As with any early industry, there are quite a few ‘free’ measurement applications out there. Social Media is no exception.

Many of them are quite good at doing one or two things very well. For instance, Twitalyzer is very good at measuring influence, and in particular, the first derivative of influence. The advanced search functions on Google are very good at tracking, at least at a monthly cadence, the number of mentions and backlinks. Very useful. And they’re FREE*!

There’s a large component of social media analytics that can be done with Google Analytics for ‘free’ too.

Of course, ‘free’ has a hidden cost. In some instances, unless you’re opting out and getting mutual NDA’s, you’re giving up some privacy. Of course, privacy has little value to many people anyway – it might as well be free. (You’d be amazed how many people will trade their SSN for as little as a five dollar gift certificate to burger king).

There’s also the hidden cost of aggregation and interpretation. It all depends, of course, on what you’re actually going to do with it.

In certain situations, when you and you alone are the decider:

you don’t need to put a lot of effort into collecting and aggregating the information into a single neat place so that a team can see what’s going on.

In most instances though, there are many people who want to see what’s going on, and they don’t want to log into 9 different tools just to see what is being said about them online.

Then there’s the interpretation and processing of information. Try coding 100 comments into ‘positive’, ‘neutral’ and ‘negative’ by hand to see what I’m talking about….

All told, ‘free’ really isn’t free.

That’s not to say “go out and experiment”. By all means, please, go out and experiment. Check them out. They’re great tools. They’re great interfaces.

When you’re setting expectations on a social media strategy, just don’t assume that you suppress the costs of measurement and optimization down to zero or to ‘free’. It’s just not true, and you’re setting yourself up for some real misery down the road.

Not to kill your contact high. It’s still exciting.