Editor’s Column: When it comes to marketing, ‘free’ isn’t really free

The word “free” is a tantalizing attraction. Maybe it’s our capitalistic system where literally everything has a price, or maybe it’s simply human nature to want something for nothing… results without effort… benefits without expense.

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The saying reportedly comes from a 19th century practice of saloon owners who offered free lunch to customers who purchased at least one drink. It was a great marketing concept: give a man a free beer in exchange for a (usually) salty meal and he’s likely to buy more than one beer. Mark up the cost of the beer and the saloon owner makes a tidy profit. If we’re given something for free, we’re likely to spend more at the establishment, partly out of a sense of obligation and partly because we feel like we can spend more because we got something for “free.”

Enter the 21st century. Social media platforms offer “free” advertising for our events, our businesses and our products. Why spend money advertising via traditional media when we can just advertise for free on Facebook? After all, we’ve been told, not everyone reads the paper or listens to the radio anymore, right? That may be true, but the assumption that follows—everyone is on Facebook—is a logical fallacy we’ve swallowed hook, line and sinker.

First, “everyone” isn’t on Facebook. Our particular demographic may not be on Facebook at all, or may only visit once in a while and see a few posts. Second, Facebook is in control of who sees what and when. There’s no guarantee that our demographic will see our post… unless we pay for it. The more we pay, the more likely our posts will be seen. It’s still just good old fashioned marketing, and there’s still a price to pay.

What price, you ask? Well, from the Captain Conspiracy mindset, there’s entrusting our lives and businesses to the corporate oligarchs at Facebook, who’ve proven time and again that their own profit is their ultimate goal. From a more practical standpoint, all that “free” advertising is taking a toll on traditional media right and left. More than 1,000 newspapers went under last year in the U.S. That means fewer reporters covering town council and school board and county commissioner meetings, which means less accountability and transparency for local government, which means higher interest rates on bond measures and a greater likelihood of corruption.

Don’t get me wrong, we use Facebook and Twitter and Instagram for marketing, too. It’s the nature of the beast. But we don’t use them exclusively, because alone, they aren’t effective. If we’re selling off our yard sale junk (or the stuff we couldn’t sell at the last yard sale), sometimes it works, but if we’re trying to get people to come out to our business or our event, social media has less reach than we’d like to think, particularly if we haven’t spent the last decade building a substantial social media platform. And by substantial, I mean thousands of followers, not a few hundred.

Free isn’t really free. Everything has a price.


By NIKI TURNER | niki@ht1885.com