Social media marketing has been popular for years, and according to our recent “What Works in Online Marketing” survey, it’s still on an upward trajectory. Marketing professionals everywhere are looking to increase their social media marketing budgets, while marketers and entrepreneurs who haven’t yet tapped the enormous potential of the strategy are scrambling to make up for lost time.
Still, there are marketers out there apprehensive about getting involved with social media marketing, mostly concerned about its effectiveness and its long-term viability. These are legitimate concerns; on a superficial level, it’s easy to understand why one might view social media marketing as a fad, and the relative unpredictability of bottom-line results can be troublesome to the uninitiated.
If you’re concerned about the potential return of social media marketing, I encourage you to first look at the costs. Social media is extremely affordable, especially considering the level of returns you can potentially earn, and being aware of its estimated costs can help you budget your strategy efficiently.
(NOTE: this article explores the organic side of social media marketing. Paid social advertising is not taken into consideration here).
- How to Pay for Social Media Marketing
- The Elements of Social Media Marketing
- Key Variables: Niche and Scale
- Comparing Different Cost Models
- Bottom-Line Costs
- Final Considerations and Takeaways
How to Pay for Social Media Marketing
First, let’s take a look at the potential cost bases for social media marketing. Claiming accounts and posting on social media is completely free for almost any platform, so what you’ll actually be paying for is the human effort it takes to manage a strategy.
There are four main options to work with here, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
- Full-time workers. First, you can hire a full-time worker (or a team) to manage your social accounts. Alternatively here, you can put the responsibilities on one of your existing team members. Either way, you’ll be paying a salary for the work.
- Consultants, freelancers, and contractors. You can use a platform like Upwork to find a freelancer, or find one through networking, to find candidates to handle your work on a per-project or per-hour basis.
(Image Source: UpWork)
- Agencies and firms. An increasingly popular option, you can work with a marketing agency on a monthly retainer to plan, execute, and manage your social strategies.
- Hybridization. There’s also no limitations here, so you can mix and match these approaches to suit your business best.
Cause and Effect
It’s important to note that how much you invest and what you invest in has a direct bearing on the results you’re going to achieve. For example, if you’re only interested in setting up a basic network for social visibility, you can invest a pittance, but if you’re interested in building an audience of thousands, you’ll need to invest significantly more.
This makes it difficult to project any one “standard” cost basis for social media marketing, but I shall do my best to present the general considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when creating your overall marketing budget (including, PPC & SEO prices).
The Elements of Social Media Marketing
Now, let’s take a look at the individual elements of a social media marketing campaign, and approximately how much they could cost. For the most part, we’ll be looking at raw man-hours of work here, rather than a monetary value, because your mode of work will modify the final cost as a critical variable.
Strategy and Planning
Don’t overlook the strategy and planning portion of social media marketing. If you go in without a formalized plan, you’ll have no goals to reach for, no direction on what to do, and your team members will end up wasting time. You should spend many hours doing competitive research, researching your demographics, learning best practices for social media, and eventually coming up with a step-by-step game plan for success, formally documented to ensure accountability. This can take days or weeks of work, depending on the depth of your strategic aims, but the good news is it only needs to be done once (future modifications aside).
Account Claiming and Setup Costs
Next up, you have setup costs, which include the time cost of finding and claiming your individual social media profiles. If your business already has these, you can skip this step, but if not, you’ll have to go through the motions of establishing your social presence. For the most part, this is simple; take a look at how easy Twitter’s initial signup process is:
(Image Source: Twitter)
Admittedly, there are a few steps beyond this, but they still aren’t complicated. The hard part is filling in all the details, like your hours of operation, business description, and some basic images for people to find you with. Still, even if you’re claiming an account on every major social media platform, it should only take you a day or so to wrap everything up.
The bulk of your strategy is going to revolve around creating posts. These can take a number of different forms, but the bottom line goal for each one is to provide some meaningful content to your audience:
- Original posts. Original posts are written (or created) solely for your platform of choice. These can include news, factoids, tips, jokes, or anything else you can think of. Depending on the platform, your posting frequency, and a few other factors, this could eat up an hour per day per platform.
