Weighing the options between organic vs paid social media? We’ll save you some legwork: you’re probably going to want to do a bit of both.

Paid and organic social are different beasts best harnessed for different goals. But for a holistic approach that balances awareness with conversion, it pays off to know the pros and cons of each.

If you’re new to paid social, 2020 is an interesting time to get started. Confinement during the pandemic has people using social media more all over the world. But at the same time, ad spend isn’t keeping up. The major social networks are reporting some ups and downs in their revenues as many brands pause their advertising, either to save money during an economic downturn, or to take a moral stance against hate speech.

It’s a complicated time, but the silver lining is that there’s evidence ad prices are trending lower. For instance, Facebook’s CPC went down from 11 cents to 9 between January and March alone. Just a year before that, Hootsuite’s own numbers had CPC averaging around 40 cents.

So where does that leave your brand’s social media marketing strategy? Well, it depends on your overarching goals. Read on to learn more.

Bonus: Read the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

What is organic social media?

Organic social media refers to the free content (posts, photos, video, memes, Stories, etc.) that all users, including businesses and brands, share with each other on their feeds.

As a brand, when you post organically to your account, you can expect that the people who will see it are:

  • A percentage of your followers (a.k.a. your ‘organic reach’)
  • Your followers’ followers (if people choose to share your post)
  • People following any hashtags you use

It sounds pretty simple, but the reason that organic social media is the foundation of every digital marketing strategy today is because it’s the best way to nurture a connection with your customers at scale.

For example, brands use organic social to:

  • establish their personality and voice
  • build relationships by sharing informative, entertaining, and/or inspiring content
  • engage customers at every stage of their buying journey
  • support their customers with customer service

Here are a few examples of typical organic content from businesses:

This hairstylist keeps his clients inspired and informed with a steady stream of portfolio shots that simultaneously give prospective clients insight into his aesthetic, while also reminding current clients how desperately they need him.

"Thing is, the tone is so completely adaptable to any style of living space. I’ve seen it in rooms with tons of bold…

Posted by Article on Tuesday, July 14, 2020

This ecommerce furniture outfit often shares user-generated content about their products out in the wild. This couch just happens to be in an influencer’s home, no big deal.

Pro Tip: Though the two are not mutually exclusive, paid social generally does not include influencer marketing, which is typically arranged directly. Read our full guide to influencer marketing here.

View this post on Instagram

Holiday dreaming…

A post shared by Ghost London (@ghostfashion) on

Here’s a flowy dress company posting content with no flowy dresses in sight. (The mood still screams flowy dresses.)

MoonPie tweets

Source: MoonPie

This snack cake brand likes to Tweet warm-hearted jokes as if it were a person, not a snack cake, which draws attention and interaction from other official brand accounts, which generally pleases everyone.

But of course there is a downside to organic social. The reality is, because all the major platforms use ranking algorithms, only a small percentage of your followers will see your organic posts.

For instance, on Facebook in late 2019 organic reach was down 2.2%, meaning that the average organic reach for a Facebook post is about 5.5% of your follower count. For big brands with large followings, it’s often even less.

Declining organic reach has been a fact of life for a few years now, as the world’s biggest platforms reach saturation, attention spans shorten, and platform CEOs prioritize “meaningful” or “responsible” user experiences. In other words: it’s harder than ever to get your content seen by your own audience, let alone new eyes.

This is where paid social comes in.

What is paid social media?

Paid social media is another word for advertising. It’s when brands pay money to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, etc. in order to have their content shared with specific new audiences who are likely to be interested, either through “boosting” their organic content, or designing unique advertisements.

Paid social is experiencing an uptick, according to eMarketer, as users get more comfortable with the idea of buying directly from their social feeds.

Social networks that are currently using paid social

Source: eMarketer

But B2C retailers aren’t the only industry focusing on social advertising. More so than organic content, paid posts are the best way for brands to target new audiences on social media, and convert them to customers. Brands use paid social to:

  • raise brand awareness and attract new followers
  • promote their newest deal, content, event, etc.
  • generate leads
  • drive conversions (including e-commerce sales)

Here are some recent examples we’ve noted.

Google put ad budget behind these feel-good human interest stories highlighting the company’s importance to small businesses during the pandemic. Paying to promote these videos ensured they’d be seen by users beyond the (relatively) low number who follow the company’s official accounts. If your brand has the budget for a charm offensive, this type of soft-touch ad can be meaningful for relationship-building, even if it isn’t bringing in sales, per se.

London review of books paid ad

Source: @londonreviewofbooks

Meanwhile, a more traditional approach is to target users who have already proven their interest in your niche. The London Review of Books, for instance, uses a tried-and-true formula: target people who follow similar accounts (in this case, FSG Books, Artforum, the Paris Review, etc.), offer them a substantial discount, and direct them to a frictionless landing page using Instagram Shopping.

Dispatch Coffee Instagram paid ad

Source: @dispatchcoffee

To survive the pandemic, Dispatch Coffee pivoted from local cafe and roastery to bean delivery subscription service. Instagram ads let them target customers in a specific geographic range to get the word out.

Bonus: Read the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

Get the free guide right now!

Organic vs paid social media

Organic and paid social strategies each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s summarize them.

benefits of organic vs paid social media diagram

An organic social media strategy nurtures your relationship with your customers or audience. It helps you:

  • Establish and grow your brand’s presence where people are already spending their time
  • Support and retain existing customers
  • Convert new customers by showing them what you’re about

However, organic is often slower to reach business goals, and while it’s technically free, it takes a lot of time, experimentation and/or experience to get right.

