One of the biggest benefits of basic online marketing is that it’s “cheap,” especially thanks to social media. (The operative word here is “basic.”) In this tough economy that requires businesses to make do with tighter budgets, having access to free or inexpensive online marketing tools is a huge advantage. However, it can also be intimidating, confusing and time-consuming.

So, should you do handle your own online marketing or hire a helping hand?

It’s the classic time versus money scenario, although it goes beyond that. It’s really about getting the most results for time and money spent (aka ROE – Return On Engagement). That’s where it gets tricky, mainly because online marketing isn’t really “cheap.”

You can do it! (in my best Rob Schneider voice)

A Google search for “social media tools” fires back a whopping 5 million results. “Online marketing tools” has 3 million results. To help you wade through the muck, lots of people write top 10 lists (and there are definitely good ones), but even then there are at least 300,000 of these. It’s a lot like going to the supermarket to buy cereal and coming face to face with the hundreds of varieties all calling for your attention.

Nevertheless, the sheer volume of corn flakes online marketing tools available online means there’s definitely one out there for you and your business. In addition to lists of recommendations, there are lots of tutorials and how-to YouTube videos lining the yellow brick road. (Most products make it a point to focus on being simple and usually provide their own video walking you through the basics.) This all will require a good chunk of your time, but at least you’re saving money.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat

The thing is it’s a little more complex than that. For one, while the tools themselves may be simple, you have to know how to best use the data the tools generate so that it actually helps your business. (Remember ROE?) In the same vein, it’s a misnomer to say these tools are really “free” or “cheap” because of the significant time you have to invest into learning them and (most importantly) incorporating them into your marketing plan. That’s crucial, especially in the labile world of online. Daphne Mallory said it best: “The Internet changes on a daily basis, and if you don’t keep up with the ways in which those changes impact your marketing plan, you’ll be left behind.”

You may not have all the time you need to learn the best marketing practices or social media etiquette. And you don’t want to make a half-hearted effort that could potentially stain your reputation (by, say, having a non-social media savvy employee respond harshly to critical customers).

That’s the reason companies either hire strategic partners like Digital Park or create an in-house team dedicated to online marketing. After all, beyond learning how to use these tools, it’s crucial to use them effectively to generate the most results for the time and money spent. Marketing professionals are already versed in the SEO techniques, monitoring social media, developing content strategies and managing online reputations, to name a few. (Phew!) In essence, they can help you create your message and engage with your communities, maximizing your online presence.

May the Force be with you

But of course, professional marketers cost money, so we’re back to the issue of balance. Is it worth it your business to invest in professionals to generate results, or would you rather handle it yourself and save money at the expense of your time?

Only you can answer that question. That’s a good habit to get into, asking questions. You should be constantly reevaluating your online marketing strategy – it’ll help you be aware of whether your needs have changed. Like Seth Godin said recently, “Relentlessly asking the right questions is a long term career, mostly because no one ever knows the right answer on a regular basis.”