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The creator's guide to organic vs. paid social media marketing

Should you use organic or paid social media marketing to sell digital products? Find out how they compare and why you should use both in your business.

You want to use social media to sell digital products, but you’re not sure where to start, how much you need to budget, or which social network to use. 

At this point, you’re just looking for that one sentence that'll finally explain why you should use organic social media instead of paid, or vice versa. 

But here's the thing: You should use both. Social media marketing works best when you combine organic and paid tactics. 

In this article, we’ll break down the key differences between organic and paid social media marketing. We'll also help you figure out the right social media platform to help you reach your audience, plus how much to budget for social media marketing. 

Let's dive in.

What is organic social media marketing?

Organic social media marketing is marketing that you don't pay for others to see, like a tweet or Instagram post that you don't put any money behind.

In other words, you're at the mercy of the social media platforms' algorithms -- your organic content might show up in your followers' feeds, but it also might not.

For example, updates to the Facebook algorithm over the past few years have led to a decrease in organic reach, meaning fewer followers see brands' social posts in their news feed.

On most platforms, the more your followers interact with your content, the more likely it is that it'll show up on their feeds. On some platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, loyal followers can also set up notifications for every time you post. 

One of the biggest perks of organic social media marketing is the cost: You can drive real engagement without paying a dime.

Take entrepreneur Jeff Bullas, for example. Jeff is an avid Twitter user who, according to an AgoraPulse case study, tweets approximately every 15 minutes. Over three months, Jeff earned over 27 million impressions and over 40,000 link clicks through organic tweets. 

Organic social media goes beyond just posting, too -- it lets you build relationships with your audience by interacting with their posts and starting conversations with them.

For example, apparel brand Aerie engages its followers on Twitter by reposting user-generated content (UGC) and responding to followers' tweets featuring the brand's hashtag:

By engaging directly with your followers, you have an opportunity to showcase your brand personality and come across as more authentic -- two things that are harder to achieve through paid advertising. 

Now, let's move on to organic social media's pricier counterpart -- paid social media marketing.

What is paid social media marketing?

Paid social media marketing -- a.k.a. social media advertising -- refers to putting money behind social media posts to reach more people, either by running dedicated paid posts as ads or boosting existing organic posts. 

Most social media platforms use at least one of these cost structures for advertising:

  • Cost-per-click (CPC): You only pay if people click on your ad.

  • Cost-per-thousand impressions (CPM -- the M stands for mille, which is 'thousand' in French): You pay for people to see your ad, whether they interact with it or not.

The biggest perk of paid social media is reaching a larger audience.

With organic social, your reach is limited to your followers and who they share your posts with. Paid social media lets you target more people, often with ultra-specific targeting tools like Facebook Custom Audiences. 

The ability to reach your target audience is likely why over 62% of marketers say that paid social media advertising has been at least somewhat effective for their business. 

Of course, spending money on an ad doesn't necessarily mean that people will click on it.

To make the most of your social media spending, you need to create engaging ads. 41% of consumers said they’re more likely to engage with a social media ad if it’s entertaining -- so you can't just promote your plain-text Facebook post and call it a day.

So, now that you know the difference between organic and paid social media, which one should you use to promote your digital products?

Spoiler alert: It's both.

Should you use organic or paid social media marketing?

To get the most out of social media, your social media marketing strategy should include a mix of both paid and organic social. 

Here's why: They accomplish two different goals. 

Paid social media helps you get your website and products in front of more people in less time. If you want to build your email list fast, for example, you could run a social media ad that links to a lead magnet -- like this Facebook ad from HubSpot:

Organic social, on the other hand, gives you a better chance to build relationships and interact with your customers.

64% of consumers want brands to connect with them -- and out of all possible communication channels, they rank social media as the best opportunity for brands to do just that.

Those interactions also give you an opportunity to showcase your personality in an authentic way, which is one of the most important small business marketing strategies.

That authenticity is especially vital when you're a creator selling coaching services or online courses, where your personality is your brand. 

After all, 86% of consumers have said that authenticity is important when deciding which brands they like and support -- but 57% of participants said that fewer than half of brands create content that resonates as authentic.

Word of mouth is another perk of building your organic social media presence.

Take Corey Haines, former Head of Growth at Baremetrics -- and current solopreneur offering an online course on growing a product from the ground up -- for example. Corey has built an organic following on Twitter that makes him the go-to guy for all things product growth:

All in all, combining organic and paid social media is a powerful way for creators to boost their reach and engage current and potential customers.

Don't just take my word for it, though. In a survey by Campaign Monitor, small businesses ranked social media marketing as the best strategy for both building brand awareness and gaining new customers, far outranking other digital marketing channels.

With all of the benefits of paid and organic social media in mind, let's talk about which social media platforms you should use in your marketing efforts. 

