The Hidden Costs of Social Media Marketing and How to Beat Them

It isn't enough to know that social media marketing is more expensive than it looks ... you'll find out eventually. You need a plan to make it work.

If you’ve actually done social media marketing – complete with targets and budgets and accountability for both – you know that it’s neither cheap nor easy. I’ve been singing this tune here at SocialTimes for a while, but that’s irrelevant to anyone who’s actually lived it, especially at a big firm or publicly traded company. It’s easy to be deceived, though. Actual costs conceal effort, and ultimately, it’s the results that speak for themselves.

Sometimes, when you take a look at the cost you pay per click or impressions, the visibility and leads you’re paying for seem dirt cheap. Measure them up against other forms of advertising, and it almost feels like theft. Well, it pays to keep the hidden costs in mind, too, according to a recent report in AdAge.

The article states:

Although few CMOs will admit this, social media costs less to execute on a per-impression basis than TV, print and radio. But the organizational cost — both the number of people needed to execute these programs and the changes to corporate culture — can be significant.

Social media takes bodies. Every time I sit down to tweet the day’s headlines, from the publications I market now, I’m acutely aware of how long it’s taking … especially if I also have email marketing copy to write, a strategic plan to refine or projects to manage. Most of the time spent in social media, once you get your initiative off the ground, is grunt work. There aren’t many grand ideas in pushing Facebook updates and finding Twitter-friendly alternatives to headlines.

It’s all about manpower.

This is where social media can get expensive. Back in the days when I managed a corporate blog for a financial industry company, I found that hard-dollar costs plunged … and along with it our costs per impression (and costs per highly targeted impression). On the other hand, it was time-consuming, especially for content strategy, development and approval. There’s no question as to the ROI that came with it, but there was an up-front soft-dollar cost that couldn’t be ignored.

In AdAge, marketing executives from ConAgra, Coca-Cola and Ford weigh in on the implicit costs of social media marketing, with ConAgra indicating that a social media campaign may have 10 percent of a TV campaign’s budget but still require 75 percent of the resource-hours.

Notes AdAge:

Social media demands the mindset of a PR professional married to the skills of a top marketer. Your organization needs to be broad and smart enough to put out lots of polished programs but resilient enough to see many of them fizzle and keep adjusting until you get it right.

It’s true.

Coca-Cola identified five attributes necessary for great social media communicators, according to AdAge: great storytelling, technical fluency with social media, comfort with the unknown, smart risk-taking and strong collaboration skills.

This, also, is true.

Now, social media marketing can be more expensive than it looks, have a high risk of failure and require a collection of characteristics that can be difficult to identify, find in an organization (or hire for) and cultivate. It sounds like the odds are stacked against you … and they are. There’s a reason why most social media programs fail, a risk with which you should come to grips up front.

You can find those from AdAge at the bottom of its article, but I’ll provide a few of my own:

1. Set clear objectives: there is absolutely no substitute for this. If the person (and ultimately you want one person who is accountable) cannot rattle off every objective you have and progress against each quickly, you have the wrong person in that position.

2. Figure out how to establish your social media presence: are you going to hunt and invite followers all day long … and then hope for organic growth? That’s absurd, especially if you work for a sizeable business. You’ll need to use traditional marketing measures to attract friends, fans and followers. Make sure you figure out what this will cost your company.

3. Make sure you are calculating ROI correctly: just looking at the tiny hard-dollar costs associated with a Facebook ad campaign or an inexpensive hosted WordPress environment is nuts. Think about the time your staff will have to commit to this endeavor – and what they will have to give up to do so.

4. Measure, measure, measure: figure out how often you need to see the data that matters most, from followers to conversions and top-line revenue, and make sure it’s provided. There should never be any question as to how your social media marketing initiative is performing. Know what you’re getting for what you’re spending.

5. Work out an approval process up front: you are going to want approvals in place, particularly for blog posts and definitely if you are in a highly regulated industry. While you don’t want to get bogged down in over-planning (which is a real risk), it’s also smart to avoid brand risk and litigation. Develop a process by which the right people see content before the rest of the world. Doing so will make it easier to manage the environment … and get buy-in early on. A faster operation also reduces soft costs.

[Hat tip, @thejongardner]