THE BLOG

Social Media Is Free, Just Like a PR Agency...

13/03/2013 13:34 GMT | Updated 12/05/2013 10:12 BST

Social media, like public relations (PR), has always been regarded as free. If you get in the newspaper without having to buy an advert, that's free, surely? Of course every PR agency, and every in-house PR person, will point to the fact that it's actually an awful lot of clever thinking and hard work to get on-topic, on-message positive editorial coverage. And that insight, experience and time costs money.

Social media suffers from a similar perception. Run a blog, create a Facebook page, do something on Pintrest, have a LinkedIn company page, submit a comment in a forum - it's all free stuff. No online advertising budget required. Write something, click a button.

Done properly, it is far from free, and is getting more expensive. Indeed, there is a strong element of online advertising.

Quite apart from the consultancy's fees (likely to be at least the equivalent of the current, media relations focused, PR fee), it now requires a significant digital marketing spend (for that read, online advertising). So let's ignore for now the expensive complexities of running an effective online influencer campaign (and the minor issues, such as the £1,000 or so a month for the right subscription tools that find and monitor those influencers) and focus on the sources for the majority of clicks. The social media, or rather, online advertising, big boys.

The digital media family business

Back in my university days - so far back I can no longer locate the source - I cited a quote along the lines of "the information superhighway will be complete with billboards." The pleasingly quaint expression 'information superhighway' aside, it was a prescient observation.

However, back then, the assumption was that the print advertising world would simply transpose itself onto the computer screen. In fact it's not billboard-style banners but tiny, incredibly tightly targeted, 'promotions' that are dominating; from classified style online advertising to sponsored posts, tweets or 'recommendations.'

Now it's hard to imagine a bunch of chino-wearing, polo shirt clad spoddies at Harvard and Stanford slamming down the lid of their laptop and claiming "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Yet these silver spoon wielding, well-heeled propeller heads have become exactly that. Wise guys.

There's no conspiracy. It's not a cartel. But they're good fellas. Like you say to somebody "You're gonna like this guy. He's all right. He's a good fella. He's one of us." Good fellas. Wise guys. They all have their own agenda, but they all have the same motive; money. They all saw the opportunity, invested massively to dominate the space and are now enjoying their respective dominant positions.

Google AdWords, Google Analytics, YouTube (all owned by Google), Facebook, Apple's App Store, LinkedIn, Twitter they're all made men. Through their own genius - and good luck to them for that - they have effectively become standards. They are now monetising their positions. These titans are tightening their grip, and social media is by no means free (there was a beautiful time when it almost was).

Back in the day, Facebook allowed companies/brands/products to create their own page to attract and engage their 'fans.' A few years and an IPO later, a new post now only reaches 12 per cent of that page's fans. Beyond that, it's pay-to-play.

Google Analytics used to give a really helpful breakdown of all the keywords and phrases people had typed into Google in order to land on a particular website. Now it hides around a third of those terms (the biggest third). It claims to have taken the decision to protect people's privacy. Oddly though, the data is available to those paying money for a Google Adwords campaign.

There was much upset recently (well, amongst the digerati at least) when LinkedIn stopped its Answers service. "But why?," was the cry. Well, call me a cynic, but I imagine it was hard to monetise and there significant numbers of people who were self-promoting for free (thus 'cannibalising sales'). LinkedIn is an amazing database where hard to reach people happily put their CV and job responsibilities on display. Why let people interact for free when you can charge them thousands for the right to email niche audiences direct through the platform itself, or target people through classified style advertising?

Even those helpful 'related to this story, you might be interested in these other stories from 'around the web' sections are highly targeted paid-for advertisements (the BBC's version, for the time being, a notable exception).

Highly viewed videos on YouTube rarely secure so many eyeballs because they simply 'caught on' in the manner of 'Charlie bit my finger.' Whether the client was aware of it or not, while the majority of the budget will have gone into the creative concept, a fair chunk will have been invested in video seeding.

Most people become aware of a video on YouTube when it's 'featured' in the right hand column while they are watching a YouTube video on a similar topic. That column has pure search-based suggestions based on keyword and phrases, and it has promoted suggestions. Promoted suggestions are the online advertising part of video seeding. In short, if your average company wants its video to 'go viral' it has to buy a reasonable slug of YouTube advertising to promote it.

Think Obama's YouTube videos just caught on? Of course not, there was significant video seeding investment as part of what proved to be one of the most expensive campaigns ever run.

Google's organic search returns give YouTube content special priority (in the same way Wikipedia is often returned as it's a source Google rates highly). Google, of course, owns YouTube. YouTube is the world's second biggest search engine. It's owned by the first largest. And the first largest favours content from the second largest. Especially videos that have been viewed a lot. Which in most cases means it's had a video seeding advertising budget behind it. Wiseguys.

And of course these wise guys have plenty of money. They fund new initiatives in the hope of maintaining or strengthening their grip. If they see something that looks promising and proves a good fit, they buy it. Like Instagram getting snapped up, watch out for an acquisition frenzy around 'recommendation apps.'

There are countless apps, but time is finite, so keen early adopters readily download an app that - based on their own profile - will recommend apps he or she may find useful.

The innovative companies that have created successful recommendation apps now have an active database of millions of people that are both early adopters and heavy app users. They make money by providing a range of paid-for services to companies that want to promote their own app.

By buying enough 'recommendations' a brand can ensure its new app has sufficient downloads to secure a 'top 10' position in the app charts. From that point, 'natural' word of mouth takes over. It's similar to the way record companies used to buy thousands of copies of its own artist to go straight to number one (and, indeed, recently got busted for in a ham-fisted attempt to do the same thing via YouTube). The 'recommendation' smart guys will soon be purchased by the Harvard and Stanford boys.

While it might be hard to imagine those geeky wizards growing up wanting to be a gangster, it's all too easy to see them as wise guys.

"Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Wanna share a 'funny' in the online ecosystem I've created? Fuck you, pay me. You're a struggling SME in a deep recession, and you need to attract more business to keep your people employed? Fuck you, pay me."