“There's no such thing as a free lunch.”
Those words – more specifically shared as “TINSTAAFL” – are one of the things that I most remember about high school. Sophomore year, economics class with Mr. Masiello, and the idea that you're never really getting anything for absolute nothing. Explained simply, one can think about getting to try something without direct financial impact, but giving up one's personally identifiable, or demographic information in order to secure it.
When that concept first reached my ears about twenty years ago, it probably didn't mean a ton, beyond being a cool acronym that I could throw around (think “tin-staff-ull” and you'll see why). But having since applied for a credit card or six, received a free magazine subscription, tried Juno Internet service, and spent any number of countless hours on the web getting access to dozens (hundreds, probably) of services for not much more than my name, some demo info, and a few checkboxes, I realize that TINSTAAFL is, and will continue to be, in full effect.
All that said, sometimes you get what you pay for. Or don't “pay” for.
The reason I bring this up is to drive home the point that as we all get deeper and deeper into making recommendations on reaching influencers, tapping into new spaces, or shifting real dollars in our own retainers and marketing spend requirements into digital, we should be spending as much time looking at the tools and resources available to our agencies, teams and clients that we would when “traditional” was the world we lived in.
Sure, I can use some “free” tools to scout Twitter users to find influential people, or use some search engines to dig up articles or blog posts, but that doesn't mean it's the best use of my time, or my client's investment. Just as there's a place for using Google News as part of our morning flagging rituals, there's a part of using a professional tracking or clipping service to accelerate and improve that process. Why aren't we consistently applying that same rule to measuring our digital activities and making decisions?
While we're all trying to be conscious of costs, applying our hours properly and so forth, something that our clients need and deserve that might require a $400 or $600 cost per month, when they're spending 10, 20 or 30 times that (or more) in public relations/social media activities is a small price to pay. Truthfully, we owe it to them to make those recommendations, whether that means implementing a listening and response tool through Radian6, sourcing great data visualization and digging deeper into the social graph with Trendrr, or upping the ante for Twitter across a team with something like HootSuite.
In short, just because a lot of our actions might take place through channels that are “free” in some sense doesn't mean that the world hasn't evolved to a place where free lets us operate in a timely enough manner to be effective. Anyone who has spent any time trying to stay on top of the latest and greatest in digital tools knows that the pace continues to quicken as far as development goes, and with it the time that our clients' activities need to keep pace with, if only for listening and measurement purposes.
This by no means says that we shouldn't use whatever tools, tricks and resources that exist to best serve ourselves and our clients, whether they carry a hard cost or not. It's merely a call to arms to make us recognize that just as many consumer-focused digital businesses have shifted from free to “freemium,” much of what we should be using to do our jobs better has in many cases done the same.
(And no, none of them paid me to say this.)
Tom Biro is a VP at Allison & Partners, and is based in Seattle. His column will focus on how digital media affects and shifts PR (and new business pitches). He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tombiro.