- Content distribution. These manifest in the form of shared articles from your website or blog, and generally don’t take much time to post. In fact, most of them can be scheduled in advance.
- Shared posts. Shared posts take some time to find and share, but not much. They’re a negligible time component (unless you’re building your strategy on shared posts).
(Image Source: SkilledUp)
Ultimately, your posting strategy will probably take 1-3 hours per day, possibly more if you’re pursuing an aggressive strategy.
Engagement is the other side of social media marketing, and I would argue, the more important of the two. Engagement is the truly “social” element of social media—here, you’ll be responding to inbound posts, answering questions, and otherwise interacting with your audience. Without these community engagements, your social media platforms will function more as a megaphone than a means of conversation, and your users will become disinterested.
It’s hard to estimate exactly how much your engagement will take, since at least half of it is based on how many people you have reaching out to you. Some days, you may be flooded with inquiries, and others you may get none. In either case, you’ll have to check in to look for new notifications, and initiate some engagements of your own. Count on at least an hour a day here.
Relationship to Other Strategies
Also consider the fact that your social media strategy will be tied to other marketing strategies your brand utilizes. I’ve already mentioned how social media plays into your existing content marketing strategy, but your SEO strategy will also be indirectly affected; engaging with influencers can help you in both these areas. Email marketing, specific sales, and other promotional strategies may all require additional or special efforts from your social campaign, so count on some extra time expenditures for those.
(Image Source: IAG.me)
Automation and Assistance
Once you get past the hurdle of building an initial social media following, you’ll start having to post more often, engage more frequently, and keep track of more complicated statistics. It’s almost impossible to do that all alone, so you’ll probably need some assistances with tracking software, post schedulers, and organizational tools to improve your efficiency. There are dozens of tools like this on the market, most of which require a paid subscription, and you’ll need at least a few of them to keep things moving. Overall, you’ll end up paying a few hundred dollars a month in these tools; it’s possible to scrape by without them, but they do add a lot of value to your campaign, especially at higher levels.
(Image Source: Sprout Social)
Measurement and Analysis
Finally, you’ll need to spend time measuring and analyzing your performance. You can use some of the tools you subscribe to, but you’ll still end up pouring in a few hours a month to compile and draw conclusions from the data. The hardest part here is forming actionable takeaways, which you can feasibly use to update your original social media strategy and refine your approach for your future campaign execution.
It’s hard to ballpark a “general” amount of time needed for social media marketing, but as you can see, you’ll need to count on at least several hours per week—at larger scales, you can probably justify a full-time dedicated position.
Key Variables: Niche and Scale
Now, let’s take a look at the two key variables that will influence how much you need to spend to be successful in your campaign:
- Niche. The type of audience you have, your competitors, your product, and your main goals will all influence how effective social media can be for you, and what tactics you’ll need to adopt.
- Scale. Your scale depends on your specific goals; put simply, if you want to reach more people, you’ll have to invest more money.
Take a look at these key considerations for niche and scale, and how they’ll influence your overall budget.
Look at how much your competitors seem to be investing in social media marketing, and how they seem to be investing it. This is going to tell you three things:
- How easy it is to get results in your industry. If most of your competitors are actively engaged on social media with sizable followings, they’re obviously seeing some significant rate of return.
- How hard you’ll need to fight for the market share. If your competitors are posting constantly, you’ll have to fight hard (i.e., invest more money) to make waves for yourself.
- What opportunities you have to exploit. Are your competitors neglecting one specific platform? You can allocate your budget to exploit this opportunity.
This is mostly going to be dependent on your demographics, but your type of business may also come into play here. Think carefully about how active your users are going to be on social media; if they’re highly active, you’ll need to invest far more time into posting and engaging with them. If they’re more passive, you can let off the gas. For example, younger generations tend to be more active on social media than older generations, but you’ll also need to consider where your business fits in; will people be coming to you with complaints and questions regularly? Or are you the type of brand people only need once every few years?
Some businesses are naturally going to have more posting opportunities on social media than others; this is inherent to your industry and the types of actions your company takes on a regular basis. This is best illustrated by example.
