Friday, April 2, 2010

The dollar value of social media

I was not among the early adopters of social media. (Or, as some of my favorite bloggers like to more accurately define as "online social media.")

My wait-and-see approach has helped before. Well, most of the time. (Good thing I didn't place any bets on my prediction as a young reporter that USA Today would fail).

As social media blossomed, my clientele at the time - mostly public affairs and government agencies - were among the difficult bunch to convince about the value of social media. So, I could wait. Old school worked for them. And, I was good at old school stuff.

Now is different. There are plenty of case studies detailing the success of a well-designed social media effort. The "power" of social media across all sectors is well documented. In no time in our history have so many groups of people been "moved" into action for so many causes or so easily prompted to make purchases. We had a president elected in large part through the power of social media. We are connected like never before.

Yet, keep in mind that many hurdles remain when it comes to establishing the budget for social media. Many executives and senior managers don't participate on Twitter or Facebook, therefore they remain skeptical. It's a difficult thing to wrap their heads around. Just this week I sat face-to-face with a client as he was navigating a Web site from his office PC and gave me a blank stare when I asked him to "try a different URL." Hmm.

Then again, I'm not sure I set a good example. Somehow, I manage to carry out an occasional social media effort while still carrying a clunky Blackberry Pearl in my pocket. Not exactly the status symbol that defines a social media driver. But I do get approving nods for having a netbook.

So, my friends ask: What do you charge? A recent chat on #solopr asked similar questions, in part, perhaps because the economy is showing signs of recovery and the days of discounting our services are over. I think I shocked a few when I said I plan to charge more for social media efforts in Q2.

As an independent practitioner, my approach to social media billing is simple. It's not unlike how I attempt to build the case for any kind of PR budget.

First, explain the power of social media to a client. This is the shortened version of the conversation:

  • It takes a lot of energy.
  • It takes expertise.
  • It requires a comprehensive strategy.
  • It involves a larger audience. (Beyond your target ones - because social media has a built-in "growth" factor).
  • The rewards are great, but the risks are sometimes greater. (See "expertise" above)
  • It's no longer a one-way discussion, but a dialogue. (See "energy" above)
  • Don't be afraid. If it's managed correctly, it won't open the door to a flood of customer complaints.
  • The percentage of your audience using social media - as their only source of information - is rapidly growing.

Second, recognize that dollars previously set aside for advertising are now being splintered, with a portion going to social media efforts. Marketing is trying to grab these extra funds, so you must have a great case to argue why public relations needs to be guiding this ship and in charge of these dollars. One key to success here is demonstrating that social media will end up costing less than advertising, but results will be the same, if not better. Can you do charts? It helps, because the marketing department is using charts. Another point to make is that the PR departments at Fortune 500 companies are hiring in-house social media experts.

Third. If you happen to work for companies that don't advertise or have limited advertising budgets, you need to build convincing arguments about how social media is an "add-on" to your pre-existing public relations budget. All too often, public relations professionals are willing to keep budgets the same, and simply drop some traditional functions to add in social media tactics. Trading is not an option. The basic functions and skills of public relations remain constant (analyzing audiences, predicting trends, etc.). Yet, executing social media is a more intense endeavor than placing a press release on Business Wire or organizing a community forum or conducting an informational campaign. Social media campaigns live longer, they evolve and require significant attention to the audience. In many instances, the traditional items - like press releases and events - don't go away. In the end, it's extra work.

Finally. Raise your hand if you are finding yourself working longer hours with a social media effort? I imagine I'm seeing a lot of raised hands. (Which is amazing because that means you took your hand off your iPhone in the middle of a tweet). Your time is valuable, so charge for it. If you need a social media "vendor" - so you can have dinner with the kids at least once this week - then add that to a budget. Social media is overwhelming the PR profession, especially for soloists. So, find partners you can trust. Need a reasonably priced online newsroom? Try Need a great digital marketing service? Try McCue Marketing's project content group.

In budgeting social media for a client, you may need to take it in steps. It is good to have a rate chart listing general, basic functions of a social media effort. Your rate should be at the top. Don't be afraid to build in a mark-up if you bring in a service or companion provider.

The key, however, is to properly price your value. At an agency and now on my own, I've had great success is seeking a bigger budget. Clients recognize value and expertise cost more. As a solo practitioner, you bring to a client incredible expertise and experience that can't be placed on a menu. You bring passion. You bring a big-picture strategy to communications. You are a counselor beyond just the communications side of a business. You are the whole package. Don't sell yourself short.

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