of both, businesses new to the network are unlikely to expand their reach without some expenditure. Pure organic growth requires either a team of the most skilled content marketers on the planet, or a brand with enough recognition in other arenas to immediately translate . If you're a small to medium size business, both of those options are probably a little out of reach. What that leaves is to play Facebook's game and pay for the privilege of reaching its users, whether they're nuattached or already fans of your page. Which begs the next question: is spending on social worth it?facebook dislike thumbs downShould You Pay for Social Reach?

In short, yes, advertising on social networks is worthwhile. But wait a second, don't buy that ad just yet! There are some pre-requisites your business should have to justify this vote in favor of social media spending. Can you tick all of the following boxes?

  • Have objectives already set up for your social profiles. Do you want increased engagement (likes and shares), more visitors to your website, to build brand awareness, or something else? Don't burn through your budget without a goal to aim at.
  • Have a target audience in mind. The ability to zero in on exactly the right type of person who could become a customer is the biggest strength of most social media advertising. Don't fall into the trap of targeting by just one or two filter or, worse still, simply going after everyone. Have a specific audience set in mind and spend your time fine-tuning your messages to them.
  • Steer away from direct sales. This is still social media, even if you're now paying for the privilege of reaching people. Keep your promoted posts and sponsored stories focused on entertainment and engagement, above all else.
  • Understand the advertising environment on any social network you select. Each platform has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you learn what is and is not working for others before you spend too much money finding ot the hard way.

With these considerations in mind,many business marketer are finding success with Facebook ads, as well as experimenting with the likes of Twitter. Instagram and Pinterest ads are also on the horizon, which means experimenting now is probably as cheap as it's going to get. What’s occurring at the moment is a cautious appreciation of social media advertising, with Facebook suffering only a slight loss of goodwill for pulling the rug of reach from under businesses who have been there for years. If anything, most owners (with the obvious exception of Mark Cuban!) seem to have not only accepted the change, but many are starting to embrace the expanded opportunities for engagement that social ad platforms offer. A recent Ad Age study suggest that around half of brand advertisers surveyed will “modestly increase” their social media ad spend on Facebook this year, with only a 5% gap between those who say they will do the same on Twitter. As usual Facebook takes a major chunk of that change, with 11% of those asked planning a significant increase. Such studies show that very few marketers will be willing to move their spending away from social, which quashes any talk of any major flow away from Facebook. To stand out from the crowd in future, more and more companies will to have to up their social media budget, meaning most of the anti-Facebook posturing is just that, grumbling before the inevitable acceptance of this new digital marketing reality. In the long term this simply means we are all likely to accept the need to pay for certain types of social media attention, just as we would any other popular marketing channel. The transition from free lunch to paid media feast will be tough at first, but those with the right marketing tools and tactics will come out with a belly full of new business. If all this social media chatter has you hungry for more, fill your plate with great marketing advice by connecting with us on the following networks!

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