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Organic vs. Paid Social Media: Why Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Charles Samuel

Garage sales have their place. And not just because that old ornament crafted by ancient Bedouin artisans that’s sitting in the basement could be worth a couple grand. Garage sales are generally a great way to clear out all the junk you have lying around and get some money for it.

You can promote a garage sale in two ways. Tell people in your neighborhood about it when you happen to see them. They may or may not show up—and even if they do, it’s a relatively small group of buyers. Or you can print out posters to advertise the event and stick them anywhere you think the right people would see it. That’ll probably give you the better return. It’s often a blend of both types of promotions that nets new audiences without alienating your neighbors.

Marketing through social media channels works the same way. There are organic strategies and paid strategies that each have their pros and cons. Succeeding in digital marketing today means doing a little bit of both.

Why organic social is the best

Organic social media refers to the content (links, infographics, stories, etc.) that people and brands share on their feeds. When content is posted organically, the people who end up seeing it include:

  • Some percentage of your followers. Your organic reach will include the followers of the page or account, limited only by the social network’s algorithms.
  • The followers of your followers. When people engage with your post (through liking, commenting, or sharing), a percentage of their own network sees your content.
  • People following your hashtags. A lot of hashtags may feel gratuitous, but enough people follow them (or have alerts set up) that posts including specific terms will appear on their feeds first.

Because there’s no cost to post content and get people to see it, organic social media is a pillar in digital marketing strategy. It’s arguably the most cost-effective way to nurture your audience at scale. But just like going door-to-door to tell your neighbors about the shindig you’re planning on your lawn next weekend, it only goes so far.

Creating organic content is time consuming. A major facet of successful organic social strategy is consistency. But not every brand has the resources to churn out oodles of fresh new content at specific times. Two solutions include scaling content teams and leveraging fractional content marketing to ramp up efforts across channels.

You’re at the mercy of algorithms. Social networks determine—via complex algorithms—a brand’s organic reach. Facebook, for example, is in the business of keeping users glued to their platform. Facebook and other social media networks use algorithms to grade how the relevancy and quality of each piece of content influences time spent on the site. And it works: 70% of the time spent on YouTube is influenced by the subtle recommendations of artificial intelligence.

The challenge with algorithms is that there’s no way to really get out in front of them. When algorithms change—seemingly on a whim—they negatively impact the organic reach of brands that aren’t nimble enough to shift strategies quickly.

It’s why organic social media growth is often flanked by some sort of paid social strategy.


Why paid social media is the best

Paid social media is one form of digital advertising. Brands use paid social campaigns to reach new audiences with their content, ultimately to accomplish one or several things:

  • Increase brand awareness. Marketers can tap into sophisticated targeting to amplify the brand to new audiences, both locally and across the Web.
  • Promote something. Paid channels are a great way to share a new piece of content, new deal, new event … or really anything you think your audience should know about.
  • Generate leads. Marketers are always looking to grow their databases of contacts and accounts. Paid social media is a great way to send users to gated content (at a cost).
  • Drive conversions. For those e-commerce sales and SaaS demos, paid social campaigns can bring the right people to the right places on your website or app.

Unlike the write-home-to-your-mother benefits of organic social’s free content amplification, paid social media requires—you guessed it—money. The trade-off is the new audiences you can reach and hyper-targeted campaigns you can build out. It’s a lot like printing out the garage sale flyer on fancy colored paper and posting it all over town. But there are some drawbacks.

ROI isn’t guaranteed. Spending money on a paid campaign doesn’t mean immediate or scalable results. The best brands are constantly experimenting—from ad copy/creative tests to landing page optimization tests. These tests allow marketers to double down on what works, toss out what doesn’t, and iterate to keep learning.

There’s a ton of competition. There are usually other garage sales with cool-looking flyers being promoted around the city. Paid social media isn’t a secret; over 90% of brands are tapping into some sort of paid social marketing. Not all of it is sophisticated, but it’s the kind of competition that’ll increase costs for those per-click or per-impression campaigns you’re planning to run.

You really need to know what you’re doing. Seasonality can impact costs, but so can virtually any other variable. Brands must constantly monitor paid social campaigns and experiments to make sure ads and content are performing as expected.

There’s money on the line here, so you can’t leave it and forget it like you typically can with organic social. In a conversation about organic and paid social, it isn’t about which one’s better. It’s about how to use them together.

Why using organic and paid social media together is (really) the best

When the T-800 showed up as a protagonist and all-around good “dude” in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, after it spent the first film being the bad guy, there was a sense that all was right in the world. Here’s a cool android doing great things for people you’re rooting for. No longer working against each other, they were doing impressive work together.

When thinking about organic social and paid social, it’s really teamwork that makes any dream work. There’s a time and place for organic social strategy—but there’s also a time and place for paid social campaigns. Any successful content marketing strategy is made stronger by a cohesive game plan that includes organic social opportunities and paid social levers.

But the digital landscape is getting more crowded every day. Ad spend across social channels is expected to soar past $100 billion this decade (at an annual growth rate of 8.9%). Digital marketers thinking about strategy must lean on testing and experimenting across channels to find the right mix of organic and paid efforts that’ll work for them.

The garage sale is happening and you’ll get people to show up because of the door-to-door efforts and flyers strewn across town. But getting the right people to show up? Getting people who’ll spend top dollar on items? Bringing in experts on Bedouin art? That requires strategic thinking.

The same goes for social media. Growing your brand organically is important because social audiences are looking to brands they trust for their thought leadership, authority, and expertise. But to grow audiences and drive meaningful conversions, brands sometimes need to think beyond organic social media to see where their ad spend can net the best haul.

Doubling down in a more remote world

Especially in a world reshaped by a global pandemic, marketers must get smarter about how they approach social strategy. Online activity has increased across the board since the pandemic began, and how people use social media has morphed a bit. People aren’t just on social feeds to see great deals and shiny new offers. They want to know how brands are evolving with the times.

Are my favorite brands taking action to help communities affected by the pandemic? Are organizations thinking about employee well-being during these difficult times?

A lot of your organic social media conversations should highlight your changing approach to complex times. But your paid social should also reflect it, showcasing new content or new thought leadership that’s aimed at giving audiences the vocabulary to articulate their problems and familiarize themselves with your solutions.

If your business doesn’t have the budget to experiment with fleshed-out paid social media strategy, start with getting your organic social media on track. Create good content, update your profiles, and find ways to authentically engage with your audience. If you do have a budget to work with, prioritize digital marketing efforts to tackle awareness, acquisition, or retention goals.

There’s room for both in any digital or content marketing strategy.

At T3, we help brands elevate their content marketing in a complex digital world. Learn more about how we help brands like yours speak human and use social channels to drive meaningful results.

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