The goal of doing more with less is a recurring mantra in both business and politics these days. While convincing many organizations to invest appropriately in online communication and technology continues to be a struggle, the increasing availability of low-cost (and even free) solutions should be welcome news to anyone charged with moving an organization into the digital world. However, before you start down a DIY (“do-it-yourself ”) path, let’s talk about some of the potential pitfalls and the value that a knowledgeable vendor or consultant can provide.

The first hurdle to get past is the fact that if something is free, it’s not perceived as valuable, which is often coupled with the argument that if the tools are inexpensive, they shouldn’t cost much to operate. Without someone to help you understand the value equation, you can end up focusing exclusively on minimizing costs. We argue for the opposite tack—as social Web technology becomes more user-friendly and inexpensive, you should focus on how to use more of it throughout your organization.

As you start down the DIY path, you’ll probably focus first on what you can see. More important is what you don’t see. You can easily set up a fully featured website using one of the many hosted application providers, public blogging platforms or self-service menus offered by domain registrars. You’re off the hook for making sure that the equipment for these services is running, but you’re at the mercy of the service provider’s reliability. Likewise, the user-friendly configurations of some of these services also make them easy targets for hackers. Lastly, just because you can publish something that looks good to you, that doesn’t mean that it’s visible to search engines or that it works well on the growing population of smart phones. Be sure to scrutinize the terms of service, comments from other users and ratings from independent organizations before you commit. And realize that a good consultant will have already done this legwork and can save you days or weeks of research—not to mention the frustration of having to do it all over again if you pick the wrong solution at first.    

Once you’re ready to go, think about what will happen if things don’t go according to plan. On many of the DIY services, you will be editing the live version of your website. If you delete something, do you have a backup? Can you preview your work before it’s published? Is it simple to set up the first time, but tedious the twentieth because an entire page has to be updated to make a single change? Does the service support the feature that suddenly becomes a “must have” after you launch, or will you be looking for a new solution just a few months down the line? The biggest danger of DIY is that you will be forced to spend too much of your valuable time making tweaks rather than focusing on your content and overarching objectives.

Also keep in mind that a successful online presence doesn’t consist of a bunch of independent activities, but rather of a coordinated network. The social Web that connects your website, e-mail, fund-raising, Facebook, Twitter, video and other online activities provides the best results when all the components are working together. Unfortunately, many DIY solutions don’t play well with other applications (or require advanced knowledge to plug them together). If your services don’t connect or require you to spend a lot of time manually updating the same thing in multiple places, you will end up with a system that becomes static and stale because it’s too difficult to keep it up to date.

The DIY route may be tempting, but you shouldn’t pursue it without serious consideration. After all, your online brand is at stake. The good news is that the same innovations that make these tools so accessible to general users also make it simple for consultants and vendors to implement your online strategy. A carefully selected consultant can help you spend less time building your tools and more time generating the value that comes from effectively operating your network and expanding your online presence.

Steve Pearson is the president of CivicNEXT (www.civicnext.com), a provider of practical online communications and social networking solutions for campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell, a 2010 C&E Rising Star, is the founder of ProjectVirginia.com, winner of the 2010 Reed Award for Best Use of Twitter.