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Organic vs. Paid Social Media: Differences and Strategic Tips

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.

Hannah Macready April 15, 2024
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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 to know the pros and cons of each.

Let’s explore the benefits and drawbacks of paid vs. organic social media, and how you can choose the right strategy for every account, post, and goal.

Bonus: Download a free guide to social advertising and learn the 5 steps to building effective campaigns. No tricks or boring tips—just simple, easy-to-follow instructions that really work.

What is organic social media?

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

Examples of organic social media activities include:

  • Posting content regularly without boosting or sponsoring posts.
  • Encouraging employees to share company content with their personal networks (employee advocacy).
  • Responding to comments and direct messages from followers in a timely and genuine manner.
  • Sharing user-generated content and fostering community engagement without monetary incentives.

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:

Updating customers about new menu items via organic social media posts helps Vancouver restaurant Zarak keep people coming back for more.

Hootsuite uses user-generated content (UGC) from its followers to create humorous, relatable posts that aim to foster deeper audience connections.

Fitness studio Jaybird regularly reminds followers about their membership options to help encourage sign-ups.

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

The benefits of organic social media

Organic and paid social media both deserve a seat at your table, but here’s why organic stands out.

It’s free

Obviously, one of the big, glaring benefits of organic social media is that it doesn’t cost you a thing.

Anyone can create a social media account and start posting with no real upfront costs (besides your time and sanity).

And while it might be easier to predict and measure results from paid social media campaigns, organic campaigns still have the potential to go viral and put your brand in front of audiences you could never imagine.

Sure, it’s a bit of a gamble, but it’s hard not to feel the draw of potential free engagement versus the expensive hope of a paid campaign.

It builds trust with your audience

Organic social media builds trust. Why? Because no one wants to hop online just to be pummeled with endless advertisements.

Unlike paid campaigns, which are generally serving up an ask for a customer to complete, organic social media campaigns don’t need to drive sales. Instead, they focus on brand building, audience entertainment, and general updates.

Showing your audience you’re more than just a sales machine is essential to keeping them around long term. Sure, it’s fine to hit them with an ask from time to time, but if you completely axe your organic social media strategy altogether, you’ll soon be talking to an empty room.

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It’s sustainable long-term

No budget, no problems, am I right?

Of course, free, organic social media campaigns are easy to start and run. You don’t need a budget or an ad specialist. You don’t even need a full production team—though it doesn’t hurt.

Because of this, organic social media is sustainable long-term. Even if you lose every other member of your team, chances are someone can take a minute to post an update about your opening hours, or share a funny meme.

But of course there is a downside to organic social media. 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, the average organic reach for a Facebook post is about 1-3% 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 social media platforms reach saturation, attention spans shorten, and platform CEOs prioritize “appropriate” or “responsible” user experiences.

In other words: it’s harder than ever to get your brand’s content seen by your own audience, let alone new eyes.

What is paid social media?

Paid social media involves using advertising budgets to promote content and reach a wider audience on social media platforms. It’s like paying for a billboard on the digital highway.

When brands pay money to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, etc. in order to have their content shared with specific new targeted audiences who are likely to be interested, either through “boosting” their organic content, or designing unique advertisements—that’s what we call paid social media.

Examples of paid social media activities include:

  • Boosting posts to reach a larger audience than organic reach would allow.
  • Running targeted ad campaigns to reach specific demographics or interests.
  • Promoting events, products, or services through sponsored posts.
  • Utilizing influencer partnerships to amplify reach through paid collaborations.
  • Paid social media allows businesses to increase visibility, drive traffic, and generate leads by investing in targeted advertising strategies on social platforms.

Businesses and organizations use paid promotion on social to:

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

According to eMarketer, spending on US social networks will grow 13.5% in 2024 to a staggering $82.88 billion. Video ad spend, like those done on TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube makes up 55.2% of total ad spend, and is expected to grow by 21.2%, for a total of $45.75 billion.