How to choose the right social media platforms

To figure out the best social media platforms for your small business, you first need to identify your social media goals. Do you want to:

  • Build your brand awareness?

  • Drive traffic to your site?

  • Generate new leads?

  • Increase your conversions, signups, or sales?

  • Improve communication with your customers?

  • Build a community around your brand?

Just as organic and paid social serve different purposes, different social media platforms can help you meet different goals. Each platform has its own benefits, demographics, and costs. 

That said, you don't have to use every single social media platform. In fact, it's more effective -- and less time-consuming -- to build a robust social media profile and post regularly on just a few channels, rather than posting across as many channels as possible.

And each platform requires a unique approach -- one platform might be great for organic social media marketing but too expensive for paid social, for example.

If you're not sure where to start, here are the top social media platforms used by marketers worldwide as of January 2020:

The top six platforms are:

  1. Facebook

  2. Instagram

  3. LinkedIn

  4. Twitter

  5. YouTube

  6. Pinterest

Here's a quick overview of these social networks, plus linked resources to help you make the most of each one.

1. Facebook

With 2.7 billion monthly active users, Facebook is one of the biggest and most powerful social media platforms.

But because of Facebook's algorithm, it's become increasingly difficult to have your organic posts show up in newsfeeds, so it's best to focus on Facebook ads and use other platforms for the bulk of your organic social.

The good news is that Facebook advertising can be incredibly effective, even if you don't have a ton of money to put behind your ads. 94% of social media marketers use paid Facebook ads, making it the most commonly used social media platform among marketers worldwide.

Here's why: Facebook ads generally have a lower cost and higher ROI than many other paid ad networks -- and users are more likely to click on an ad on Facebook than on any other platform.

The average Facebook user clicks on 11 ads per month, or one every three days. Plus, 78% of American consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 say they’ve discovered products on Facebook.

Learn how to use Facebook ads to promote your digital products, including how to use Facebook's ultra-specific audience targeting tools, in our guide to Facebook ads.

2. Instagram

If your products or brand have a strong visual component -- like art classes or a lifestyle blog, for example -- Instagram is a great channel for organic content and paid ads alike.

Even though it has fewer posts, Instagram has higher engagement than Twitter and Facebook, making it a great platform to build an organic presence -- especially if you plan to run Instagram ads, too. 

Here's why: When a user sees your ad on Instagram, whether in their feed or on Instagram stories, they can click through to your profile and see all of your posts. If you have an empty feed, you're going to come across as sales-y at best -- and scammy at worst. 

Plus, according to Instagram itself, "The easiest way to run ads is by promoting posts you've shared on Instagram. Just select the post you want to promote, and then track how many people are seeing and interacting with your promoted post by tapping."

You can also create Instagram ads through Facebook's Ad Manager, which gives you access to Facebook's hyper-precise targeting tools.

With over 500,000 active influencers on the platform, Instagram is also king when it comes to influencer marketing. That's one reason why 69% of US marketers plan to spend most of their influencer budget on Instagram. 

For more Instagram tips and strategies, check out this guide to using Instagram to promote your digital products

3. LinkedIn

LinkedIn has a strong business-to-business (B2B) focus, so if you're a consultant or business coach, it's an excellent platform for you -- especially when you consider that LinkedIn boasts over 700 million members in more than 200 countries. 

While many companies use LinkedIn to post and promote job postings, it can also be a great platform to network and build relationships with others in your field, which is a key piece of an organic social media strategy for creators. 

If you run a membership site for product developers and designers -- like Justin Jackson's MegaMaker, for example -- you can use LinkedIn to find like-minded professionals who might benefit from your membership community. 

(Want to start your own membership site? Podia lets you host, market, and sell all of your digital products -- membership sites and online courses included -- from one central dashboard. Try it free for 14 days.

If you want to reach even more professionals on LinkedIn, the platform offers four paid advertising formats

  1. Sponsored Content in the LinkedIn feed.

  2. Message Ads/Sponsored Messaging through InMail.

  3. Text Ads via self-service pay per click (PPC) advertising.

  4. Dynamic Ads automatically personalized for the viewer.

4. Twitter

Twitter is one of the best organic social channels for creators and entrepreneurs. Here's why we recommend Twitter for small businesses:

More than 145 million people use Twitter every day, offering plenty of opportunities to connect with current and potential customers. And when brands create, participate in, and host relevant conversations online, 44% of consumers feel more connected to them.

For example, Michelle Garrett is a PR and freelance writing expert whose weekly Twitter chats cover common freelancer obstacles and questions. 

Michelle uses the same hashtag -- #FreelanceChat -- for each week's chat, but focuses on a different sub-topic every week. 

Through her weekly Twitter chats, Michelle has built a strong community of freelancers. She also showcases her expertise as a writer and freelancer.

