Social Media isn’t a Free Lunch.

The other day I was at a networking event that concerned itself with why more PR firms aren’t using social media as a tool to connect with the public. There were many arguments talking about why social media is great tool for getting third party credibility for a business.

The arguments for social media as a practical PR tool were sound but they failed to realize one key fact regarding social media, it is expensive. The average social media user sees social media as a series of free services that help people connect, this is true, but social media is something quite different to a PR professional.

To understand why PR firms see social media as expensive you have to realize how a PR firm works. Most PR firms are set up on billable hours, similar to a law firm. Different levels of PR people, in a firm, bill or track the hours spent working on a client as billable hours.

Depending on the level of the PR professional depends on how much they bill. When you view social media in this mindset, with the idea that the time I spend working on a client is billable, you can see how social media can be viewed as an expensive service.

To effectively use social media your connections have to be genuine. Creating connections with people that are passionate about a subject takes time. Basic PR tools like press releases and media alerts do not work. The PR professional has to have a genuine connection with the person they are trying to connect with; something that takes time (money) in the PR world.

Granted, the returns on social media can be amazing if it works. But convincing a client that I am going to charge you anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars talking to bloggers and making social connections is a tough sell.

From the client’s viewpoint their money can be much better spent perusing traditional media. It is not that a client doesn’t want the next social media /viral marketing hit it is instead a matter of simple economics. Where best to spend my limited budget.

On the flip side of this argument many startups find the ROI on social media a much sounder investment. At a startup you have many people willing to dedicate time (usually for less money) that will allow them to generate real social media connections.

I am not saying social media is a bad investment, on the contrary I think social media is a great tool for any company. I am simply trying to explain why some companies have an apprehension on investing money in social media.

Have you found any difficulties selling social media in your line of work? Do you have any tips for our readers out there who are trying to explain why social media works? Let me know.