Consider National Geographic, a brand that prides itself on photography. Instagram and National Geographic were a match made in heaven, because National Geographic can use the photos it’s already taking as the fodder for its campaign.
(Image Source: National Geographic/Hubspot)
This is a form of corporate multitasking; if the bulk of your posted content can come from actions your company is already doing, you’ll require substantially less investment of man-hours than a company trying to develop all its content from scratch, 100 percent of the time. The reverse of this is that to be successful in social media, you may have to go out of your way to find more opportunities to post.
This is a complicated variable, because there are no right or wrong answers, and there’s an infinite combination of approaches you can take. Eventually, you’ll have to settle on one group of different social media platforms to support your brand. The types of platforms you choose will have a massive impact on how much time you’ll need to invest to keep your following growing.
For example, Twitter is a platform that’s fast-paced and generally built on in-the-moment content consumption. You’ll have to check in to Twitter more frequently than something like LinkedIn, and you’ll probably have more engagements to worry about as well. Instagram, on the other hand, is a bit slower paced, but also demands the more complex task of finding images to post. Obviously, working on more platforms is going to mean more costs, and sometimes those extra costs aren’t met by an equal rise in rewards. Consider your platforms carefully to maximize your efficiency.
Alternative Uses and Multiple Accounts
Depending on the nature of your business, you may also consider using social media for multiple different purposes. The SaaS industry, in particular, has high enough demand and enough of a digitally active user base to qualify it for hosting multiple accounts. As an example, SalesForce uses many different social profiles to host its many different options, services, and functions, from support to careers and options for developers:
(Image Source: Twitter)
All of these will take extra time and effort to manage, so bear that in mind when outlining your strategy.
Comparing Different Cost Models
Now that you know the different types of costs you’ll need to account for, let’s explore the pros and cons of each type of cost model you can use, as well as approximate costs for each option.
Full-time workers, as a model, are the hardest to gauge from the outset. Do you need one full-time staff member? If so, and you end up requiring fewer than 40 hours of work per week, you may end up wasting time and money. Can you dump your social media responsibilities onto the plate of someone who’s already a full-time staff member? Feasibly, but at what point do you need to scale?
In any case, the costs here can be prohibitive. If you’re hiring a professional (as you should), you’ll end up paying at least $40,000 a year in salary and benefits, which translates to between $3-4,000 a month. Feasibly, you can split the responsibilities here, but even if you’re only using 10 man-hours per week, that still translates to $1,000 a month. You’ll also have a hard time with the scaling process; eventually one worker will be overwhelmed, and you’ll have to hire a second. The learning curve here is steep, and the costs only get steeper as you add more team members.
(Image Source: PayScale)
Consultants, freelancers, and contractors
Consultants and freelancers tend to be less expensive than full-time hires for a variety of reasons:
- They’re specialists. Most freelancers specialize in a certain niche, which means they’ll execute your work with extreme efficiency. You’ll also never have to worry about a learning curve interfering with your bottom line—they’ll be able to jump right in to almost any project.
- You get what you pay for. You’re only going to pay for the services that are rendered, with no more and no less. This helps you keep your costs under tighter control than with a full-time hire.
- They must prove their value. Some, not all, but some full-timers eventually become complacent. Freelancers must continually prove their worth.
- You can mix and match. Instead of hiring one person for 40 hours of work, you can hire 8 people for 5 hours of work each, catering to strengths and weaknesses with more precision.
However, freelancers are also less reliable and somewhat harder to find, and you may experience growing pains as you try to manage all your workers at once. On an hourly basis, fresh freelancers may charge as little as $20 an hour, on up to hundreds of dollars an hour for experienced consultants.
Agencies and firms
For the most parts, agencies and marketing firms are an ideal investment. They carry a number of advantages over both full-time workers and freelancers:
- Guaranteed results. Agencies have to prove their worth or get cut. They have tons of experience, and they know they need to prove their worth—every cent of it—if they want to be retained.
- Multiple experts. With an agency, you’ll be tapping into an entire hive-mind of thinkers, never just one person.
