Organic vs Paid Social Media for Small Businesses

Getting your small business off the ground might seem like a tricky process — after all, there are so many marketing tactics and strategies to try, yet you may lack the budget to go all-in on each of them. That’s why we’ve decided to give you a comprehensive lowdown on organic versus paid media: the pros, the cons, what goals they’re both suitable for achieving, and how best to combine them.

Organic social media: Definition and examples

Organic social media is any unpaid content that’s posted on your company’s social media channels.

Examples:

  • Organic posts
  • Content marketing (posts, links to articles, videos, infographics etc.). These can either be produced by your company or simply shared from another company.

The goals of organic social media

In an ideal world, your company should regularly produce organic social media content on an ongoing basis. Unlike paid social efforts that are usually linked to specific, highly-targeted campaigns (we’ll delve into this in more detail later on), organic social is a constant and more “catch-all” effort. There are multiple different goals that it can achieve if done well:

  • Long-term audience engagement
  • Slowly building relationships (by regularly sharing valuable content)
  • Increasing your company’s reputation as thought-leaders
  • Providing an outlet for customer support
  • Driving conversions through successfully completing the above steps — however, this isn’t usually the short-term goal

While organic social is a long-term strategy, having an active organic social media presence signals to the market that you’re up-and-running and ready for business. Imagine you’re a potential customer who’s just heard about your company from a friend. They look you up on social media and your last posts were from 3 years ago — even worse, you’ve only got a handful of followers. In most cases, they’ll probably dismiss your company as being a one-man-band, and question if you’re even still in business.

On the flipside, if they see an active social media presence filled with a range of thought-leadership content, customer support help, new product releases, etc., then they’ll know that your company is well and truly in business.

There’s also little excuse not to have an organic social strategy; it’s practically free and you can be up-and-running in no time. Signing up for LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook is free — your only outgoings will be the salaried time of whichever employee is in charge of keeping these channels going. That said, producing a social media post generally takes at most 10 minutes, so it’s not as if this is going to be taking up the bulk of their day.

When you begin to populate your social media channels with great content, you’ll slowly start to acquire your audience: customers, prospects, influencers, and people who are just interested in the industry. Your content will earmark your company as thought-leaders — as worthy voices to listen to — which will in turn establish a degree of authenticity. As your following grows and grows, this will then act as a form of social proof: any company with a large following must be doing something right… Right?

There’s a snowball effect at play here:

  1. Produce organic social media content
  2. Your audience engage with this content: liking, commenting, and sharing
  3. As a result of this engagement, other people see your content
  4. They then decide to follow your company and start engaging with your content too
  5. This brings in yet more followers

Let’s take a look at one particular example. Kate Bryan runs her very own one-woman hair salon based out of Raleigh, North Carolina. In an effort to grow her business, Kate took to sharing her passion for hair styling on Youtube, Instagram, and Pinterest — and the results speak for themselves.

As of today, her Instagram channel has 305,000 followers, her Youtube channel has 524,000 subscribers, and she receives 378,000 monthly views on Pinterest.

instagram-example

Having more followers isn’t just a vanity metric. It’s critical to any small business’s long-term success. While your social media channels shouldn’t be used primarily as a sales channel (as your followers will quickly begin to tune out), it can slowly warm up your prospects over a long period of time before selling to them. After all, it’s far easier to convert prospects who already know and trust your brand.

Organic social also opens the door to a 360-degree customer feedback channel: giving you invaluable insights to use going forward. Perhaps one of your customers is unhappy with a product that they’ve bought. While this isn’t nice to hear, it lets you know what needs to be improved upon going forward. Or maybe you see that your audience all have similar pain points, which gives you the inspiration for your next product.

Small businesses don’t have the financial clout of larger competitors — as a result, they need to make sure that they have great customer feedback and that they keep their ears to the ground for changes in the market. Their increased agility might actually make them more suited than their larger counterparts to solving customers’ ever-evolving pain points. In any case, cultivating a social media following that regularly engages with your company is a great way to gain these invaluable gems of wisdom.

Lastly, organic social can be a great window into a company’s culture — this is extremely important if you’re going to attract top-class talent. Small businesses don’t have the cachet of traditional institutions or industry titans that are household names. Instead, they need to sell their culture and spread the feeling that each employee has an important role in shaping the company’s future. You may share pictures of a company day out on Instagram, have a funny Q&A with new starters that you put on LinkedIn, or share the best employee joke of the week on Twitter.

organic-social-example

Younger generations increasingly use social media as a form of social proof, so make sure that your social media channels are a stellar reflection of your small business.

Cons of organic social media

  • It can take a long time to become effective (or even produce)
  • Hard to target specific segments of your audience
  • Some algorithms may prevent it from being effective
  • Can be hard to measure the overall effectiveness
  • At risk of simply repeating yourself again and again
  • Can be difficult to define an effective strategy — do you go all-out on sales posts? Or remain fully agnostic and simply share thought-leadership content? Both?

