In the Online Advocacy World, Free ain’t always Free

Several conversations over the past few days have kept coming back to the same point: in the online world, things that seem cheap often aren’t, and things that seem expensive may actually be the cheaper alternative. For instance, Eric Rardin mentioned it in an email today, pointing out that just about any kind of “free” online outreach you can think of (blogs, list-building, social networking, etc.) actually takes a significant amount of time, and that a group or campaign looking to build a list may be better off buying names from a good opt-in source (such as Care2, the company Eric “coincidentally” works for).

Want to get an idea of the REAL cost of social networking outreach, for instance? Eric recommends a certain company’s social networking return-on-investment calculator. Another example would be advertising — Google Ads or BlogAds may be a cheaper attention-getting tool than spending staff time trying to reach people online through more hands-on means. Video? Cheap to shoot, free to post, a serious pain to edit.

The same logic often applies when you’re building websites. For instance, open-source software such as the Joomla platform I’ve been using lately doesn’t cost anything to download and install, but it can be extremely time-consuming to get set up — and there’s no manual. Yes there’s documentation, but it’s sparse at best and written by tech nerds for whom English is rarely their first language, even if it theoretically is. I’ve spent hours digging around for solutions to what should be relatively simple problems, when if I’d bought any of several $100-$200 content management systems, I’d get a manual, an online product support forum run by the guys who built the software AND a tech support phone number. Maddening. Free is free, except when it ain’t &#151 and if you’re planning a web technology or outreach project, be sure to count the REAL costs.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Don’t forget to itemize on the revenue side the smug sense of geek cred that comes from piecing together a php tweak to change the font face after only eleven hours of trying!

    Seriously, though, those “real” costs have to be weighed up-front, but the problem is that’s just where you’ve got imperfect information and the range of possible outcomes is at its widest. It’s after the fact that you either feel like a genius for the parsimonious solution, or write a blog post lamenting the uncounted real costs…

  • Silly rabbit, that’s why you hire expensive consultants to help you through that initial stage. Cha-ching!

    Call now — operators are standing by…