This is a post about a meandering thought on which my brain snagged over weekend, the hypothetical question ofย  “what would your organisation do if one of the free social media platforms they’ve invested in suddenly required you to pay to use?”

I was particualarly thinking about Twitter as an example of this. Many councils and public sector agencies have invested time and resource in using the platform – some still using it as a broadcast channel but many are moving toward it being a customer service and engagement channel. From the tales I hear from my peers lots are really beginining to see the value in this to the organisation, citizens are expecting this service and when they get it (and it works well) they’re positive about council’s engaging in this way.

But, my mind idly wondered, would councils be so keen to pursue the channel if they had to pay? Indeed, would they be able to pursue it, regardless of desire, in these cash-strapped times? Although we’re all thinking of digital by default (aren’t we?), would a fairly new online channel such as this win out against a traditional channel if there’s only so much money to go around.

I had some conversation’s along these lines when Hootsuite moved to a paid-for model. This is (was) quite a popular tool with the local gov sector for managing not only their Twitter presence but other social media profiles as well.

When it moved to a paid-for model lots of councils were forced to question whether they could justify continuing to use it and would sticking with the free version make it useless to them as features they relied on disappeared behind the paywall.

But what if not only the tool but the platform started to demand your cash? What would you do if Twitter suddenly announced a pay structure was coming into place? (And how Twitter is / will become profitable is one of those cyclical questions online).

Would you be back to the beginning on trying to explain it’s use and value to the organisation? Are you currently gathering any quantitative or qualitative data which might help you if you ever needed to make this case? Is how and when you use this channel part of any of your organisation’s strategies and do they consider what would happen if it suddenly wasn’t something you could rely on for free (thinking not just of your content / web / digital strategy here but also how it fits with your emergency / crisis comms strategy)?

That’s quite a lot of questions for something which may never happen. I guess a parallel question would be: have you got an exit strategy? Are you monitoring how much of your population actively use Twitter or how it is a starting point for information which then gets diseminated more widely through other channels? At what point would you scale back your effort in the channel or leave completely?

Because social media is still relatively new, and many are still fighting the battle to use it in the first place, I’m not sure how many people are thinking about what would happen if they had to leave due to cost to them or a diminishing audience unwilling to pay for their social media.

*If you’d like to hear me speak about Magic Numbers: Measuring the Quality and Quantity of Social Media check out the Epic Social Media for the Public Sector South West event happening in Exeter on 7 February 2012.

*I’ll stick this in as my contribution to #weeklyblogclub. Second week of the year and second post – my resolution remains intact so far!

14 thoughts on “Show me the money

  1. Yammer situation gives a clue. Very few local auths indeed using paid version. Free version is so very adequate fot most users and purposes. But whether that’s ultimately its downfall or a carefully baited trap, I can see many losing it overnight if payment came in, because acceptance of its value is still very fragile, sadly.

  2. I agree that I think many would choose not to or be unable to make move to paid-for versions. And I think that would still be mostly because of unrecognised worth or untapped potential rather than lack of funds. I wonder how many localgov Hootsuite users did move to the paid-for model?

  3. If Twitter or Facebook became paid-for channels perhaps the value to the organisation would decrease due to the reduced number and different demographic of users.

  4. Thanks for your comment Phil – I sort of, tried to touch upon that toward the end of the post but I suppose it depends what the model is – one of the possible models for Twitter I’ve seen a fair bit about is organisation’s paying to be on the network. I guess in that scenario the demographic & number of active citizens on the network may not change dramatically but the council could be priced out. It’s all hypothetical – I guess the crux of my post is how much planning is going into being active on social media channels & how much value does the organisation place on them?

  5. I know that most authorities would duck out of charges came in; but there is a counter argument that we all rely on free tools and expect them to work. If we were paying for them, we would have more of a right to believe they would work all the time, and some redress if they didn’t

  6. Great post, Sarah!
    I would be concerned about the difficulty of measuring the reach of social media accurately.
    I have quite often had discussions that roamed across several channels with a slightly different group on each and a different audience for each. I would have said that most of my followers don’t read my tweets but then someone totally unexpected comments, and I reconsider my supposition. I know that I pass on information from tweets to other people who then pass it on by email or word of mouth.
    I would also question whether any local authority could prove the cost effectiveness of printed methods of communication versus social media.