Despite the wide range of benefits, organic social media certainly has some pitfalls. Firstly, it can take a while to become effective; the process of cultivating your audience itself takes a while, not to mention getting the audience to engage with your posts. It’s one thing to click “Follow” on an account, but it’s another thing to actually regularly engage with whatever they’re posting. Plus, ever-changing social media algorithms might go as far as hiding your content from your audience: instead choosing to promote other posts from people who they more readily engage with.

This is frustrating for two main reasons. First, it’s hard to get any tangible business results from either a small or a disengaged social media audience. Second, the feeling that you’re constantly putting out content in a vacuum can be incredibly disheartening — making you question why you’re even doing it in the first place.

Unlike paid social, organic social is a catch-call strategy; you can’t specifically target certain demographics for each post, so you may risk putting out content that’s irrelevant for some of your audience. Let’s say that you sell a variety of sporting goods. If you have a new deal on your hockey kit, then you may well promote this organically on your social channels. However, there might be some middle-aged golfing aficionados who don’t even watch hockey, let alone play it — so this post will be of absolutely no value to them.

Small businesses might also struggle to define their organic social strategy. For instance, how often should you include direct sales posts? Should you instead focus solely on thought-leadership content? Is it a wise idea to repost great content from your competitors?

Even if you do define your strategy, it can sometimes feel like you’re just repeating yourself again and again. If you’re a small niche company then there are only so many pain points that you solve — and you don’t want to exhaust your audience by constantly repeating them over and over again.

Organic media has low barriers to entry, but mastering it requires a certain degree of skill and expertise. As with most other things, this largely comes from experience.

Paid Social Media: Definition and examples

Paid media involves any paid advertising/marketing efforts that appear on your social media channels.

Examples: Paid social includes things like social PPC, branded content, display ads, and influencer marketing.

Let’s break these down a little further according to the channel...

  • LinkedIn: Sponsored InMail, Sponsored content, Display Ads, Video Ads, Self-Service Ads, Dynamic Ads
  • Facebook: Domain Ads, Offer Ads, Video Ads, Dynamic Ads, Multi-Product Ads, Lead Ads, Sponsored mentions
  • Twitter: Promoted tweets, trends, and accounts
  • Instagram: Sponsored posts, affiliations

The goals of paid social media

  • You need to quickly reach a big audience
  • You want to reach an entirely new targeted demographic
  • You want to use really specific targeting
  • You want to leverage your best content
  • You want to increase site traffic
  • Overall, you want to increase conversions/sales

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. If you’re looking for a quick, almost guaranteed way for your content to be seen and your brand to get noticed, you’re going to have to pay for it — though there’s no way to guarantee engagement. Whatever tactic you decide to use, paid social is a great way of getting your foot in the door: increasing your brand’s profile, driving visitors to your site, and hopefully gaining more customers.

Pros of paid social

  • Good way to increase brand awareness
  • Gets your foot in the door with new prospects
  • Easier to track results than with organic media
  • Can leverage influencers’ hard-earned, large followings
  • Can target your ads according to highly specific demographics (especially on FB)
  • Can increase effectiveness/reach of organic content

Paid social is a great way of getting your brand out there, increasing brand awareness and ensuring that your target audience at least knows who you are. Think about your own social channels. Are there any brands that pop up time and time again? In reality, most of us could probably reel off 10 or so brands we know solely because they appear on our timelines/display ads/ influencers’ posts on an almost daily basis.

Partnering with influencers is a particularly powerful strategy. As we’ve discussed, it can be difficult to:

  1. Grow your own audience
  2. Get your audience to trust you

It often feels inauthentic to users when companies post their own promotional content. However, when a trusted influencer (someone who knows what they’re talking about and is a true industry expert) endorses a product, this is the ultimate form of social proof. Not only do influencers have large, highly engaged followers, but their word is worth its weight in gold.

Choosing to invest in influencer marketing is a fantastic strategy for small businesses — it can quickly catapult your brand to the forefront of millions of people’s attention. Watchmaker Daniel Wellington used influencer marketing to turn $15,000 into $220 million in just 4 years: enjoying a 4,700% growth-rate during that period.

Daniel Wellington didn’t unnecessarily splash the cash. It largely relied on micro-influencers, people with a fairly small but dedicated fan following to promote its watches. The company would send these people a free watch in return for a sponsored post of them wearing it, accompanied with #danielwellington and a discount code for their followers.

Social-Influencer-example

But brand awareness is only half the battle. Not everybody will buy there and then, so you need to then make sure that the rest of your prospects continue along the funnel and find out more about your brand — whether this is by clicking onto your website, your social media profile, or whatever else it may be.

One of the most effective ways of ensuring that you gain your audience’s attention is by making sure that each paid social post/ad is highly relevant to them as individuals. With paid social, this is a breeze.