Here are a few examples of typical paid social media content:

facebook ad for halara clothing showing three women in differently styled maroon jumpsuits and a call to shop now

Clothing brand Halara brings its product front-and-center in these Facebook ads, playing off the season’s most popular colors and styles.

instagram story ad for vancity financial offering users $300 when they join the bank

Vancity Financial knows the power of an incentive.They don’t shy away from their offer, using bold graphics in an Instagram Story to persuade watchers to join their bank.

Instagram feed ad for Mubi encouraging users to join its streaming service

Sometimes, simple is effective. Film streaming service Mubi offers a paired down ad that doesn’t give a hard sell, but plays on audiences’ fear of missing out. Plus, by adding their Subscribe button to the add, they streamline the journey from prospect to customer.

linkedin ad for amazon ads, showing a car in a cloudy sky, promoting their collaboration with honda

One of the most common types of ads you’ll see on LinkedIn are Sponsored Content posts. Since they are most often organic posts that someone decided to boost, they blend right into your feed, so you often don’t even realize you’re looking at an ad. Take this post from Amazon Ads, promoting its partnership with Honda.

The benefits of paid social media

Ready to rock your next paid campaign? Here’s what you can expect from the process.

It allows advanced targeting

Marketing has come a long way since the digital revolution. While, in the past, getting your brand in front of customers meant purchasing TV spots, billboards, or print ads—with no real way of knowing if people saw them and purchased from you because of it—today, digital marketing (and social media marketing) allow for distinct, granular targeting on a global level.

What does this mean? Well, let’s say you’re advertising a new breakfast cereal in America. You know your target audience is working mothers between the ages of 25 and 45. You know that, out of that cohort, those that live in the suburbs need different messaging than those living in the city (morning commutes make easy breakfasts appealing, while multi-family homes prefer to hear about value for investment).

Now, if you were to advertise your product on television, you’re not going to be able to talk to that audience directly. Sure, you can pay to have your ad run at a time when you think they are most likely to be in front of the TV, but apart from that, there’s no real way to tell if they saw it or not.

By comparison, running that same ad on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc. lets you target that precise audience. You can choose to show your paid ads to people in a specific age bracket, location, and even niche down further to target specific behavior types (shops at a grocery that sells your product, for example).

What’s more, with paid social media advertising, you can create lookalike audiences that are similar to the customers you already know about—which is an easy way to expand your audience even further.

New to social media advertising? Hootsuite’s paid social media advertising tools make it easy to boost and advertise from your Hootsuite dashboard.

change automatic engagement triggers under settings

It has clear ROI

As explained above, traditional advertising was long plagued by a lack of detailed targeting and data to calculate return on investment (ROI).

Sure, you could draw a correlation between your recent TV ad spending and an uptick in sales, but it was hard to discern exactly what was moving the needle.

Social media advertising does not suffer this same fate. Performance for individual ads is tracked and recorded, showing you exactly how much you paid for every click, sale, and lead.

From there, all you need to do is choose the social media platform that gives you the best returns, and slowly improve and optimize your ads based on the data you collect.

It’s easy to track

You might be thinking, sure, I have all of this data on hand, but how can I collect and record it? Luckily, you don’t have to be an Excel expert or spreadsheet superstar to make use of your paid social media data.

All social media platforms come complete with basic analytics tracking. Facebook and Instagram have the Meta Business Suite, X (formerly known as Twitter) has X Analytics, LinkedIn has LinkedIn Ads, and TikTok has TikTok Ads Manager.

If you want to take your data even further, third-party tools like Hootsuite Analytics let you track your paid social media efforts across platforms, and manage all of your data from within a single dashboard. Plus, access detailed reporting features to learn how to improve them on the fly.

Hootsuite dashboard showing paid vs organic and viral social media post data

Organic vs. paid social media: X key differences

What’s the difference between organic and paid social media? They have more in common than you might think.

