19 Dec

Marketing on the Web Really Is Not Free

The Website Doctor raised an interesting discussion about startup costs. He pointed to a Paul Graham article, where Graham suggests that the costs of starting a business today are lower than 10 years ago:

“… [E]veryone in the startup business knows by now: it has gotten much cheaper to start a startup. There are four main reasons: Moore’s law has made hardware cheap; open source has made software free; the web has made marketing and distribution free; and more powerful programming languages mean development teams can be smaller. These changes have pushed the cost of starting a startup down into the noise.”

Now, I realize Graham is making broad definitive statements to emphasize his point, partly for effect.

Even so, I don’t agree with one of his points, where he says “the web has made marketing and distribution free.”  Maybe the distribution part, but marketing certainly is not free on the Web.

There are costs — big costs — to marketing.  The startup entrepreneur has to pay those costs either in time or in money.

  • Optimizing a website for the search engines takes many many hours of knowledge, or you have to hire an SEO firm.  If you try to do it yourself, you’re faced with the fact that more people are aware of SEO today and so there is more competition for top rankings.  And if you decide on a professional, remember that good SEO professionals don’t come cheap.
  • Advertising through Google Adwords or other online advertising venues takes money.  Google keeps making Adwords more complex and expensive.  It’s not just the per-click charges.  A cost that is just as big is to manage the pay-per-click ad campaigns and all the nuances you need to master.
  • Blogging, email marketing and social media optimization may be cheap if you do it yourself.  But each  takes a pretty significant commitment of time to execute well.  As John Battelle notes, we’re all in the media business in addition to our regular businesses.  This may not be a big burden if your business happens to be marketing related — you may have people in your startup who love to write on blogs and play around with Twitter and the like.  But if not, you could find these activities at odds with your team’s skillsets, and a major distraction to your core business. As a result, you may be forced to outsource these activities.

Sure marketing can be done on the cheap if — if — you have the knowledge and time to do it yourself.  If not, it requires that you have a marketing budget.

The challenge that I see with that statement “marketing on the web is free” is that it may be setting entrepreneurs up to have false expectations.  In turn, it makes the job of marketers who might serve startups that much more difficult if that’s what entrepreneurs have been led to believe.

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  1. Amanda said on December 19th, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Agreed. Most people think that once they open their website business, the hard work’s done. In my opinion, the work has only just begun. As you pointed out, it takes tons of time, research and effort to constantly keep your business in the eyes of your target consumers. It’s a common misconception that if you simply put a site on the web, that’s all you need to do to be seen and make money. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Expect long hours spent in front of the computer pulling your hair out.

  2. Ken English said on December 19th, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Cheap? How do you learn to use the internet? Trial and error? Maybe. But more likely than not, you buy a couple of programs that promise ‘money while you sleep.’ When you realize that’s a ‘pipe dream,’ and you need to understand HTML or you don’t have a webite, you begin to realize ‘free’ is just a four-letter word that gets your attention. You can hire someone to set up a website for a nominal fee. But, it’s not worth the investment if content isn’t changed on a regular basis. Go for the flash and you’re in real trouble, since flashier it is, the more difficult it is to change. Who’s going to make the changes? Are they going to do it for ‘free?’ How about blogs? Free, yes, on WordPress. But how much time does it take to post? Where does the content come from? When I thought I understood HTML, ‘they’ introduce PHP. When I thought understood the web, ‘they’ changed it, and it became ‘web2.0,’ for God’s sake! What was Twitter, Facebook, Myspace? How do you ‘Tweet?’ Who cares what I’m doing, but I have to tell ‘them,’ or I’m not in the game. Video? It’s the new standard. Upload to YouTube? Revver? According to the NicheProf there are more than 700 vides sites. Shooting video is easy. Editing it, isn’t. Not if you want someone to watch, and buy something from you. Podcast? I can talk, so I can do internet radio, can’t I? So, I need a GURU. They’re cheap? They’re FREE? They’re worth thousand dollars, aren’t they? Maybe, but I’ve only meet a couple that I don’t mind paying ‘tribute’ to. It used to be ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ Now, it’s ‘Who’s Your GURU?’ If I had the money I spent to get into the FREE internet, I could build a building! But, I wouldn’t have any customers, unless I knew how to market online. So, now that I’ve vented, and feel better, I will say that ‘free-dom has a price.’ Everything is easy, once you know how it’s done. So, pay the price to learn. Go to live seminars and meet people who know more than you. And, while you’re at it, you’ll meet people who know less. That helps gain perspective. I know there will always be people who know more than me, but the more I learn, the more I realize, that in the words of Elsom Eldridge Jr. ‘I’m an ‘obvious expert’ to someone.’

