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Insight: Free Giveaways Can’t Beat Good Info in the Social Media Era

I’ve long struggled with the premise that social-media marketing is something fundamentally different from marketing marketing. I mean, selling and buying have always been social; marketplaces were foundations of communities back in the Dark Ages, and even if we want to pretend that consumers in the 1950s were obedient and isolated automatons, the truth is that they were in many ways more socially involved than the most dedicated Twitter or Pinterest users.

What’s felt the strangest to me is the argument for giving away “content” that’s utterly neutral to the established rules of customer acquisition. I’ve had to stifle a laugh every time some company chose to make no brand promise, offer no transactional payoff, and do it at a price tag of zero to the consumer, with the hope that value would spontaneously appear sometime thereafter.

But I think I’ve figured out why it bugs me: It’s the wrong answer to the right question.

CMOs have to figure out what consumers will use to make purchase decisions if there’s no authority, credibility, or trust coming from the traditional social mechanisms that used to help them do so. The institutions in our life don’t have much authority anymore. We certainly don’t find advertising very credible, and we know now not to trust anonymous online opinions that skew to extremes, or community rankings that net out to lowest-common-denominator consensus.

So the answer du jour is to give consumers free content. Produce enough stuff to earn their attention and belief, after which you can try to get them to pay for things. It’s a tactic we’ve known for a long time as sampling elevated to encompass all of strategy.

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