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

 Organic social mediaPaid social media
ReachLimited to followers and organic reach.Potentially unlimited reach with targeting and ad budget.
EngagementTypically lower due to algorithms and competition.Higher potential for engagement with promoted content.
ReturnsOften indirect or difficult to measure.Directly measurable through analytics and ROI tracking.
BrandBuilds brand reputation over time through organic content.Can boost brand visibility and awareness through social media ads.
AttributionDifficult to attribute specific actions to social efforts.Clear attribution through ad platform analytics.
TargetingLimited to demographics and interests of organic audience.Precise targeting based on demographics, behavior, interests.
Relationship buildingFosters genuine connections with audience.Can reach new audiences and nurture existing relationships.
ResourcesRequires consistent time and effort to create content.Requires budget for ad spend and potentially agency fees.
ContentMore authentic, less promotional.Often more polished and tailored to specific objectives.

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 social 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, at least for now.

11 tips for a strong hybrid (paid and organic) strategy

While the difference between paid and organic social media exists, it doesn’t mean you can’t run a strong hybrid program.

Here’s how to do both (paid and organic) the right way.

1. Boost your top organic posts

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.)

2. Run A/B tests

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, copywriting, 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.

3. Let your best posts promote themselves

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.

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.

4. Choose the right platform

Social media is not a one-size-fits-all game. Each platform has its own unique audience, features, and algorithms. So, before diving headfirst into your organic and paid social media strategy, take a moment to evaluate which platforms align best with your brand and objectives.

  • Are you targeting Gen Z? Try TikTok and Instagram to get in front of the world’s most active online generation.
  • Looking to reach a professional audience? Look no further than the thriving B2B landscape of LinkedIn.
  • Does your brand thrive on visual storytelling? Platforms like Pinterest and Snapchat offer unique opportunities to showcase your products or services creatively.
  • Targeting a niche community or interest group? Explore platforms like Reddit or Discord, where you can connect with passionate communities and participate in relevant discussions.

By choosing the right platforms, you can maximize the effectiveness of both your organic and paid efforts.

social media platform that delivers the highest new customer acquisition or revenue for brand according to retailers in North America August 2023

Source: eMarketer

5. Work with relevant influencers

Influencer marketing can be a powerful tool in your hybrid strategy arsenal. When done right, influencers can help amplify your brand’s message and reach a wider audience.

But remember, not all influencers are created equal. Take the time to research and identify influencers who align with your brand values and resonate with your target audience.

Whether you’re collaborating with macro-influencers or micro-influencers, authenticity is key. And don’t forget to track the performance of your influencer partnerships to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

6. Stay on-trend

Keeping up with what’s hot on social media is the best way to keep your audience engaged and interested. Trends come and go pretty quickly, so it’s essential to stay in the loop and jump on the bandwagon when it makes sense for your brand.

One way to do this is by paying attention to popular hashtags and topics that are buzzing online. When you see something that fits with your brand, don’t be afraid to join the conversation! But remember, it needs to feel natural and authentic to your brand—otherwise, it might come off as forced.

Tools like Hootsuite Streams can help you track and analyze trending topics, brand mentions, or even industry trends, to help you stay on top and in style no matter what the internet throws your way.

Hootsuite streams dashboard showing trending instagram topics like social media, Canva, and Hootsuite being tracked

Getting creative with trends is also a great way to stand out. Instead of just following what everyone else is doing, think about how you can put your own spin on things. Whether it’s adding your brand’s personality to a viral challenge or sharing your take on a trending topic, finding ways to be unique can help you grab your audience’s attention.

At the end of the day, staying on-trend isn’t about blindly following what’s popular—it’s about finding fun and creative ways to connect with your audience and keep them interested in what you have to say.

7. Make use of brand advocates

Your biggest fans can be your most powerful allies in your hybrid strategy. Whether it’s employees, loyal customers, or brand ambassadors, leveraging brand advocates can help amplify your message and build trust with your audience.

Here’s how to make the most of your brand advocates:

  • Encourage employees to share company updates on their personal social channels and showcase their pride in being part of your team.
  • Encourage customers to share user-generated content and testimonials to showcase real-life experiences with your brand.

Don’t forget to show your appreciation for their support! Recognizing and rewarding your brand advocates can go a long way in fostering continued loyalty and enthusiasm. Consider implementing a rewards program or hosting exclusive events for your most engaged advocates to express gratitude for their efforts.