Twitter can also be a great platform to launch and build excitement for new products, as John D Saunders did in this tweet:

John's video let his audience know what to expect from the course and netted great engagement. Engaging with his audience on Twitter and beyond has helped John earn $100,000 on Podia since his online course launched.

On the paid side, Twitter offers four ad types that are simpler than other platforms’ formats, plus demographic targeting tools to help you reach more people than your organic tweets alone. You can learn more about how Twitter ads work on their website

5. YouTube

YouTube is a unique platform for social media marketing because, often, YouTube views are the end goal rather than a way to promote other products.

That said, there are many ways, both paid and organic, to grow your business with YouTube.

As a video-sharing platform, YouTube shines when it comes to sharing educational content, like how-to videos and product demos. YouTube helps over half of Americans learn new things:

If you want your videos to get more organic views, ranking high in search results is a great way to get new eyes on your content. YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world, and YouTube SEO plays a significant role in growing your audience. 

Still, with more than 37 million YouTube channels, it can be hard to stand out. Learn how to build your YouTube audience in this guide. 

YouTube also offers six types of ads for paid social media advertising: display ads, overlay ads, skippable and non-skippable ads, bumper ads, and sponsored cards. Learn all about them in our YouTube ads guide

6. Pinterest

Like Instagram, Pinterest is a highly visual channel, making it an excellent choice for lifestyle-based businesses like wellness coaches and mommy bloggers. Pinterest is also a great way to showcase your design products and templates.

Take creator Vanessa Ryan’s Pinterest profile, for example, which highlights her email marketing resources and Canva templates. Pinterest is a natural fit for Vanessa to promote her digital products to her 18k+ monthly viewers. 

First and foremost, people use Pinterest to share and discover new products:

All of the above make Pinterest a great organic channel for creators. For more Pinterest tips and tricks, take a look at our Pinterest marketing strategies. And if you want to reach even more Pinterest users, check out our guide to Pinterest ads.

Hopefully, this gives you a better idea of which platforms make the most sense for your business and your audience, both for organic social media marketing and paid social ads. But you might also be wondering, "How much is this all going to cost me?"

We’ll cover that next.

How much should you budget for social media advertising?

When it comes to social media marketing, there's no one-size-fits-all budget. How much money you set aside for social depends on your overall marketing budget, your social media marketing goals, and how many tasks you outsource vs. handle in-house.

The good news for creators and small business owners is that you don't need a six-figure marketing budget to execute a successful social media strategy. In fact, more than one-third of small businesses spend less than $10,000 on advertising each year.

The February 2020 CMO Survey found that while spending on social media currently makes up about 13% of marketing budgets, it's expected to rise to 21.5% in the next five years. 

No matter how much of your marketing budget is dedicated to social, the experts at Hootsuite recommend figuring these six components into your social media budget: 

  1. Content creation, including copywriting, video production, and graphic design.

  2. Software and tools, like social media management tools for scheduling content.

  3. Paid advertising, a.k.a. those CPC and CPM costs we covered earlier.

  4. Paid partnerships, such as influencer marketing.

  5. Any training you or your team might need to get up-and-up on the latest social media marketing strategies.

  6. Management, either via hiring an in-house social media manager or outsourcing your social media management to a virtual assistant or freelancer.

Of course, if you're a solopreneur or new business owner, you might not have the budget or need to spend big bucks on a professional social media scheduling tool or hire freelancers to create content. 

It's even possible to run your organic social for free if you do all of the content creation and social media management in-house.

Tools like Canva make it easy to design social media graphics for free, and you can shoot high-quality video on your iPhone. There are also some excellent free social media management tools available, like the free plans from Hootsuite and Later

At the end of the day, it's all about doing what's right for you and your business-- not about following a strict recipe for success. Whether you do organic or paid advertising, start small and keep your head up. It might take a while to see the results you want, but you’ll get there.

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Find the right balance of organic and paid social media marketing

When you use a combination of paid and organic social media marketing, you can build relationships with your target audience and get your digital products in front of more people. 

To recap, here's what you need to know about organic vs. paid social media marketing:

  • Organic social media marketing is a great way to engage with your community and potential customers.

  • Paid social media advertising helps you get more eyes on your products and content.

  • Don't force yourself to be on every social media platform. Instead, pick the platforms that make the most sense for your products and audience.

  • Create a social media budget based on your unique goals. Take advantage of free tools to minimize expenses and maximize impact. 

Being a creator means forging your own path and figuring out what works best for your audience, your business, and yourself. It may take some trial and error, but soon you'll be well on your way to a social media marketing strategy that works wonders for your business.

A portrait of Rachel Burns

About the author

Rachel is a content marketer for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, and membership websites – alongside their creators – thrive. When she’s not writing, you can find her rescuing dogs, baking something, or extolling the virtue of the Oxford comma.