  3. Anita Campbell said on December 20th, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Amanda, the upside to what you have discovered is that everything you learn from those “long hours spent in front of the computer” gives you a competitive advantage.

    I do believe that business owners and managers who learn how to do online marketing will have more successful businesses than those who don’t. After a year, you will look back and be amazed at how much you know and have worked into your business. In two years, you’ll be doubly amazed. And so on. But you have to invest the time.

    As I said, online marketing costs something: time or money.

    — Anita

  4. Peggy Duncan said on December 20th, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    I’ve always heard that marketing is 80% of business and if you’re not willing to spend the time or money with it, don’t even think about starting one. I’ve always focused on my business processes…keeping them streamlined and automated with technology (you probably don’t have any idea of how much time you waste). That way, I have time to spend on marketing (had a lot more time than money).

    For my Website, I purchased a template that had been professionally designed for $15.00 (4templates.com). I took classes in FrontPage so I didn’t have to learn HTML or beg someone to update my site. I’ve also chosen a good mix of Web 2.0 tools but make sure I don’t get caught up into social NOTworking).

    I must have done all the right things because I show up on the first page of Google when you search for my expertise…organically. No, I’m not an SEO expert. I’m a shameless self-promoter and use on- and off-line tactics to keep me there. Why? The more you market, the less you have to sell.

  5. Ivana Taylor said on December 20th, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Nothing is free. It just depends on whether you’re willing to invest time or money — most likely both. Hey – I’m in the marketing profession and STILL have to pay for a variety of things I’m just not an expert in. Thanks Anita for laying it all out!

  6. Martin Lindeskog said on December 20th, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Marketing is not free, nothing is. But internet marketing could be very effective compared to regular marketing. Then you have alternative marketing schools, like guerilla marketing and such. You will soon be able to read my review of the book Duct Tape Marketing on Small Business Trends. There you could find plenty of tips on how to use marketing in a economical, smart and sticky way.

  7. Martin Lindeskog said on December 20th, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    By the way: Eye catching image in the blog post! 🙂 First it is Attention, then Interest, Desire and Action!

  8. Derek said on December 20th, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Blogging is one of the most expensive ways to launch a new business. It takes a ton of time and a ton of dedication. It is simply not for people who are looking for the easy way out.

  9. Anita Campbell said on December 20th, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    Ken, Let it all hang out … 🙂

    I think you make a great point here: “Everything is easy, once you know how it’s done. So, pay the price to learn.”

    Even if you are going to do it yourself, it takes time to learn. You can cut down your investment of time by getting expert advice.

    — Anita

  10. Susan Oakes said on December 21st, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    You make very good points Anita. The hidden cost is a person’s time which many don’t take into account, but certainly adds up. Although there are many people around who can help you but in the early days it can be difficult to know who is the most appropriate. This may be why people try and do it all themselves.

  11. Bianca Aquino said on December 22nd, 2008 at 2:51 am

    First it is Attention, then Interest, Desire and Action!

    What do you mean by Attention in that case, Martin? Shouldn’t it be Intention/Goal?

  12. Arthur Bland said on December 23rd, 2008 at 2:41 am

    You are right Susan, it’s really difficult to know who is the appropriate person. Most of the time it’s often a trial process and that takes an ample time to determine whether or not your tandem works!

  13. Martin Lindeskog said on December 24th, 2008 at 8:25 am


    Read about the marketing acronym AIDA: http://www.answers.com/topic/aida-7

    This post got my attention due to the image of a woman looking at the “reader”…

  14. Karl Steinmann said on December 29th, 2008 at 12:02 am

    @Ken English:

    “Everything is easy, once you know how it’s done.” Amen to that, brother.

    Ken, I couldn’t help but think that your short summary of the *very long, steep and ugly* slope that is the barrier to entry and price one must pay to “be successful” at Internet marketing is simply one of the best (and funniest) I’ve ever read.

    Of course, I laugh so that I might not cry. (:-o]


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