- Flexible plan options. You can invest as much or as little as you want, and there’s usually room for negotiation.
The only downside is that agencies can be costly, depending on the scale of your campaign. Average costs range from $500 a month for starter packages to $10,000 a month or more for national brands. Chances are, you’ll only need a smaller package, but even a few hundred dollars a month can be intimidating if you’re just starting out.
Of course, the best all-around model is probably the hybrid model, because it allows you to pick and choose a plan that’s going to net you the best results within your budget. For example, you may hire a person full-time whose partial responsibility is picking and choosing freelancers to support the majority of your platforms. Or you might invest in an agency as part of a monthly retainer, while still using your staff members to help fill in the gaps.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve undoubtedly developed a better idea of why it’s so hard to project accurate social media marketing costs in the first place. There are too many variables to possibly narrow down the costs to any one specific figure.
Still, I’d like to try and break down the costs for a number of different campaigns and phases of development:
- Startup costs. It doesn’t take much to start up a social campaign, especially since you can create your social profiles for free. You can probably do this yourself, but if you don’t, expect it to take 5-10 hours or $500-$1,000 depending on the platforms you choose.
- Introductory-level campaigns. If you’re just starting out, or if you have a limited budget, it’s possible to run a campaign on a few hundred dollars a month (less than $500). This applies to most cost modes, though it’s especially hard for a full-time worker approach. Keep in mind you won’t see much growth with a model like this, as you’ll only have a few posts and engagements per week to work with.
- Small- to mid-size campaigns. This is a decent budget option for most startups and small businesses. With an investment between $500 and $1,000 a month, you can get a reasonable number of posts and engagements on a handful of major platforms. With good content and consistent posting, you can see mild to moderate growth, and hopefully fund a next-level campaign.
- Aggressive campaigns. This should be your target if you’re interested in growth and maximized returns on your investment. Investing between $1-5,000 a month (a huge range, I know) can get you an aggressive campaign style, with many engagements, many posts, and covering many different platforms. This is especially true if you maximize your investment using a hybrid model, tapping agencies, in-house workers, and contractors in a blend that works for you.
- Large-scale campaigns. When your organization grows to a level that demands specific platforms for customer service, or constant customer interaction, you’ll need to spend far more than $5,000 a month, whether that’s with an agency or on a team of full-time workers. When you get to this point, you’ll be experienced enough to make your own decisions.
Final Considerations and Takeaways
Now that I’ve estimated the overall costs of a social media marketing campaign for small, average, and large businesses, I’d like to leave you with a handful of final takeaways:
- Ebb and flow. It’s almost impossible to predict a steady flow for your social media campaign. Some weeks, you’ll have almost zero interest from your users. Others, you’ll be fighting them off in hordes. Whatever your strategy or budget is, it needs to be flexible enough to adapt these flukey, rarely predictable fluctuations.
- Flexibility and adjustment. No matter how in-depth or well-researched or theoretically brilliant your initial set of strategies was, they aren’t going to be perfect, and they aren’t going to serve all your needs forever. When you start executing them, you’ll find key areas you neglected and tactics that don’t work as well as you thought they would. Your strategy and your budget are going to have to change and adapt accordingly.
- Growth potential. Ideally, social media marketing is an avenue for growth. As you invest more time and energy into your campaign, you’ll gain new followers, a bigger reputation, and more opportunities for brand visibility. Eventually, if you want that momentum to continue, you’ll have to scale your investment as well. Therefore, if you’re successful, social media will cost you more over time (the flip side, of course, being that it will also earn you more over time).
- Prices. Prices vary for everything, social media services included. Two contractors will probably try to sell you identical services for two very different prices. Do your research as much as possible, and know that everybody has different profit margins.
Ultimately, your social media marketing campaign’s costs are going to depend on your niche, your competition, and most importantly, your goals. With the right strategy and enough commitment, an increase in expenditures is going to correlate with an increase in eventual return, so if you want to see the best possible results, don’t skimp. Do your research, get the best deal you can, and pick the options that are going to work best for your business.
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