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Why Content Isn’t as Free as You Think

Content isn't as free as you think

At some point, people began to convince themselves that content marketing could be free, or near to it. The same thing happened with social media. Perhaps it’s because people are so used to the traditional advertising paradigm, that they’ve been accidentally blinded to the real costs of content marketing. And while producing high quality content can give you a leg up on less savvy competition, one things remains just as true for content as is for car buying:

One way or another, you’re going to pay for it.

Turning lemons into lessons

This is a lesson that I first learned through car buying. When I bought my first car, nobody was willing to finance me. So I bought the best car I could for my cash budget—around $4,000-$5,000. What I got was a reasonably reliable car with around 100,000 miles on it. But after about two years and 40,000 miles, it broke down and it was going to cost more to fix than I had paid for it. So I sold it for hardly more than pocket change and started fresh.

This time, I was able to get financing. And thank goodness, because I didn’t have the cash like I did the first time around. But it was still only for around $5,000. So once again, I went forth and picked out the best car I could find for the price. Again, it had around 100,000 miles on it.

And again, it was probably about the best move I could have made at the time. But once again, after a few years and another 40,000 miles or so, it took a dive and demanded extensive, expensive repairs to keep it running. Since it was paid off, I had a deja vu moment and sold it off for a few hundred bucks.

I decided this cycle had to stop.

While I’m no math wizard, I decided it was worth comparing alternatives. My next car purchase was going to be a critical one. With regular income and more purchasing power this time, I had more options. And while part of my brain was telling me to be frugal by buying another inexpensive car, another part of me was beginning to think buying these cheap cars was actually an expensive mistake.

So I calculated the price of serving my transportation needs for six years using my current model of buying cheap and used vs buying new.

Buy cheap plan

Car 1      2 years      40,000 miles      $5,000 (really happened)

Car 2      2 years      40,000 miles      $5,000 (really happened)

Car 3      2 years      40,000 miles      $5,000 (should I again?)

Buy new plan

Car 1      6 years      120,000 miles      $15,000

These numbers aren’t just convenient proxies for a lesson. These are my real-life numbers (obviously with slight rounding for the sake of simplicity). They also confirmed what I had suspected. Whether you try to cheap out or go full-tilt up-front, you’re going to end up paying the same in the end. While I thought my first approach was saving me money, the reality was that it was just getting me to the same place with a lot more grief and headaches along the way.

In case you’re wondering, I went with the buy-new plan, which was a great call long-term.

So, what does this have to do with content marketing?

I’m so glad you asked. Like the person who tries to get a bargain on a car or an electricity plan, there seems to be a perception that content marketing is a way to hit marketing and business goals while spending little to nothing to do it. And like these other life examples, I believe it’s largely because people are ignoring the costs that are not as obvious up front.

Focusing on the sticker price

When people think about the cost of marketing, they tend to think about what I’ll call the “sticker price”—the price traditional media pay for giving you space to promote your message. Since content marketing doesn’t really work this way, it may appear that the “sticker price” is nada, while the real cost may be far higher. Here are the fundamental differences in who does what for each model:

Traditional advertising

  • Media company creates content

  • Media company distributes content

  • You pay to rent space in/around that content*

Content marketing

  • You create content

  • You distribute content (which can be augmented with paid promotion)

  • You don’t have to pay for space in/around content since you created it*

You see, many marketers have been working in something like the traditional advertising model for so long, they may only see the costs I’ve starred in the bullets above. But for anyone who has ever tried to get a content marketing program off the ground, you know that those costs are only a small part of the equation. As an example, let’s look at one of the most common and misunderstood content properties—a blog.

Cataloging the costs of content marketing

After all, you own your blog. You don’t have to pay to post there, do you? Certainly not. But that’s just one piece of the equation. Let’s take a look at some of the costs.


If you want to be successful blogging, you can’t just shoot randomly into the dark. You need SEO research and insight if you intend to try to show up in organic search. You’ll want media monitoring and/or competitive intelligence tools to get an idea of which topics you should be covering. And you’ll want to leverage analytics to make sure you know which of the content you’ve produced is most and least effective.


You need someone to plan your blogs. Sure, you could just publish whatever you come up with whenever the mood hits you. Just don’t expect it to have any effect on your business. Real blogging for business requires regular planning and the discipline to execute on the plan. And it doesn’t hurt to have a purpose-built content planning tool to help you keep everything straight.


