Small Business Tip Tuesday: Navigating Social Media’s Dirty Word

by Ken Mueller on April 10, 2012 · 13 comments

Free Kittens!One of the things that makes social media so attractive to small businesses, is the same thing that prevents a lot of those same businesses from jumping in and taking it seriously. I can sum it up in one word:


Now I know this is something that is argued in and around social media circles, because we use the “free-ness” of social media as a selling point, while at the same time want to put a price tag on it. When talking about why social media is great we are quick to use the word “free”, while at the same time we scold anyone who uses that word because, well, it’s not completely free.

But I’m not talking about reality here, per se.

I’m talking about the perception that many small businesses owners have of social media, and how that impacts their approach to social media, including their level of commitment.

Okay, now before I go any further, let me state something unequivocally:

Yes, social media is free.

No, social media is not free.

There. I got that off of my chest. Over the years, we’ve taken in our fair share of “free” dogs and kittens. Believe me, while I may not have paid anything to take ownership of them, they were anything but free!

Now, let me jump inside the minds of many small business owners and discuss the problem this presents.

Social media is free

The platforms that we use for social media are, in fact, free. We don’t have to pay to use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc. They re there and available to us at any time. No money changes hands. On paper, there are very low barriers to entry into the social realm. And this is a wonderful thing…for the most part.

In a rather depressed economy, small businesses are being very careful how they allocate funds, and “free” is a good thing. It’s not like spending money on direct mail, or print/broadcast ads. There is no invoice like you have for a billboard.

And yet the “free-ness” of social presents a number of challenges. They often take on one or more of these forms, which, while not usually uttered, are part of the thought process for a small business:

“Social media is free. Traditional media costs money. Therefore traditional must have greater value than social.”

“Social media is free. I have to focus on the things that cost me money, and I’ll get around to social when I have the time.”

“Social media is free. I tried it and didn’t see results fast enough. So I guess I’ll stop. It must not work. But at least I didn’t waste any money.”

“Social media is free. I’m using it, but it’s at the bottom of my to do list for today. Other things are more important.”

“Social media is free. I’ll let Junior take care of it for me, because he’s good with that stuff. Or perhaps I’ll just pay someone else a little money to take care of it for me.”

“Social media is free. I don’t have time for it, but I can use this handy-dandy automation tool to take care of it for me and spit out the marketing messages I’m using on other media. Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

“Social media is free. I have a Facebook page, now let’s see what happens…”

This is a problem. Even though the tools of social media are free, the perception of social media being free ends up hurting us. In our minds, “free” means we can push it off and wait for a more opportune moment. “Free” means we don’t have to take it seriously.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Social Media is NOT free

While the platforms of social media tend to be free, and a lot of the tools that are used to manage a social media presence are free, we need to remember the old adage that “time is money”.

To enter into the world of social media, and to do it properly, requires a certain mindset. Part of that understanding is that while it might not show up as a line item in your budget, it will take time. The “if you build it, they will come” mentality is all too prevalent among small businesses.

No, they won’t come. Not unless you work hard on it and let them know you’re there.

Social media can be an incredibly important part of your business culture and marketing mix. In fact, I think that for many businesses, it should probably rank a lot higher, and might even become the central, driving component of all that you do.

But it’s a commitment, and a mindset. And the first step to getting that mindset, is understanding what “free” really means.

Have you allowed the “free” nature of social media to color how you think about it? Do you know businesses that are approaching social media improperly because of that mindset?




Because of social media so many business bloom and some others were launched. This might be the biggest reason why social media is so important today. This brings to the idea that in the near future, most social media sites are no longer free. But until then we should enjoy the present and use this social media like facebook for the good of our business.


A $25 facebook ad has far greater reach than a $25 mailer. It's not totally "Free" but it is more cost effective for small business budgets.

Erin F.
Erin F.

I've known several businesses with the "free" or the "if you build it, they will come" mentality. Those mentalities have never made much sense to me, but what do I know? I'm the person who likes to take the hard road rather than the easy one.

Latest blog post: Where Do You Find the Time?


I think that if businesses started comparing the cost of time and measuring the effectiveness of a digital campaign compared to perhaps a previous traditional advertising campaign, they would realize while it's not free, it can be a more effective strategy in regards to cost and benefit if done correctly.


I know what you mean, and 100% agree that time = cost. But when I see the $$$ small business owners spend on - say - 1 postcard mail out, I cringe. So, I still feel like social can be a more cost effective option than some traditional advertising out there.

Larry Easto
Larry Easto

The term 'free' has come to mean something like no financial or monetary cost.  The reality is that  social media  is not totally free.  It requires a significant commitment of time and energy and is also subject to the intervention and control of others.  Free means little more than no cost to enter.


  1. […] free can sometimes be a bad thing – but used on a credible site like yours, it can be a winner. Entice […]

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