Is social media really free?

[Plus Branding]( “Plus Branding”)I met today with a local Kitchener-Waterloo Graphic Designer, Umberto Micheli of [Plus Branding]( “Plus Branding”) to exchange ideas and experiences and stories about being self employed as a designer in today’s tough economy. It doesn’t seem to matter what sector you are referring to, the bottom line always looks the same; you have to spend money if you stand a chance of coming out the other end smelling like roses.

Of course our perspectives differed a little. I take online presence and social media for granted and Umberto knows the ins-n-outs or drop mailers and print advertising. The later comes at a real cost, like cold hard cash kind of cost while the former is free… or is it?

It got me thinking when I got home, what’s the real cost of social media and online marketing? What is the mental tax and real cost of labour involved. I bet when it really comes down to it, dollar for dollar, the physical path become a lot cheaper then the metaphysical path.

###Real World vs Online
Consider this; a graphic artist may put anywhere from 2 to 6 hours into a flyer, that flyer gets printed for a couple hundred dollars, that flyer gets handed out home to home for a couple hundred more. Regardless of internet connectivity or technical know-how, the information on that flyer has now reached thousands of homes guaranteed, and may very well remain there anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Heck if your flyer is a Pizza or Chinese food menu, that flyer might remain stuck on the fridge for years to come. Total cost for such longevity? Anywhere from $500 to $5000.

Now let’s look at the flip side, social media and the “free” online presence. You want to maximize your impact, so you invest your “free” time in a blog, [Twitter]( “Twitter: What are you doing?”), [FaceBook]( “Incompatible Browser | Facebook”), [LinkedIn]( “LinkedIn: Relationships Matter”) and maybe a pinch of [Tumblr]( “Tumblr”) if you’re really in the game. But what kind of investment are we talking about here? Do you want your blog to be really noticed? Then you have to post to it more than once a week. What’s that take? A post like this might take a couple of hours once you’ve collected your thoughts, images, proof read (*cough*) and publish.

[twitter]( “Twitter: What are your doing?”)How about Twitter then? To be honest, if you’re not a moderately attractive woman with a few geeky words to say about tech gear, your chances of building up an instant following are slim to none. I have been on [Twitter]( “Twitter: What is seyDoggy doing?”) for nearly two years and only have [300+ followers]( “SeyDoggy Stats & Rankings (seyDoggy) |”). I’ve amassed nearly 6,500 posts on Twitter. That’s about to 9.25 posts a day. Even if each post only took me 1.5 minutes, you’re looking at nearly 15 minutes spent each and every single day for almost two years posting to Twitter… that’s about 91 hours per year, or tens of thousands of dollars worth of man hours spent on 300 people, a fraction of which actually care enough to pay attention. My advice, get into Twitter for the love of community, not for a leg up in the market.

###The rest
So where does that leave FaceBook, LinkedIn and Tumblr then? Well, take the above paragraph and divide the followers by two, then increase the effort by two and you have a $ per eyeball ratio that is four times as costly as Twitter (or 25% as effective depending on your perspective).

###The Best Approach
Is there a best approach? Different markets will have different needs. Certain demographics will embrace one approach more than the other so it depends on what your target market is. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for me to market my downloadable RapidWeaver themes in a flyer sent to a few thousand local area homes, but that’s not to say I couldn’t benefit from the exposure. But Plus Branding, on the other hand could benefit immensely from both an online presence *and* a distributed print approach. But it’s finding the balance that is key.