8. Target lookalike audiences

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.

9. 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. Try reminding customers of products they viewed but didn’t purchase. Or, target them with ads after they visited your website but didn’t convert.

personalized ad from coach outlet telling the customer they have selected some styles based on their past purchase history

10. Track and optimize

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.

Using Hootsuite Social Advertising, you can review organic and paid content side by side, easily pull actionable analytics and build custom reports to prove the ROI of all your social campaigns.

With a unified overview of all social media activity, you can act fast to make data-informed adjustments to live campaigns (and get the most out of your budget). For example, if an ad is doing well on Facebook, you can adjust ad spend across other platforms to support it. On the same note, if a campaign is flopping, you can pause it and redistribute the budget—all without leaving your Hootsuite dashboard.

Hootsuite Social Advertising

11. Make use of automations

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:

And if you’re not a fan of jumping from platform to platform to manage your paid and organic social efforts, use a social media management tool like Hootsuite. Using Hootsuite, you can plan, publish, manage, and report on all of your social media activity, including ads on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Managing organic and paid social media with Hootsuite

When your organic and paid strategies operate separately, it’s tough to get a complete picture of what’s working and what’s not. That’s where Hootsuite comes in.

With Hootsuite, you can seamlessly manage all your paid content alongside your organic posts, allowing you to move quickly and capitalize on new opportunities before they slip away.

Here’s how Hootsuite can help you streamline your social media management:

A single advertising dashboard

Gone are the days of switching between multiple platforms to manage your advertising campaigns. With Hootsuite’s intuitive interface, you can publish, manage, analyze, boost, and report on ads—all from a single, user-friendly dashboard.

Streamline your workflow and save time by eliminating the need to navigate between different tabs or tools. Hootsuite brings all your advertising tools together in one convenient location, allowing you to focus on crafting compelling content and driving results.

Cross-channel publishing and planning

Say goodbye to toggling between different platforms to create and launch content. With Hootsuite Composer, you can streamline the process by crafting and scheduling your posts — organic and paid — for LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram at the same time.

Whether you’re targeting new customers or promoting a specific campaign, Hootsuite’s Composer makes it easy to create content that resonates with your specific audience.

Composer - Recommended Times to Post

Hyper-targeted organic boosting

With organic reach on the decline, boosting posts has become a key strategy for expanding your content’s reach on social media.

When you boost a post, you extend its reach beyond your followers, reaching a wider audience. You have the flexibility to choose your campaign goal, target audience based on demographics, location, and interests, set your budget, and determine the duration of the promotion.

With Hootsuite’s boosting feature, you can optimize your ad spend by targeting the right audience based on geographic and personal characteristics. Tailor your promotions to specific demographics, interests, and locations to ensure your content resonates with the right people.

Boosting is available for both Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, allowing you to extend the reach of your posts to new audiences.

Boost setting ad account and page

Side-by-side analytics and reporting

Analytics is where the magic happens. Hootsuite allows you to review both organic and paid content side by side, giving you valuable insights into what’s working and what’s not.

By filtering campaign metrics and pulling data from your organic content, you can optimize your paid strategy and vice versa. Plus, with the ability to create in-depth reports and schedule automated email delivery, Hootsuite takes the hassle out of reporting and allows you to focus on strategy.

three screens showing various hootsuite analytics reports and their features

Integrate your paid and organic social strategies to strengthen connections with existing customers and reach new ones. Use Hootsuite Social Advertising to easily keep track of all of your social media activity—including ad campaigns—and get a complete view of your social ROI. Book a free demo today.

Want your content to be seen by more people? Boost Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn posts in one place with Hootsuite.

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By Hannah Macready

Hannah Macready is a freelance writer with 12 years of experience in social media and digital marketing. Her work has appeared in publications such as Fast Company and The Globe & Mail, and has been used in global social media campaigns for brands like Grosvenor Americas and Intuit Mailchimp. In her spare time, Hannah likes exploring the outdoors with her two dogs, Soup and Salad.

Read more by Hannah Macready

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