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2014 – The end of free marketing?

Remember the days when social media was considered free marketing? Fair enough, it never was free exactly, seeing it costs a LOT of time and resource if done right.

In 2014 however I think it'll become even more difficult to achieve cut-through using free methods. But before I explain why, here's an overview over what I mean by free marketing.

Free Marketing - what is it?

'Free' marketing usually refers to either using free sites (typically social media channels), or 'free' strategies i.e. owned or earned media (as opposed to paid media AKA advertising). The most widely used non-paid-for social channels are of course Facebook and Twitter, followed by YouTube.

An example of free marketing would be creating a Facebook brand page to start a community surrounding your brand, and / or to use it as a free customer service platform. Essentially, utilising Facebook as a free space to connect your brand or firm directly with you current and prospective customers.

Three chords
Sideburns fanzine, 1976

Another example is using organic search optimisation to improve your visibility in Google results. Your website can achieve higher ranking in the SERPs (search engine results pages) through smart on-page SEO and / or optimising for local (depending on the nature of your business) - completely free of charge.

Yes, other strategies have become more important in recent years, but depending on your niche and the competition, on-page can still pack a punch. For instance, a couple of months ago, I got from zero to 3rd position for a keyword in the organic SERPs for a niche German site I look after - through on-page optimisation alone.

I've always loved that about digital marketing - that you don't necessarily need big bucks to make an impact. It was possible to successfully market and grow your business through the free stuff alone!

It seemed fair that in theory, all you needed is knowledge (available for free on the internet!), passion, and the willingness to get your hands dirty. It's been very much a DIY approach reminiscent of the punk movement (the three chords illustration above, from the Sideburns fanzine, pretty much sums up the DIY ethic behind both digital and punk cultures).

That's why I was slightly disconcerted with a couple of recent observations that, I fear, may signal the beginning of the end of free marketing, starting this year (2014).

The end of free marketing? Two observations for 2014

I've read a few predictions for digital marketing trends for 2014, as thought leaders have all been busy writing theirs over the last few weeks (I tried my own too, on Digital Marketing Trends 2014).

CC image courtesy of artisrams on Flickr

My fear for the end of free marketing was prompted by two articles in particular -  Rand's 2014 prediction posts at Moz, and a post by econsultancy outlining what the recent changes in Facebook's algorithm means for brands.

Both of these, while superficially different, have one thing in common - they imply that it may become much more difficult, particularly for SMEs and new businesses / start-ups with little cash, to compete on the internet. Here is why:

Reason 1: Google reducing visibility of organic search results

There has been a gradual trend over the last couple of years or so whereby Google has been reducing the availability of real estate in the SERPs for organic search results. Paid ads, knowledge graph results, etc. all have been contributing to pushing organic listings further and further down the results page.

And now Rand at Moz comes out with this prediction for 2014:

As Google continues to get more and more aggressive with things like knowledge graph, visual ads, and instant answers, I suspect we'll see some of the first result sets that have no traditional, external-pointing, organic links whatsoever.

OK. That's hard to swallow, but I wouldn't put it past Google. They haven't been a straightforward 'neutral' search engine for a while now. Instant answers and especially knowledge graph also aim to keep users on the SERPs rather than clicking away - with Google perhaps wanting to be a destination rather than a starting point, for search (unless you pay!) -  see the example query below.

Knowledge Graph - Michael Jackson


It looks like its strategy is working somewhat. Wikipedia for instance has seen a 21% decline in page views (!) for its English language pages over the last year (Dec 12 - Dec 13), which will have had a knock-on effect on donations etc. too.

It might be naive and too early to attribute Wikipedia's decline to Knowledge Graph - but it does seem logical to assume that, where people would previously have clicked on high-ranking Wikipedia results, they may now get the answer they need from within the SERPs - either via instant answers or a knowledge graph result.

Will the day come, then, where you have to PAY to appear on the first page of the SERPs? Where, no matter how awesome your organic ('free') SEO, you stand no chance to be visible in Google?

I don't know the answer, but I for one will be watching. Closely.

Reason 2: Facebook annihilating organic reach for brand pages

The first rule of social media: Don't rely on Facebook.

The second rule of social media: Don't rely on Facebook.

We used to run social brand campaigns on MySpace (yes, really! This was 2007) and I clearly recall when suddenly it was all about Facebook. First there were only groups, but in 2007 brand pages arrived - a game changer, and very exciting at the time, with a lot of experimentation and trial and error.

Some brands even started using their Facebook page URL as their campaign landing page and / or considered it their priority B2C platform (even over their own website!). Quite a few tried their hands at f-commerce, creating store fronts on Facebook and selling to people, without much success.

Free Marketing - Facebook
CC image courtesy of mkhmarketing on Flickr

So brands and businesses have been putting a lot of effort, time and money into their Facebook pages for up to 6 years, building up their audiences and communities. For SMEs, charities and others with little or no budget, it's been a very cost-effective way to reach their customers and many have come to rely or even depend on Facebook as their primary marketing channel.

And just at this point in time, Facebook appears to be tweaking its news feed algorithm, thus pulling the plug on free, organic reach!

Chris Ratcliff sums it up on the econsultancy blog:

In a recent tweak to the news feed algorithm, Facebook has begun to prioritise content from the people that user's engage with the most, ensuring content from a ‘liked’ company’s Facebook page will become a negligible presence.

Read the full article for more info, but essentially it means that, unless users are constantly and regularly engaged with your brand page (as if it were a friend), they probably won't see it in their news feed any more. Unless you pay to push it back in.

This latest move by Facebook is not completely unexpected, and it's been on the horizon for a while. Similar to Google slowly decreasing the share of organic ('free') results in the SERPs, Facebook has been slowly decreasing the share of organic ('free') reach via tweaks in its algorithm over the last few years.

Conclusion - What to do?

If you've managed to read till the end, here are my 2 suggestions on how to combat the end of free marketing in 2014 and beyond:

(1) Make your owned media (especially your website) the BEST digital destination for your brand

Optimise you owned media

2014 may be the time to pay full attention to your owned digital channels, especially the website, but also, your enewsletter. Make sure both provide an excellent customer experience and are optimised for mobile.
owned media meme

Prioritise own customer acquisition (e.g. to your enewsletter) over social acquisitions.

Why? If your enewsletter opening rate and thus the visibility of your content declines, you can do something about it, totally free of charge.

If Facebook changes its algorithm and the visibility of your content declines, you can do nothing about it, other than PAY. Imagine building 7m Likes, and they're for nothing.

You don't have an enewsletter and a customer database? 2014 is the year to start one.

By the way, I'm not advising you to STOP using social brand channels. Yes, continue to use Facebook, Twitter, etc. - but not at the expense of or the detriment to your owned digital channels.

(2) Diversify your digital brand ecosystem

Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't just rely on SEO as dictated by Google, and do consider other social channels beyond Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Yes, it's hard work (and not free in terms of resource / time) to run multiple social channels. But it's risky to rely on Facebook alone as your social strategy, and be at its mercy.

If you're cheeky and brave, you could alternatively simply reduce your content investment into Facebook and run your page as a Customer Service channel only. I.e. don't bother about creating engaging and exciting content, nurturing a community, or any of those softer awareness things. After all, the majority of your 'audience' won't see it anyway thanks to Facebook's algo update!

So, keep the page but stop running any paid ads and abandon it otherwise (other than answering customer questions). See how Facebook likes it if suddenly brands stop investing in their pages, stop creating engaging, exciting content, and only use it as another customer service / contact channel.

I bet they'd hate that 😛







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