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Nearly a decade ago, if your website was your empire, your social channels were your colonies—and all roads led back to Rome. That didn’t last long, though. Caesar had his Brutus, and Brutus flayed with advertising dollars.

For years, we wandered farther away from the DIY strategies we first used to engage our audiences. Words like “boost” and “promote” entered the vernacular. Instagram became a thing. Snapchat geofilters got super expensive (seriously, wow). And slowly, all roads led not to Rome, but to agencies and traffic logs.

Today, social channels aren’t colonies; they’re Constantinople. We must treat them as standalone empires. And those halcyon grassroots campaigns are a distant memory. Vendors handle our paid social campaigns, re-skin our websites and optimize our content for search. Now, we pay for everything.

Ever hear the expression “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” I feel like we’re deceiving our clients. It’s so easy to go paid. But organic is still an option we should consider bringing back into the fold.

According to eMarketer social ad spending exceeded $21 billion last year, accounting for 25.5 percent of all digital ad spending. The same report projected social ad spending to grow to $31 billion in 2019, accounting for 29.4 percent of all digital ad expenses.

Want some personal proof that our social buys are exploding? In the past month, I worked with an internal client to launch a campaign utilizing Facebook and LinkedIn demographic targeting and remarketing, coupled with paid search geofencing, and bolstered by radio. But here’s a secret: I didn’t want to do it. In my heart, I wanted to say: “Have you thought about asking whether the market actually wants this program? Have you considered…ahem…free tactics?” But instead I played my part and outlined a plan. Everyone wants to spend their money on paid, so I give them advice to spend their money. But the truth is: free not only works—sometimes it works better.

I agree with Lia Zneimer, WeWork’s director of social media, who said: "Social media started because it was a conversation, and it was a way to react and respond directly—not only to your friends, but also to brands and to influencers and celebrities. I do think at the heart of it, there’s something about community and connection that paid [advertising] can’t replace.”

Here are five things organic can help you do that paid just can’t:

Find your voice

No amount of money can tell you your brand’s voice. Try monetizing tone and timbre. You can’t. But if you listen—if you use organic social posts to hold up a mirror to what actually exists—you can resonate with your people for free. You don’t need an enterprise Hootsuite account to listen to what your people are saying, or to test whether emojis work given your institution’s Ivory Tower aspirations. You just need common sense.

Manage your social communityand respond to feedback

How many times have you paid for a social ad and one of your superiors complained about the negative comments?

Classic example: “Hey X University. How about you stop spending money on these stupid ads and reduce my ridiculous tuition?”

With dollars involved, you can’t respond right away, or with authenticity, making you appear untrustworthy—which is at odds with what you do.

Now, post something organic. Nine times out of 10, that negative comment isn’t a big deal, because a) you can actually respond without an agenda and b) the world might be watching, but your budget manager isn’t.

Test something new

A $100,000, multichannel campaign isn’t the venue to experiment with new creative. But guess what is? A Facebook post. Or even better: a short-run, organic, multichannel campaign. It’s free. And you can prove your concept without spending a cent.

Utilize your people

Apparently, 2018 is the year of “Influencer Marketing.” This comes on the heels of the FTC putting heat on brands and influencers who work out deals for sponsored content.

I don’t care what the gurus say: the best influencer marketing starts with organic relationships, which thrive on authenticity. We are higher ed marketers. We don’t need to enter into paid partnerships to leverage our influencers. Even if we wanted to, we don’t have the budgets anyway.

Start with your star students and alumni. Tweet with them. Respond. Treat them like human beings. More will follow. This isn’t an ad campaign. It’s free engagement with clout.

Paid isn’t made to preach to the choir. Organic is.

So, you’ve completed your yield and anti-melt campaign. Your students are here. Guess what? Your paid posts mean nothing to them now that they have arrived. It’s on you to engage with them—and targeting your own people with ads isn’t shooting fish in a barrel. It’s shooting holes where they can swim out.

Joseph Master is the executive director of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He serves on the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP). ​