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2014 – The year when the ‘free’ social media mktg gravy train derailed

The year 2014 may be remembered by digital marketers everywhere as the year when social media ceased to become a free-to-play platform. Today, the three big social networks – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – are all public listed companies with responsibilities to their shareholders to return profits. As a result, we’ve seen an increasing number of advertising tools being rolled out, from Facebook’s sponsored updates to Twitter’s sponsored tweets.

At the same time, there has been a much-discussed scaling back of organic reach for brand pages on Facebook, which fell from a previous average of 10 – 15 percent to a speculated 1 – 2 percent today. LinkedIn is removing the Products & Services section from company pages and asking brands to use their Showcase Pages product. And finally, in a move that may herald a push for increased advertising in the future, Twitter is adding a ‘tweet views’ counter – anyone want to bet that brands who are seeing tweet views much lower than the number of their followers will buy paid products like sponsored tweets? It’s pretty much a no-brainer there.

Yet, I think it’s important to remember here that social media marketing has always been more effective when powerful copywriting and/or content is combined with a media buy. They should be seen as working hand-in-hand. However, the fact is that social media had been overhyped in its early days as a free tool (aside from time investment) and that has created a long-lasting perception up until today that it should be and remain free. If you take the time to think about it, Mark Zuckerberg, Dick Costolo and Jeff Weiner are running businesses, so why should they be providing their services free of charge? How would they pay their employees if that was the case?

With all the developments, it’s important to reframe our perception of social media as a free tool for brands to engage with customers. That said, I’m also not advocating that you pay to promote or advertise every single post that you put up – you’d destroy your monthly media budget in a couple of weeks if that were the case! Here are a couple of steps I’ve thought about as to how social media or digital marketing practitioners can adapt to the death of free-to-play:

#1 Be selective
As I hinted in the earlier paragraph, choose and cherry pick which content you’d like to promote. While every piece of content is important (I’ll assume that you have a solid content strategy in place already), you’ll notice that some pieces have very clear call-to-actions which can impact the business, while some others are really sustenance measures for engaging followers. I’d recommend boosting content which helps drive revenues, generate leads, drive website traffic or boost your following on the platform, like contests and promotions.

#2 Buy engagement, not followers
Building on the point about your following or brand community, if you’re familiar with advertising on Facebook, you’d have noticed that there are two main ways in which you can optimise an ad – maximise engagement or maximise the number of new page likes. In my opinion, it doesn’t make sense to buy followers, based on the math involved – with a 1 – 2 percent engagement rate, you’d have to buy an additional 100 followers in order to get an extra person to engage organically with your brand for every piece of content. I feel that it makes more sense to optimise ads for engagement and gain some additional likes in the process. After all, as mentioned in point one above, optimising for engagement can help drive actions which create business value.

#3 Invest in creating good content
Content marketing has been one of the biggest buzzwords this year, but behind the hype is a belief that strong content forms the core of grabbing the attention of the desired target audience in an era where we are being bombarded by content from every side. Whilst social networks have become pay to play, good content allows brands to leverage the network effect, spreading that piece of content for free. But if you think good content automatically guarantees free exposure without needing to pay advertising dollars – how about flipping that thought upside down and imagining how much more exposure you’d get by paying to boost that piece of content?

On the topic of content creation, I won’t deny that the cost, while not astronomically expensive, is definitely not as cheap as curating content put up by others. That said, there are smart ways to defray the cost of creation. One method which I practice is called COPE – Create Once, Publish Everywhere. If you have a good content idea, sure put it up on social media after creating the asset. But also think about how you can leverage it for other channels – earned media (pitches or bylines to journalists / bloggers), direct mailers, online ads, print ads and so on.

The bottomline here is, while the free social media gravy train is slowly but surely grinding to a halt, this doesn’t mean that we should start abandoning all the platforms and communities that we have built. That said, brands can view this as a wake-up call to take a step back and examine their overall social media strategy. From there, invest time and money accordingly into which brings better value to the business.

Julian Chow

Julian Chow is a Digital Consultant at Text100 in Singapore. Mr Chow has been with Text 100 Singapore for four years, and leads new business development for integrated communications briefs along with providing client counsel for digital, PR and integrated communications accounts on a strategic level. His client roster past and present covers big brands such as Lenovo, SanDisk, BlackBerry, Nokia, Cisco, Adobe, ZUJI, Red Hat, Gemalto, Schneider Electric and PayPal, covering a host of activities spanning social media marketing, community management, advocacy programmes, direct marketing, event marketing, blogger engagement and media relations. Mr Chow's work on two campaigns, Nokia Rangers and Flip Your Profile for Cisco Consumer Products, was nominated for the Holmes Report Global and APAC SABRE Awards, with the Flip Your Profile Campaign eventually bagging the award for Best Blogger Outreach on a global and APAC level, while the Nokia Rangers Campaign won Best Multi-Market Campaign in APAC.