As I teach digital marketing to students across industries, questions tend to come up that prompt further discussion. Among the most common questions I get: should I focus on paid or organic (unpaid) strategies?
Most often, a question of this variety comes up when I discuss either social media or search engine marketing. Regardless of emphasis, they typically require a very similar answer. In short, both paid and unpaid marketing tactics have a distinct place in your larger strategy. The longer answer requires a closer understanding of each option, both in a search and a social media context.
The Basics of Paid vs. Organic Marketing
It always makes sense to start with the basics. Whether we’re talking about search or social, one thing is clear: you spend money for paid efforts, and typically get fast results. On the other hand, organic only takes time and effort, but will take longer to implement. When it’s running smoothly, though, it can result in immense success. Let’s break down the basics of each on a more detailed level.
Paid Marketing is a Testing Ground
Paid marketing in both search and social media can be set up within minutes. You put your keywords, audience targeting, and content in the market, and the ads start running.
At the same time, the marketing is also dependent on your funding. The results come in as long as you spend the money. Depending on your industry, that can be costly; for some Google keywords, you have to spend more than $50 for every single click.
When you turn off your paid ads, the results stop coming in. You lose the leads, traffic, and revenue that you may have come to depend on. A sole focus on this strategy, therefore, is not sustainable.
It can, however, become a testing ground. Learn what works, and what doesn’t, as you turn your focus to your organic efforts.
Organic Marketing is Sustainable
Organic marketing in both search and social is slower. It takes significant time, efforts, and consistency. In most industries, for example, you will need months to build up a social media audience or tangibly improve your search results page placement on relevant keywords.
When you get it right, the results are significant. Once you place long-tail keywords on the first page of Google, you can see exponential improvements in traffic from that placement. The resulting benefits can last months and even years.
However, that growth curve is somewhat unpredictable. You might not know for a while whether you’ve focused on the right keywords or social media content strategy. The lessons learned through your short-term paid efforts, therefore, are essential to ensure that you’re not wasting your efforts and valuable time in promoting your business.
How to Leverage Paid and Organic Efforts in Search Engine Marketing
In most cases, it’s not an either/or scenario. Unless you have unlimited budget, you always want to drive towards a sustainable organic search strategy. Once you can reliably get your content and website seen on page one of high-volume searches in your area, your traffic will come to you.
Of course, you have to get there first. That’s where an effective mix of paid and unpaid search engine marketing comes into play.
Let’s use an example of how paid search engine marketing can lead to better unpaid search engine optimization:
- Set up a Google AdWords campaign with a set of minimum viable keywords.
- Take your search ads to a landing or product page.
- The keywords that perform best are ideal targets for long-term organic search marketing.
The testing iterations can be extensive. In fact, you can use all types of keywords to test the various stages of the sales funnel. The goal is to build a well-balanced keyword portfolio that covers the whole funnel, tested enough that you can build an extensive organic SEO strategy.
How to Test Top of Funnel Keywords in Paid Search
Don’t expect direct sales from these keywords. Your audience is just exploring, looking at their various options. Awareness trumps conversion; get them to your website, so you can build retargeting campaigns that keep your brand top of mind as they browse the web at later times.
Once your visitors first make it to your site, pay attention to metrics from bounce rate to the time they spend on your site and the pages they visit. Then, use that information to build a long-term organic strategy designed to drive up your brand and product awareness.
How to Test Top of Funnel Keywords in Organic Search
At the bottom of the funnel, you’re looking for the final step. That means testing based on metrics such as new leads, conversion rate, and sales. Keywords are more likely to be branded with your name at this point. Find out which keywords and relevant landing pages perform best before accounting for this funnel stage.
How Social Media Marketing Can Benefit from Paid and Organic Efforts
Social media, in many ways, functions similarly to search: you get quick and valuable insights through paid efforts, which you can translate into more sustainable organic strategies. On social media, simply boosting some posts will help you learn whether the audience will engage with them, and why.
Again, pay special attention to the audience you target, and the content you boost. Various funnel stages may require different content and calls to action. Once you learn what types of content work for your brand and audience, you can build a comprehensive social media calendar that strategically aims at engagement.
The Pros and Cons: Paid vs. Organic Marketing Strategies
Let’s sum it up: in the end, both paid and organic digital marketing have very different and even complementary advantages. Rather than choosing one over the other, it makes more sense to consider them in context with each other and ensure they play off each other. That much makes sense when you consider their various benefits and drawbacks:
Paid vs. Organic Digital Marketing:
Pros and Cons
Paid Digital Marketing
- Can produce quick results
- Will require at least some budget
- Results stop as soon as money stops
- Quick insights can inform strategy
Organic Digital Marketing
- Takes time to become effective
- Free (other than time spent)
- Can produce returns over long time periods
- Success can be difficult to forecast
In short, paid marketing as your only strategy is not sustainable in the long run. You will always need to spend more money to see traffic, engagement, leads, and sales. Foregoing paid entirely, on the other hand, means needing to wait significant time until you see results, and not being sure whether you’re actually moving in the right direction.
That’s why diversification is key. Similar to any other investment choice we make in life, you cannot limit yourself to a single channel. Instead, build a healthy strategy that combines components of each. You never know when a marketing platform or audience changes, or you have to adjust.
The question of whether you should focus on paid or unpaid marketing, therefore, is somewhat of a fallacy. Ultimately, the answer is both. Avoid putting all of your marketing eggs in one basket, and instead leverage the unique benefits of each for maximum, sustainable success.