Meanwhile, a paid social media strategy is how you connect with new customers or audience members. It helps you:

That said, it requires a budget, and its own form of expertise (those ads don’t monitor themselves).

In short, while organic activity is necessary for relationship-building, it’s also true that network ranking algorithms mean pay-to-play is a fact of life on social, now.

How to integrate a paid and organic social media strategy

The foundation of the majority of integrated social media strategies is using organic to serve and delight your existing customers, while attracting new eyes with paid ads.

Here we’ll outline the fine print on how to go about it.

1. Not all promotional posts need to be paid

First things first: only pay for ads when they can actually help you hit your KPIs and ultimately reach your business goals. Ads aren’t always the answer on social. (And even if they were, never forget the power of a well-crafted organic post that people want to share.)

For instance, when you’re announcing something new—whether it’s a partnership, a pivot, or a new iteration on your flagship product—your existing followers need to be informed. A creative, original, organic campaign will build buzz all on its own. Craft a compelling post, pin it to your profile or drop it in your Stories highlights if it’s big enough news.

For instance, even though Disney paused its spending on Facebook in June as part of #StopHateforProfit, they still announced Beyonce’s new Lion King-inspired film as an organic post:

Experience a new visual album inspired by The Lion King: The Gift. #BlackIsKing, a film by Beyoncé, is streaming exclusively July 31 on Disney+.

Posted by Disney on Sunday, July 19, 2020

All that said, if your organic activity isn’t getting the reach or impressions you’d hoped for, then it might be time to open the (corporate) wallet.

2. Boost your best organic content

Your top-performing posts aren’t just here to puff up your vanity metrics. Probably the easiest way to dip your toes into the pool of paid advertising is to identify content that has really resonated with your audience, and pay to show it to new eyes.

This is generally considered an entry-level tactic because it’s low-risk—you don’t need to come up with an ad, let alone an ad campaign. But most social media pros will tell you that when they notice they’ve got a hit on their hands, it’s time to consider supporting it with spend.

For instance, you could start by allocating a small budget to the top weekly or monthly post whenever you run your analytics report. Don’t just pay attention to likes, but also conversions, profile views, etc.

Pro Tip: With Hootsuite’s Boost tool you can customize triggers to automatically boost posts that are snowballing (for example, whenever your post gets shared 100 times.) This video shows you how:

3. Optimize all your posts using A/B testing

We say it all the time, but in our experience split testing is a step that’s skipped way too often.

Before you allocate your entire social media budget to an ad, run versions of it by a smaller audience to see if it’s any good. Test your CTA, your copywriting, your visuals, and the ad’s placement, format, and even the audience targeting. You can also test it among different audience demographics (age, location, etc.) before you commit to a larger spend. The benefit here is twofold: a more memorable, enjoyable and successful ad for your audience is also a cheaper one for you.

Meanwhile, for organic posts, you can set up manual split tests and track results by using UTM parameters in your links. Our complete guide to A/B testing on social is over here.

Pro Tip: You can also use Hootsuite to split test your Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns.

4. Target your ads to people similar to your organic audience

The more you’ve grown your social presence organically, the more data you have about your ideal customer or audience. Where do they live? How old are they? What are they interested in? What problems are they facing in their lives? How are you helping them?

Capitalize on all this information as you build your ads. This is the place where all your hard work building quality relationships with your audience pays off.

For instance, most social platforms offer the ability to create lookalike audiences based off of your best customers, as you describe them. Perhaps these are your newsletter subscribers, or people who have engaged with your profile or content, or people who’ve bought a product in the last year. A lookalike audience will be composed of people with similar demographics and behaviors, but who haven’t been introduced to your brand yet.

5. Use retargeting ads to stay connected to your organic audience

Retargeting campaigns can be highly effective at a relatively low cost, because you’re reaching out to people who already know your business. Often, these are people who’ve come to your social or web presence organically. Maybe they visited your profile or website, or even abandoned a shopping cart.

The idea here is that they may just need a reminder to come back and convert, and the right ad can convince them.

Pro Tip: For more tips on how to get the best ROI on your Facebook ads, check out what our own social media team would do if they could only spend $100 on ads.

6. Look at your data, and measure your results

Watching a campaign flop is equally painful whether it’s organic or paid, but if you pay attention to your social analytics tools, they’ll tell you where you need to make changes to get better results.

If you’re running paid and organic campaigns simultaneously, you’ll want to make sure you measure apples against apples, and oranges against oranges. To that end, Hootsuite Impact allows you to separate and visualize your data into paid vs organic so that your ROI is crystal-clear for both prongs of your strategy.

Pro Tip: Hootsuite’s ads dashboard will also show you up-to-the-minute data on how your ads are performing, so you can halt a campaign and readjust if it’s not performing well.

7. Automate as much as possible

The bottom line with combining paid and organic social is that it’s more: more money, more time, more know-how, more assets, and just more posting.

Whether you’re a team of twelve or a lone-wolf consultant, the key is to keep the busy-work to a minimum so you can focus on what’s important. To that end, automate as much of your everyday workflow as you can:

Use Hootsuite to easily integrate your paid and organic social marketing efforts. From a single dashboard, you can schedule and publish posts, boost top performing content, create ads, measure performance, and much more. Try it for free today.

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