Optimize or Advertise? Comparing Organic vs. Paid Social Media

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Jay Fuchs
Jay Fuchs


They say, "The best things in life are free." Which I never thought was necessarily true. I mean some of the best things are free — love, sunshine, fireflies, and whatnot. But there are a lot of awesome things that cost money — nunchucks, BMX bikes, DVDs of the movie Kung Fu Panda 3.

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So the line is kind of muddled when it comes to establishing whether free stuff is better than things that come at a cost — and the case of social media marketing is no exception. The debate between organic vs. paid social media isn't exactly cut and dry. Both options have their strengths and weaknesses.

Here, we'll get more perspective on the difference between both kinds of social media and some pros and cons that come with each.

Organic and paid social media each have their own benefits and pitfalls. Here are some pros and cons of each type of social media marketing.

The Pros of Organic Social Media

It's more cost-effective.

Maintaining an organic social media presence can technically be free. It doesn't cost anything to post on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Any costs you incur would come from the work it takes to engage with your community and create content to populate your social media feeds — whether that be through dedicated team members, outsourcing to freelancers or agencies, or having some employees incorporate those tasks into their day-to-day responsibilities.

One way or another, organic social media plays don't require immediate payment to implement. If your business is running on a tight budget, and you're confident you can create thoughtful content, organic social media might be the right avenue for you.

It allows you to directly engage with and assist your customers.

Social media is an excellent forum for ongoing customer service and interaction. A well-maintained, active social media profile gives customers a legitimate, accessible location to post concerns, complaints, and compliments. If you can dedicate the time and resources to consistently respond to most — if not all — of them, you'll get a lot of mileage out of your organic social media efforts.

It can help you establish a brand identity.

Your social media profiles allow you to project some personality. They can provide another layer to your marketing efforts with a solid sense of humor, consistently sound advice, or any other qualities you'd like prospects and customers to associate with your brand. For instance, Taco Bell's Twitter page is notorious for the brand style it has established through its audience interaction and funny content.

organic vs. paid social media taco bell

Image Source: Twitter

The Cons of Organic Social Media

It can be time-consuming.

Consistently creating excellent content and actively interacting with your audience aren't exactly quick fixes you can expect to churn out over lunch. They're full-time pursuits that take considerable energy and effort. If you don't have dedicated team members or outside help, maintaining your organic social media efforts can be a massive time-drain.

Algorithms can be volatile and difficult to understand.

What content your audience will see on social media is dictated by algorithms designed to sort posts by relevancy and potential enrichment instead of when it was published. The success of your organic social media strategies rests on your ability to get your content in front of current and potential customers, so understanding the algorithms supporting these platforms is crucial. But that's far easier said than done.

Social media platforms' algorithms aren't always easy to grasp and master, and if you do figure them out, there's a good chance they might change. It can take a lot of effort to learn and stay on top of these algorithms to support effective organic social media efforts.

It offers less flexibility when it comes to immediate reach.

The immediate reach of your organic social media efforts extends as far as your followers take it — meaning you can only expect your organic content to reach your immediate audience and the people they share it with. You can't zero in on and distribute your content to specific demographics or types of users like you can with paid social media.

The Pros of Paid Social Media

You can target specific users to expand your reach.

Paid advertising on social media allows you to pinpoint and reach the specific demographics that will be the most receptive to what you have to offer. You can sort users by categories like location, age, gender, or interests and place targeted advertisements on their social media feeds. It gives you reach beyond your followers and the ability to touch base with specific audiences that will be receptive to your messaging.

Its payment model works for any budget.

Paid social campaigns are structured to suit virtually any budget. They generally charge on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis, meaning you only have to pay if users interact directly with your paid social media materials via impressions or clicks.

Many platforms allow you to establish a spending cap on your paid social efforts, so your budget is never exceeded. And certain target audiences cost less to reach than others, allowing you to strategically place your advertisements to cater to different, potentially lucrative niches.

You see more immediate results

Organic social media efforts are a long-term play that requires considerable effort and strategy. With them, you have to create content that will abide by social media algorithms, rein in the potential customers that happen upon it, and actively work to retain your followers once you have them hooked. Paid social media foregoes that process by immediately placing your messaging on potential customers' feeds.

The Cons of Paid Social Media

You might not see meaningful returns on your investment.

Paid social media is just that — paid social media. No matter the size of your investment, you're still spending money that might go to waste if your efforts are ineffective. If you're constantly experimenting and failing with your paid social media, you're essentially burning money. And that's an easy cycle to fall into.

If you're a small business, lacking the know-how and skill set necessary to adeptly coordinate your paid social strategy, you could find yourself wasting resources that would be better allocated to other forms of marketing.

You might face a competitive landscape.

Marketing on social media isn't exactly a well-kept secret. According to Statista, an estimated 91 percent of all US companies were using social media marketing in some capacity in 2019.

Finding a place in a landscape that crowded might mean dealing with particularly high PPC rates to reach your target demographic and needing high-quality, attention-grabbing content to get any actual mileage out of your paid social budget.

It requires a lot of attention.

Your paid social media efforts are rarely stagnant. They need to be monitored, analyzed, and consistently adjusted if you want to get the most out of them. Many platforms offer you analytics to understand how your ads are performing. That data isn't trivial and can't be disregarded — it requires a lot of attention and thought.

It should inform how you structure your paid social messaging as it evolves, and that won't always be easy. Paid social is often only as effective as the effort you put into it. And in many — if not most — cases, that will occupy a considerable amount of time.

The Verdict on Organic vs. Paid Social Media

It's impossible to say whether organic or paid social media is better than the other. They suit different businesses with different priorities in different situations.

If your business doesn't have the budget to implement a full-fledged paid social media strategy, try focusing on organic social media. Write thoughtful content, flesh out your social profiles, and actively engage with your customers online. But if your business has a sizable marketing budget and is in desperate need to land new customers immediately, prioritize your paid social media efforts.

Ideally, you'll be able to find a way to incorporate both methods into your overall social media strategy. Leverage paid social media to immediately spread brand awareness and draw an audience to your profiles. Once they're there, use your thoughtful organic content and active presence to capture their interest, convert them into customers, and retain them once they're on board.

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