Free Social Media Sites Have Their Price

2010 was a great year for marketing folks to get back some of its mojo and play with some toys in the social media sandbox, but the people who really fueled all the excitement was the collective “me” who enjoyed the dim limelight telling the world what “we” are doing, where “we” are going, what “we” are thinking via Twitter, Facebook  and other social media. In fact, any marketing would be impossible without their participation. But it seems like our oversharing culture also ended up getting stuck in the marketer’s web.

We know many social media began as communities, not money-making rackets. But the game has changed – when the marketing light bulb turned on, many social media sites started using our information as opportunistically as they can. As it turns out, it is pretty much a slam-dunk to contact customers and prospects directly.  The implications of this windfall have reverberated through every company’s communications plan, large or small, who in the past felt one step away from their coveted targets. Customer not happy with your product and slamming it on your Facebook Fan page?  You can respond – quickly and publicly. Getting feedback that your customers want a certain type of deal?  You can Twitter it. Want to attract hungry people close to your restaurant? Bring on the mobile phone coupon and your next diner could be walking through the door.

And while subscribers can opt in or out of communications preferences (including being contacted by third parties) we still complain about privacy on the free sites we use.  Sites that do dismiss our privacy rights need to be punished more effectively to make a real difference (think Zynga, Facebook). I seriously wonder how many of us even read  those fuzzy, long-winded legalese before we click “I Agree”?  Privacy rights should still be expected – paid or not – but we are also more than willing to give up personal information to get on these sites for free. Heck, even WordPress is gratis. And yes I signed up for the weekly digest and we are very happy together.

This also brings up the concept of “free” in general. We know it is an extremely powerful word in marketing. This begs the question: how many of us would be on these social media sites  if we had to pay?  We would have to do a value analysis on each one, and some would very likely be eliminated from our bookmarks. Conversely, every good marketer knows how difficult it is to charge for a service that was initially free. Some have had mild success while others use a softer approach with add-on/upgrade strategies (examples: Linkedin, Twitter).

The bottom-line? The collective “me”  made an unspoken pact with free sites when we got on them to share our desires, jobs, travels, loves, thoughts, and everything else.  Acknowledging the tradeoffs openly may be the first step.

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