Got a notebook full of ideas? You’re not alone. And you’ve also revealed one of the key speedbumps on the way to successful blogging. Writing seems like it should be a lot easier than it is. You can try to just add it on to the duties of your other employees, but guess what? Every hour of employee time you take for writing is an hour you’re paying them to write and an hour they’re not performing their primary duties (that’s called opportunity cost). Which means it’s probably more cost effective to hire a professional copywriter to turn your idea notebook into a blog full of fully realized posts.


By now, most people know that blog posts containing images are more engaging and that blog posts with images shared on social media perform much better than those that don’t. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just google things and use the images in your posts. Doing so opens you up to lawsuits and damages. That means you’ll probably need to invest in some stock images, assuming you’re not going to hire a photographer to shoot an original image for each blog post. (Though if you’re crafty, you may be able to find a few limited free stock image resources).


Someone needs to crop and size those images to fit your blog template. You might want to add blog titles to your feature images, or even add some visual branding elements to them. That’s where a designer comes in. Of course, inexpensive self-serve design tools like Canva are helping out the little guys who have more time than they do money for outsourced design help.

Prep and publish

You’ve got the post written. You’ve got images. They just magically appear on the Internet, right? Wrong! Someone has to spend their time prepping the the post, styling the text, uploading images, adding hyperlinks and more in your CMS.

Link building

One of the most oft neglected and least understood elements of successful blog posts, link building is time consuming, tedious, and something that frankly not that many people know how to do well. Once again, get ready to spend employee time or cash for outsourcing.

Web hosting

For many businesses, this is a relatively small cost, but you’ve gotta host your blog somewhere, and that costs money.

Building your blog

Hosting is just step one. You need someone to help design, develop and deploy your blog. That means the time of in-house talent or outside freelancers or web firms. Even if you go with something simple like WordPress where you can conceivably skip the design and dev hep, you’ll probably at least need to purchase a theme to help style your blog and define/add functionality.

Developer help

No website works flawlessly 100% of the time. Sooner or later, something will get buggy and you’ll need help fixing it. Even well-built blogs can break when the base software (like WordPress or Drupal) is updated. That’s development resources you’ll have to pay for. Plus, as you decide to make revisions to templates or add functionality to improve your blog’s effectiveness, the developer hours keep adding up.


Publishing a post without promoting it is kind of like holding a party in the middle of the countryside without sending any invites. Nobody’s going to show up. Aside from link building and what traffic you might pick up from organic search, you may have to shell out for a combination of paid social promotion, employee/freelancer time for organic social promotion, content syndication, newsletter list management and email sends, paid guest placements and more.

Whether you can execute this with time taken from existing employees, hire new employees or farm it out to outside resources, you can see how many different kinds of expenses you can incur executing on this medium that some people mistake for “free.” I don’t say all this to discourage anyone from blogging. On the contrary, it can be a great tactic. But I do say all this to make sure you’re informed and that you take the tactic seriously so you can be successful.

The content costs people most often miss

If you were paying close attention to my earlier comparison of traditional advertising versus content marketing costs, this won’t be a big surprise. It comes down differences in budget focus.

Cost of content creation

Companies typically consider it a necessity to employ professional help when it comes to producing traditional advertising assets like TV and radio spots, print ads, billboards and environmental ads. But for some reason, there seems to be a belief that content marketing assets, like blog posts, white papers, ebooks, infographics, etc. should be produced free in-house or by cheap content farms. Like anything else, you get what you pay for.

Cost of content promotion

In content marketing, you typically don’t pay to rent someone else’s audience like you do with traditional advertising. But that means you have to spend money building your own—possibly from scratch. Because if you drop a white paper in the forest and nobody is there to read it, it simply can’t convert.

Nothing is free

In case you missed the thesis statement at the beginning of this post, here it is again for good measure. There’s no such thing as free. You can pay now, or you can pay later, but sooner or later the cost of marketing will catch up with you—no matter which approach you use. The real question is, which approach is right for you?

Hal Werner
Hal Werner
Hal Werner is a Dallas-area content strategist, digital marketer and idea man that loves bringing distinctive flavor and customer insight to every project.