I’ve been thinking for days about something I wrote last week. You can read the whole thing here, but the upshot is this: it’s popular to suggest that marketing and promotion on the Internet are “free”–because, in a way, they are. But in another, more accurate way, believing that promotion via social media is “free” is can lead to sloppy, ineffective marketing at best and, at worst, total marketing paralysis.

First, let’s start by defining “free.” For the purposes of this discussion, “free” means “without cost”–and there is certainly a cost to doing any sort of marketing. Even if the media are free–and, in the case of tweets or Facebook status updates or posts to your own blog, the media are effectively free–there is a cost in time and effort. Someone has to write and post your blog. Someone has to update and monitor your presence on Facebook.

Writing a Facebook status update might not seem like much work, but it is work. Someone has to actually do it. We’d also hope that any given Facebook update is also a very small element of a larger, well-considered marketing plan, which implies a whole lot more time and effort behind a simple task.

But this is exactly where so many marketers fall down. They don’t really have a plan for the web. So “and it’s all free” means either, “I don’t have to do that right now” or “I can pay a kid to do that.”

The first of these choices is the most damaging. The continuing explosion of connectivity through the web means that a web presence has become that one indispensable component of virtually any marketing plan: you have plenty of alternatives to marketing via television, radio, outdoor, direct mail, handbills, etc., but without a web presence, you don’t exist. Soon, this same rule is going to apply to social media. In a world in which a quarter of all page views on the web go to Facebook, you must be there. Resistance, as the Borg used to say to Captain Picard, is futile.

Most marketers aren’t staffed to handle active social engagement. But that’s no excuse. That would be akin to having said, in 1993, “We can’t get computers for our office because we don’t have an IT department.” You have to adapt to changing times. In doing so, you need to accept the idea that you need to devote some financial resources to these important media that are supposedly “free.”

So what resources should you devote? Lots of organizations default to the idea of “using the intern to take care of our social media.” Sometimes, that pays off–because sometimes you come up with an amazing intern who truly understands the web, understands marketing, and is willing to take responsibility for your social media presence. We’ve seen it happen. We’ve been blessed with some pretty great interns ourselves.

But–again–we’re still pussyfooting around the idea that the web and social media are effectively “free.” Facebook is something an unpaid student or a minimum-wage employee should be able to handle.

We disagree. Connecting with people on the web has to be an integral and integrated part of your marketing strategy. Developing and executing a plan to connect takes just as much time and effort as developing any component of your plan, and is at least as important.

In fact, social media are evolving all the time, and using them effectively requires constant vigilance, evaluation, and even a certain delicacy. It is usually not a job for the least-experienced person in your organization. But–again–since it’s all “free,” the stakes seem to be overwhelmingly low.

We think the stakes are enormously high. Most marketers have the opportunity to dramatically reduce their marketing expenditure through the use of social media tools and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, while reaching their audience more effectively, with messaging that is timely and honest. It may be that instead of spending a million dollars on a television campaign, you can reach your customers just as effectively spending only $300,000 on television and $200,000 on social media and blogging. Or maybe you don’t need television at all.

But: it’s still not free. It may cost half as much or a fifth as much or less. But as long as you think it’s free, it’s not very important and you don’t have to do it.

Don’t fall into that trap. Divert some of the money you were spending on paid media to developing a content and social media strategy. Then spend the money it takes to implement it.┬áIn the Internet Age, reaching your audience will never be “free.” But it may cost you less than ever.