Should I use paid ads or organic social media (and traffic).
The question around paid versus organic comes up a lot in terms of paid versus organic social media and paid versus organic web traffic.
Here is the thing: organic is a myth. The belief is that organic is free and easy; going viral or creating a rush of traffic to your site is the key to solving your sales issues. But it isn’t; organic is very expensive. It takes a vast amount of work, and even when you build an organic audience, there is no guarantee that you will keep it. Paid traffic is generally a lot cheaper.
The organic social media trap
When we started working with Devon, he woke up at 4 AM to spend 3-4 hours on social media before his day began.
He posted, liked, commented, and engaged for hours. He created content and gained followers. He had 5,000 followers on Instagram, he had engagement, and he was proud of his work.
The question he had for me: when would the sales come? Nobody was buying. Also, it was taking him longer each day to go through the rigmarole of engagement, because oddly, it was getting harder to reach his audience. So he had to increase his engagement activities.
On social media, you are building an audience for the platform not for yourself
It is critical to understand how social media works.
The platform makes money by charging for access to audiences. They gather lots of information to know a lot about their members, create segments, and charge you for access.
If you create a following that is large enough to be identifiable as a group, the platform will start to charge you for access to that following. If you have 5,000 followers, they will likely show your content to them less often unless you pay to prioritize your content.
That is why it gets harder to engage.
And yes, there are exceptions
Sure, if you get a million subscribers or reach “influencer” status, you can start charging for access to your audience on that platform. And, the platform has an incentive to allow you to do this. Influencers don’t just sell the products they peddle. They also bring more people to the platform and help create more specific audiences that the platform can charge to access.
If you have a million followers, you are well-known enough for people to pay to target your audience. The platform will make more money by selling the ability to target your audience many times than charging you to access it.
But you probably don’t have a million followers, so paid ads are better than organic.
Most of us are not “influencers,” so there is little benefit in creating a big organic audience. Rather than spend 4 hours a day on social media, we cut that out, sent ads to targeted customers, and changed Devon’s life.
Four hours was worth about $1000 to him, so spending a few thousand dollars a month on ads was a huge saving.
But also, he wasn’t getting any results from his organic posting. So now with ads, we could:
- target specific audience.
- measure results.
- A/B test.
- redo and improve.
So we went from no sales to a steady stream of sales. Devon was paying cash that he hadn’t been paying before, so cash cost increased. Still, he was getting 10-20 times the money from new sales, and he was saving a considerable amount of time. He could use that time for himself or to do more work and earn more money.
In our experience, paid social media is much better than organic.
And then there is LinkedIn
We have found that LinkedIn is an exception. Organic does pretty well on LinkedIn because there are fewer producers than elsewhere, most content is terrible, and the LinkedIn incentives seem different.
LinkedIn makes money from subscribers, so they seem to have an incentive to promote quality rather than just noisy content. There is still a lot of noise, and for a long time, there are some simple formulas for gaming LinkedIn (patriotic themes, personal reveals, give a homeless person a suit, cancer surviving, all do well). Still, you can get some organic traction on LinkedIn.
What about SEO?
SEO is slightly different in that search engine incentives are aligned with your needs. You want people to see that your content is the best content out there, and the search engine wants to deliver the best content to keep people searching.
If you produce amazing content, the search engine has an incentive to rank that content highly.
The challenge lies in producing the content. Content production is not cheap. And you have to create a lot of content for search engines to care about and make their ranking worthwhile.
Many people are targeting popular keywords; they have a depth to their content and answer the questions around these keywords very well. So how do you compete?
It is doable: you have to answer the question with more authority and more completely than those who already rank.
This won’t be easy if you are new because you have to replicate the depth and quality of answers. The place to start is with long-tail keywords, obscure questions that people ask that don’t have great answers. You start getting some attention here, build your authority and quality, and you can start creeping into the more popular keywords.
It is a great strategy, and some nuances can help you do this faster. But in the best case, you are looking at half a year. In most cases, it will be longer. It is pretty much a full-time job, and you don’t know when your results will come.
Because of this, the COST of SEO is very high. Organic traffic is costly in the short term. Long-term, it is a no-brainer, build your presence, create content, tweak, adjust and work on it. Eventually, you will have the right traffic with the right intent (see Why…).
But in the short term, if you want sales now, paid ads are the best bet. They are significantly less expensive than organic SEO, and you can test and optimize them to improve your results continuously.
SEO shortcuts for the short term
Back in the early days of SEO, you’d stuff your post with keywords, and the traffic would flow. But the search engines figured that one out. There are always ways to game the algorithms (though the gaming gets harder and harder), but remember the incentives: the search engine wants to reward the best content. So, any shortcuts will be short-lived.
So what does this mean, Organic or Paid?
In the short term, paid always wins, with the possible exception of LinkedIn.
SEO is excellent, and you should put time into it for the long term, but there are no shortcuts.
Paid ads also have the advantage of allowing you to experiment. With paid, you try now, get results and improve. You get sales today, now ,not, maybe, someday in the distant future.