  7. Thanks John – ah, the much loved SLA! of course you’re right that in paying for a product or tool allows you that redress – and perhaps access to more useful aspect like workable measurement. In paying it perhaps puts it in terms an organisation (or parts of the organisation) can understand more easily and gives it (not sure if this quite the right word) credibility? Sort of “if you have to pay it must be a legitimate business tool”. An interesting avenue to wander off when thinking about this ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Thanks Janet – and I agree that measuring reach and also impact is pretty impossible online because, as you say, conversations wander across networks, can be asynchronous, can re-emerge after you think activity has stopped, and because it’s hard (impossible?) to tell where it’s moved to another channel such as real life face to face (you read something on a council Twitter stream and go and tell you next door neighbour).
    I think traditional channels, like newspapers, have the same issue but have accepted measures (rightly or wrongly). You can quote a distribution figure for example – how many households you deliver to but this is really expected reach – you can’t tell from this number alone whether half those households bin (recycle!) the newspaper without reading or conversly whether they pass it on after reading it themselves. Readership could be much higher or lower than distribution numbers. I see this as having an online equivalent – Twitter followers for example. In some ways it should be easier to garner a little more info online as you can generate figured for click throughs etc but there is still a lot of assumption or headscratching going on.
    I’m really interested in what we can / can’t measure, the accuracy, the value of measurement & how we tell the story of what we’ve done!

  9. If social media channels started charging I’m guessing that not only would local government question their use, so would our customers/clients/partners so it would all be relative.
    I’m also guessing that some other whizz would fill the gap with another free, possibly better version like Media Funnel and Social Sprout did with Hootsuite.
    A great post – thanks for bursting my head at 7.30am on a Wednesday morning ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. No problem Carolyne – baking of noodles & squeezing of melons a speciality! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’d assume you’d be right about other free platforms filling the gap but they’d only be a solution if the audience moved to them too. Tools are easier in a way as interchangeable at any time without impacting the end user (mostly & broadly speaking) but platform, well that’s dependent on audience! If (for example) Twitter made organisations & companies pay but not individuals a council may not be able or want to continue using but the majority of audience would still be there. Of course, that’s just one possible scenario that may or may not ever happen but it got my cogs spinning ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I’ll echo the others in saying this is a great post, Sarah, and real food for thought! We were nearly stung by this very thing last year when Ning started charging and there simply wasn’t any budget for the project we had in mind. Thankfully we hadn’t yet started down that particular path so just went elsewhere.

    I often warn colleagues about this risk – it helps to frame the conversation around what we actually mean by ‘free’. The investment of staff time is a far greater cost consideration but it’s also a sunk cost and is harder to quantify.

    I also warn people that it’s not just a risk of these sites starting to charge – there are other methods of monetisation which may be equally as problematic. Facebook’s choice of adverts, for example, can sometimes be a bit odd and can be inappropriate for the target audience.

    And finally, there’s the risk that a platform simply can’t balance the books and closes down, making your parallel question about exit strategies really relevant too.

    I may go and join Carolyne in the burst-head ward.

  12. Thanks James – and you are of course right, there are costs and risks beyond what I cover in this post. I think I did blog about exit strategies and abandoned profiles a year or so ago and maybe that post starts to explore some of the points you raise? – Abandoned-outposts

  13. This is thought provoking, but I would argue:

    1. All social media channels cost something already. In the private sector use of Twitter would already be assessed against employees’ time spent and the value received
    2. If Twitter were to start charging, we (Department of Health) would have to take a long, hard look at the value of subscribing. It’s a useful tool right now, supported by the fact it doesn’t consume too much time and is free. As soon as that balance is altered the value changes dramatically.

  14. Absolutely Tim – I don’t dispute social media, like everything an organisation does, costs them something and the prime example is employee time. I know the council I work for looks at how much time is spent on different channels, at different times and the value for that effort. Ways of measuring ROI is something I’m hoping to explore further in future posts.
    I don’t think the DoH would be alone in having to assess the value of paying to be part of a network but I do suspect a lot of orgs (public and private sector) wouldn’t really know where to start with that assessment to really discern whether pay-to-use is worth it for them (and their citizens / customers). I’m also not sure what they’d do instead – reverting completely to traditional channels probably wouldn’t be the right answer even if paying to use a social media platform wasn’t either.
    Interesting to hear your view – thanks for the comment ๐Ÿ™‚

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