If social media says brands need to join the “free” economy, then why don’t they give their stuff away?

by Tony Fannin, President, BE Branded

Here’s an interesting thought: Much of the social media world tells brands they must give things away in this “free” economy in order to connect with their customers. So, if that’s true, then why do they charge marketers for their services? Why don’t they give it away in exchange for karma and the social good? It seems a bit odd that most of these digital-type of companies preach the “Long-tail” sermon, but don’t exactly walk the walk.

One of the flaws I see is most of the social-media world forgets what marketing is all about; sales. A business can’t survive without sales. I’m not saying that giving away free samples isn’t a good tactic. It is. In fact “free” was in vogue way before social media burst on the scene. The only difference is that now it’s digital instead of physical, but the core principal is still the same. When hit with reality, many online properties are still trying to figure out how to make money instead of constantly being on the hunt for venture capital. Their user numbers are usually in the hundreds-of-thousands or millions, but that’s really a false read if those very companies are forced to actually make money and survive on “sales” instead of charity.

I do believe that social media is an effective tool in the marketing tool box, but I don’t subscribe to their religion that a brand must constantly give away their products and services to make “friends”. In actually, I blame the marketers themselves. Here’s why. If they embark on a TV campaign, direct mail push, etc., they constantly ask, “How did that affect sales?” When it comes to social media, many don’t ask that same question and demand the same answers from the digital agency as they do from their marketing firm. I find it’s half client’s ignorance and half stupidity. The ignorance half is understandable, to a point. Many don’t fully understand how to effectively use social media, it’s still too new for many to be an expert at it. But my question is, isn’t it risky to invest in something you don’t have a good grasp on the basic principles? This doesn’t mean you need to know how to do it or even completely know all of the details, but you do need to understand how it works, why it works, when doesn’t it work, and does it get you closer to your marketing goals, which is usually tied to sales.

The stupidity half is not as forgivable. Just because it’s new and the “in” thing to do, doesn’t mean you should just throw money at it because a cool dude or dudett  told you it’s the way of the future and if you don’t do it you’ll be left behind and become a dinosaur. It seems in this one area, many marketers throw out their business discipline and principles and try to defy financial gravity. “Let’s give away our stuff for free, so we can get more followers, and thus make more money.” Doesn’t make too much financial sense to me.

Social media and digital agencies are in business to make money whether they admit to this or not. Otherwise, they won’t be in existence long. That’s why you still owe them money even though they tell you give your stuff away for free. I don’t disagree with the idea of giving away something of value. I do disagree with the dogma of the “free economy”. Even social media guru and preacher of the free economy, Jeff Jarvis, still charges you $39.99 for his audio book. If he were to walk his talk, shouldn’t I be able to download it for free in return for my “friendship” and become a twitter follower? I would gladly spread the word about his book on my facebook page and twitter account telling everyone how wonderful he is and how noble his intentions are because his valuable information and insights are free.

I guess free isn’t really free, if you need to make money. My challenge to all of the social media proponents out there is if you will give away your services for free in exchange for good karma, then I will gladly spread your gospel. As for now, all of my clients require I help them make real sales, so I don’t have the luxury to give everything away.



About Be Branded

Tony Fannin is of President of BE Branded, an integrated marketing firm who helps clients BE Somebody to their customers. If you aren't somebody, then you are commodity.

2 Responses to “If social media says brands need to join the “free” economy, then why don’t they give their stuff away?”

  1. Well, Tony, you think yourself clever with your argument that I’m a hypocrite for selling my book but….

    I never said everything has to be free. Show me where I did, please. A link would be appreciated.

    I do, indeed give away the book for free. You may read it here: http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061709715

    More to the point, I long ago gave away the ideas in the book for free on my blog, Buzzmachine.com. The value that came back to me is that people gave me their ideas and reaction and facts for free. I also got free publicity there; it’s the reason I got a book contract, after all. It’s the reason I’ve gotten paying speaking gigs and consulting engagements.

    That’s where the value can be built. That’s the lesson of free exchanges. That’s why you’re writing this free blog, isn’t it?

    Go ahead, put your money where your mouth is. Put up a paywall on this blog. Let’s see how well that does for you.

    And by the way, if you listened to my book, you’d hear me full confess my hypocrisy for publishing a book, for not eating my own dog food. Why? Yes, dog’s gotta eat; I have tuition bills to pay. The book market still works and still pays and I use it to sell my book because it still — for now –has a stranglehold on distribution and many aspects of publicity. But that may change. Then I need to be in a position to recognize value in other ways. And I plan to.

    • Jeff – first of all, thank you for taking time out of your day to read and reply to my blog. I know you’re a busy man and in high demand. In response to your points:
      • You are right that you didn’t say “everything” has to be free. I did use that particular word incorrectly. My apologies. I bought your audio book and have listened to it several times. I enjoy it, learn from it, and respect your expertise. As a customer, I have the right to express my take on what I have gotten from your book because I’ve given you the courtesy of listening to it before passing “uneducated” judgement. Though you don’t literally say “everything”, you do make a very strong inference that marketers “should” give most of their things away. I understand giving samples or small portions away as goodwill gestures, but not the core value of what you offer. What I find interesting is many in the social media world tend to distain advertising as an industry, but their only solution to make money is to “sell advertising”. This is what I find very hypocritical.
      (side note: In a book by Ken Aluetta, Googled, Sergey Brin stated the author should give away his book instead of selling it. This is an example of the overall attitude of the “free ecomony” crowd. No one wants to pay for anything.)

      • I didn’t realize you gave your complete book away for free. Can I get a refund on my $39.99?

      • I understand getting the “community” to participate and share in your project, but if it was really for free exchanges, did all those who participated in your project get a free copy of your book? The purpose of my blog is to let prospects see how we think as an agency. If they like our thought process, then we’re probably a good match. The second purpose is to offer “free” insights and advice to business and brands. Information is not what we sell. We sell ideas and creativity. Information is commodity, but creativity is not. So, to us, we’re not giving away our core product, but we are still giving away value. So, I do put my money where my mouth is. Information (blogs) is not what we sell. Ideas and creativity is what we do and we charge for that.

      • I’ve never stated that social media, the “free” economy, and other such tactics are useless. They are a very important part of the marketing mix, but it is not the silver bullet that many profess it to be. If that was so, there should be a boom of millionaires and hundreds of thousands of billion dollar market cap businesses running around now.

      • Yes, I remember your confession toward the end of the book about the publishing hypocrisy, but what strikes me is that while you profess you need to eat and must charge people for your book, you seem to want others to do the opposite.

      I know we don’t see eye-to-eye on some of the details, but I do agree with the overall premise of business must think differently in reaching out and connecting with their customers. I still have much respect for your work and knowledge. Your book is one I will listen to several times over the coming years. Thank you for your time and comments. Respectfully– Tony

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