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Ah, the lure of something free.  Mothers have long worried about it, the best things of life are made of it, and the Ginzu knives people perfected it. Today, thousands of business people are falling into the trap of it.


As the economic gloom deepened and companies went on cost-cutting sprees, many organizations cut marketing to the bone. Any business expert knows this is a risky strategy at best – reserved only for those at the clearest risk of imminent business failure (and even then, questionable). But marketing is generally one of the big cost items in a corporate budget, so it stands out like an extravagant thumb when cost becomes the focus. Short-sighted folks may not be able to imagine the future, but they sure as hell can see a giant red thumb sticking up in front of them. Snip snip.


The obvious solution for many of these business executives has become the internet. The free internet. Of course, this isn’t entirely new. Since the internet became the world-wide-web, I’ve had more than my share of arguments with business owners who have insisted that the internet would replace their call centers, the internet would replace catalogs and all other print media, the internet would solve all their operational cost headaches, the internet would make marketing free.


Though some of these predictions have occurred for some segments of some businesses, brick and mortar businesses have generally not been transformed from organizations with marketing and operational costs to heavenly virtual profit centers. Why? Because real consumers don’t spend all their time in front of computers. They are out driving around. They are listening to radios, watching TV, and some of them are still reading magazines and newspapers. They are at the beach, volunteering at the school, and at work. Some of the folks at work are not on FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, or any other social networking site. Strangely enough, some of them are actually working.


If a business converts its entire marketing effort – or even the bulk of its marketing effort – to the internet, it better develop a very solid financial model to support it. The financial models for marketing involve identifying who the existing customers are, how much they buy and how often, who potential new customers are and how to reel them in, who has stopped buying, and what it will take to win them back.


Email is a terrific medium for communicating with existing customers – if they appreciate it. Most people are overwhelmed with email so email messages must contain something of clear interest and obvious value. If you create those meaningful email messages and send the right ones to the right segments of your customer list, you may motivate customers to buy more products more frequently, and you may be able to build relationships.  Email can also be used for connecting with customers who have drifted away, though you must take pains not to be too impersonal or to further ruffle the feathers of a customer who has become upset due to quality or service problems. Of course, to a prospective customer, email is probably just SPAM.


After the dot-com bubble burst, there were just as many business executives patting themselves on the back for not investing in one of those useless websites as there were people throwing themselves out of windows for their paper losses. Today it would be difficult to argue that a website isn’t necessary (yet as many as 60% of small businesses don’t have one!). Even if you don’t sell products through a shopping cart, even if you have no intention or desire to find customers through search engine optimization, even if your entire business community lives within 15 square miles of you, you need a website. Not because it will replace every other form of marketing, but because a significant percentage of shoppers will look for a website to determine if the business is legitimate, to learn more about the business, and to quell feelings of buyers’ remorse when it occurs.


But unless your business has a powerful search engine component and is attracting dozens of new buyers each day through Google, Yahoo, links, and other internet forums, your website isn’t likely to solve the problem of finding new customers. The majority of business websites serve the purpose of enhancing business relationships through providing more information than could be offered in print, making it more convenient to order for those who are comfortable doing so, and alleviating concerns new customers may have about initiating a business relationship.


Next, consider the free marketing opportunity to be found in blogs and social media. No doubt blogs and social media can expose your business, your brand, and your philosophy to thousands or even tens of thousands of potential customers you would not have reached otherwise. Blogs and social media can be used to create a sense of connection between businesses and their consumers, which is a boon to brand value. But they are definitely not free. A blog the length of this one takes approximately 45 minutes to write (and I’m considered a fast writer). Even if you combine your Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, or other social media status updates, even if you manage them all through toolkits, it still takes time to log in, write, post, and respond to others. And never mind the times when you realize you’ve frittered away an hour checking everyone else’s status. But blogs and social media have yet to become big revenue drivers (except for internet businesses that are selling blog and social media services and software). The purpose of blogs and social media is to build relationships.


So a company with a web store that writes a weekly blog and posts daily on their Twitter account and FaceBook page is possibly building better relationships with existing customers, getting in front of prospective customers, and selling a few extra products a bit more often. But if you take away the sales force, the print ads, the outbound phone calls, the catalog and direct response mailings, the billboards, and the radio, you lose access to the people who are not glued to their computers while at work or after work. You miss out on the people in their cars, the people watching That 70s Show reruns, thumbing through the Sunday paper at the coffee shop, and sitting down to look at the mail while cracking open a beer. You miss the opportunity to tap into multiple types of attention – because people pay attention differently to different media, and typically a combination of impressions is required to motivate buyer behavior.


A favorite and ignorant saying of marketing-averse business executives is “half of all marketing works. Trouble is, we don’t know which half.” That’s kind of like saying “half of all the air we take in is carbon monoxide. Let’s stop breathing because we can’t figure out which half.” Don’t cut your business off from its air supply just because you fear its cost or you believe there’s something free out there. Remember your mother’s wisdom. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.


© 2009. Andrea M. Hill


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