Have businesses been thinking ‘free media’ rather than social media?

As social media channels strive for profits has the balance shifted towards them becoming paid media channels?

How does having to pay for the media change the way we think about content and its role in driving business?

Is the term ‘social media’ still relevant or have we entered the ‘connective media’ age?

There are countless definitions of social media to choose from; personally I’ve always favoured, “media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques.”

But, what exactly does ‘highly accessible’ and scalable’ actually mean?

Well it’s been taken to mean,

  • free to use
  • openly available to anyone
  • doesn’t require specialist knowledge
  • can be scaled up to reach millions of people

Now ask yourself – ‘does that sound like a sustainable model to you’?

If we want to examine the idea further we can take Facebook as an example.

Why Facebook?

Well, because it’s the largest, longest running and most widely adopted social network we have to base our insights on.

Does Facebook think that the current situation is sustainable?

Well, according to Facebook,

“on average, 1,500 pieces of content can appear in each person’s News Feed each day, yet due to space and time constraints, Facebook typically serves up only 300 pieces of this content a day.”

They say,

“Content that is eligible to be shown in news feed is increasing at a faster rate than people’s ability to consume it.”


“We expect organic distribution of an individual page’s posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site.”

To put that in perspective, organic reach currently sits at 16% for users and business page’s alike – some expect that number to fall as low as 2%.

So, what is the answer?

Facebook says,

“We’re getting to a place where because more people are sharing more things, the best way to get your stuff seen if you’re a business is to pay for it.”

Let’s face it, you offer businesses or individuals a free route to express their ideas and opinions, they’ll use it.

Eventually, as everyone rushes to speak it becomes more and more difficult to hear the individual conversations over the white noise.

That is what’s happening on Facebook…

…and it’s happening across the social media landscape.

Every minute

  • 100 Hours of Video are uploaded to YouTube
  • 546,000 tweets are sent on Twitter
  • 347 blog posts are published via WordPress
  • 38,000 new photos added to Instagram
  • 2,083 check-ins on Foursquare

If up until now you’ve been guilty of thinking ‘free media’ rather than ‘social media’, it’s time to revaluate your ideas.

Content is still king, but money rules.

Those with the budgets can afford better content and wider distribution. They can afford the best creative minds, and the most accurate data.

So, let’s return to our earlier definition of social media,

“media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques.

Is social media still accessible to the average business? Or is it more accurate to say that we have entered the ‘connective media’ age?


  • Reach is paid for
  • Specialist knowledge is required
  • Investment in quality creative is the norm

Kind of like it was before, with ‘traditional marketing’.

But, of course our ‘new’ media marketing has other benefits.

  • It’s more measurable
  • It’s more personal
  • It’s more authentic

Except, of course, when

  • The measurements don’t relate to business outcomes
  • The updating is outsourced to an agency
  • Brands pay people to say good things about them

The truth is that social media marketing is coming of age in 2014.

And it’s time to get serious.

The rules haven’t really changed. Good marketing is still about

Markets, messages and channels – The right message, delivered to the right audience at the right time.

You just have more channels to choose from, and a better idea of who your customer is.

That is, if you choose to listen.

Because, the core difference between social media and other forms of marketing lies in your ability to hear your customer, not in your ability to speak to them.

If you choose to listen, your business can benefit from unrivalled insight into your customers.

Not just demographics, or even technographics, but psychographics too.

You can put a face to your customer.

So, taking all that on board. How do I recommend you use this information in 2014?

1. Get to know your customer

Stop talking, start listening.

Go away from here and identify what information you can already access that will tell you more about your customers.

Look at what your followers talk about on Twitter, read how your clients describe their role on LinkedIn, check in on those Facebook Insights.

Review your customer database. What information do you store already? What information should you be storing? What can you learn from the data?

Everyone’s talking about ‘Big Data’ – but what about the ‘Small Data’ you’re already ignoring in your own business?

The deeper you understand your customer, the more chance you have in making your marketing effective in engaging their interest.

2. Know what you want to achieve

Likes, comments and shares are what ‘brand awareness’ was 10 years ago – a vanity metric that means nothing without sales.

It may be unfashionable to talk about selling on social media, but if you’re not selling more, what are you doing it all for?

The R in ROI is for Return – know what it is that you want to achieve before investing.

These should be tangible business outcomes such as:

  • New customers
  • Sales value
  • Repeat business
  • Customer lifetimes
  • Reduced lead times

Benchmark them at the start, review your progress against them.

It is not good enough that nearly 75% of all businesses still do not know how to measure the success of their social activities.

3. Plan to achieve it

Armed with the understanding of your customer, in the full knowledge of what it is you want to achieve, take the hard decisions now.

The I in ROI is for investment – know what it is you are willing to invest in order to achieve the outcomes you have identified.

And remember,

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

A content schedule is a great way to plan your activity, but not at the expense of strategy. Likewise a strategy without action is nothing more than firelighters.

Don’t isolate your social activity from other business functions. The best strategies are those that combine the big picture with the detail.

Aim for a ‘social business’ – one that delivers value to its customers, its employees and the wider community. Working together, everyone wins – and that was what social media was supposed to be all about.

This text and accompanying slides were originally delivered as a talk to the Cornwall Digital Meetup Group on Wednesday 22nd January 2014. 




About the Author

I’m fascinated by how a company or organisation can change its fortunes and even undergo a transformation by looking at a challenge in a different way and by behaving in different ways.

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