For instance, you might choose to target lookalike audiences — only showing ads to people with similar profiles to your current users/customers. If you know that your products are loved by North American women between the ages of 18 - 24, then you can make sure that your ads are shown to women who fit this profile.

Or how about using a retargeting/remarketing strategy? If someone has already browsed through your website and spent a significant amount of time looking at your range of eyeliner, then you might want to retarget them with a special ad about new eyeliner discounts. Organic social can often feel like throwing a Hail Mary: you share a post in the hopes that it’ll resonate with someone in your audience. Paid social, on the other hand, is like a perfectly executed play straight from the practice field.

Plus, it’s so much easier to track the effectiveness of paid social campaigns than it is to judge organic social efforts. Once your campaigns are up and running, you’ll have a variety of up-to-date metrics at all times: impressions, click-through-rates (CTR), engagement-rate (ER), cost-per-click (CPC), etc. This will help you work out which channels, demographics, influencers, and copy/design strategies are performing best — which will aid you in fine-tuning your strategy going forward.

Cons of paid social

  • Potentially high cost
  • As with any investment, there’s the risk of losing money
  • It’s only temporarily effective (for as long as you continue to invest)
  • Takes a while to set up
  • It needs to be consistently monitored (and optimized) on an ongoing basis

As with organic social, paid social has a few downsides that are worth considering. The major one to consider is your budget. As a small business, it can be hard working out where to invest your money — and if you’ve only just launched, you might be fairly cash-strapped as it is.

According to WebFX, social media advertising costs an average of $200 - 350 per day. While this is just an average figure, it should give you some food for thought… If you’re not even able to commit to spending $50 per day, is paid social really worth it? Or should you simply choose to spend that money on improving your products/services, hiring more staff, improving your facilities, etc.?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here; it totally depends on a variety of factors including your industry, your business’s stage of growth, how much money you have in the bank, and more.

It can also take a while getting to grips with the best strategies and approaches. Most marketing strategies involve a certain amount of A/B testing and paid social is no different. This means that it may not be immediately effective — or at least, as effective as you’d like it to be. If your business is only prepared to dip your toe in the water and invest in one initial campaign for a short amount of time, don’t expect it to suddenly produce miraculous results that last long after it’s stopped running.

Why (and how) should you merge these strategies?

Modern marketing is a 360-degree operation: there are different channels, different strategies, different goals, and different metrics. Just like with any 360-degree project, it works best when all the different strategies work in tandem with each other — so let’s first take a look at why that is.

Increased Effectiveness

  • Your company can adopt a three-pronged strategy: influencer marketing introduces a brand new set of prospects to your company, your organic social drives credibility and makes them click onto your site, and they’re then retargeted by paid social ads.
  • This symbiotic approach means you can also target prospects at different stages of the buying journey.
  • Daniel Wellington didn’t just use influencer marketing to drive its meteoric growth. They also ran organic social campaigns to increase brand awareness and engagement — for example, they asked customers to submit a picture of themselves wearing their watch and submit it to the daily #DWPickoftheDay competition. Winners would receive a free watch and be featured on the company’s Instagram pages. This, combined with retargeting ads and influencer marketing, proved to be a powerful trio.

Fiscally Sensible

  • With influencer marketing, a credible industry name will introduce you to their followers: hopefully gaining their interest and trust in the process. However, it can be very expensive.
  • Paid social gives you a more targeted approach that’s easier to measure, refine, and tweak. However, like influencer marketing, it comes at a cost.
  • Organic social might not be as visible or as targeted, but it’s (practically) free, and it gives added credibility that greatly supports the other two strategies.
  • Adopting a variety of strategies across your budget will help you get the most bang for your buck.

The How

Okay, it’s all well and good stating that these strategies are best used to support each other, but how can your small business go about setting this in motion?

  1. Start small and grow: figure out which strategies work best before investing heavily.
  2. Constantly A/B test: what sort of copy works best with paid media? Which organic posts/topics receive most engagement? Does one demographic in particular respond well to paid media? Does one demographic in particular respond well to organic media?
  3. Retarget: if someone engages with your organic content or an influencer post, retarget them with a paid social ad. They already know your company, so your ad will also be more welcome than one from an unknown organization.
  4. Analyze and optimize: Use marketing attribution tools to better understand the interplay between organic and paid media, as well as the role that influencer marketing plays in all this.

The Best of Both Worlds

As easy as it is to compare the pros and cons of organic versus paid social media for small businesses, the reality is that you should really be doing both. Of course, one strategy might work better for your budget, or one strategy might prove to be far more effective. However, it’s important that you try all avenues when looking to successfully market your small business.

Remember to constantly keep on trying new approaches. Your company, your consumers, and the wider world all change on an ongoing basis — so your marketing strategies need to change with them.