The hidden costs of Social MediaI recently attended the #140 conference in San Francisco. At the event one of the many presenters made a rather poignant and relevant presentation titled “Why Small Business sucks at marketing”.

While the title may be arresting, the sentiment might be right given today’s rapidly changing marketing environment.

Conventional wisdom

Let’s examine, for a moment, the impact of social media on small business. As the new networks and community platforms of social media have evolved, many experts have made compelling arguments that user-generated content would some day take a significant share away from the traditional media and message distribution pie.

The reasoning behind this view was that there is no production cost associated with social media and that people can create it for free (really?). The thinking prevailed that user-generated content could better meet the demand for fragmented online audiences that have smaller sizes and more specialized interests.

The promise of shiny, new objects

The result of this evolution is that many businesses, small and large, have flocked to social media with the aspirational promise of building a community, making new connections and sharing the value that they offer in real time over the web. And while social network participation continues to grow at an astounding pace around the world, other forms of social interaction have now plateaued or are on the wane, according to new research from Forrester.

In fact, Forrester found that the number of people who actively maintain a blog, write articles, or upload videos and music in the U.S. has actually dipped from 2009-2010. 
This due, in part, to the unique traits required to be a “creator” of content. And at this moment, the number of people interested in or participating in these special behaviors has plateaued.

There’s no question that continual content creation is a significant challenge for just about anyone. But what this research begins to uncover is that many businesses may not be willing or able to meet this social media participation requirement. For there is no question that a significant new burden has been hoisted on them. Continually thinking and acting like a publisher does not align with the skill sets and resources in most organizations.

What’s more, this new media has exchanged the traditional cost of targeting an audience with paid reach (think newspapers, radio, magazines, direct mail, yellow pages, etc.) for the resources and time required to create engaging content that prospects and customers will find valuable on their own.

Altered expectations

Earlier predictions by pundits and gurus that user-generated content will someday replace professionally produced content (and advertising too) are now being exposed as perhaps an exaggerated vision. It’s telling, for example, that the vast majority of blogs are abandoned after a few updates. 90% of Twitter users are “lurkers,” who just like to read what others post. And 15 of the top 20 most-watched videos on YouTube are professionally-produced while most of the user-generated content is much less memorable or simply dismissed.

The millions of blogs and sites on the web produce an impressive amount of content. But most of the posting and discussion still refers back to professionally produced content generated by specialists and edited for an audience. For example, recent research from Pew found that 80% of all links connect back to sites maintained by newspapers and broadcast networks.

So why is the number of online creators leveling off at a time when more and more are joining social networks? It’s impossible to know for sure, but there’s no question that the bar is set high, and continues to move up for small business owners who look to social media as a silver bullet for reducing their marketing costs and supporting a community of customers with content that is relevant and valuable.

The Forester study, and others, are beginning to expose the true costs for social media participants: Social is by no means free. And success in this new environment requires a huge investment of resources and time. Not just for a one time event, but for the long term.

Continual participation: no longer an option

The implications for business are clear: Either outsource this new marketing requirement or hire the resources and expertise to remain competitive. Either decision will add significant management investment and new costs to the “free” platforms. For there is now a relentless and unmet appetite for not just mediocre, but high quality, engaging content that will differentiate a brand, influence customer interaction, further a relationship and ultimately lead to increased revenue.

So where are you in the evolution of today’s rapidly changing marketing landscape? Have you embraced your new role as a “continual content creator”? Do you and your team have the skill sets, infrastructure and methods to meet the demands of this new marketing requirement?

Leave a comment or share a point of view on how this is impacting your business, your career and your team relationships. Looking forward to hearing from you!