Organic vs. Paid Marketing: Where Should You Invest?

If you’re reading this, you probably have a limited marketing budget that you’re trying to work magic with.

And you know that you have the option to produce content that brings in traffic organically or pay money to show your ads in the places that your audience is likely to go.

But it doesn’t have to be either/or.

Understanding the differences between organic marketing and paid marketing helps us understand the benefits that each can provide to our digital marketing strategy.

And understanding the benefits helps us get a better picture of how both paid and organic marketing can play a role in our campaigns.

So let’s take a look at organic vs. paid marketing, and find out how each can add balance to your digital marketing strategy.

Are you ready?

This guy is.

Differences Between Organic and Paid Marketing

Digital marketing is not one-size-fits-all. Brands often use a variety of tactics to reach and engage their audience, drive traffic to their site, and increase conversions.

But one of the big differentiating factors between these tactics is whether they are paid or organic marketing tactics. 

While these two types of marketing can certainly work together to create something awesome, it’s still important to understand their differences if you want to make sure you’re using the right mix of marketing strategies for your brand.

Let’s take a closer look at paid marketing and organic marketing and their key differences so that we can have a better understanding of how they work together to create a comprehensive and symbiotic marketing strategy.

What is Organic Marketing? 

Organic marketing is a type of marketing that drives traffic to your website or brand without paid advertising. Also known as inbound marketing, organic marketing often focuses on search engine optimization (SEO) to bring readers to your website through the search engine results after they search for relevant keywords and topics that relate to your content. 

Perhaps HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, who originated the term “inbound marketing” in 2006, summed it up best as follows: 

“Inbound marketing pulls customers to your company and creates lasting relationships. More than just a tactic, inbound is a philosophy. It’s fundamentally rooted in the principles that people value — personalized, relevant content and connections, not interruptive messages, and that marketing can and should be more lovable.”

Any time an individual enters a search query into Google or an alternate search engine and clicks on one of the links that appear in the search results to arrive at a particular website, it’s an example of organic marketing at work. That is why we refer to Google search traffic as organic traffic: users find a website naturally through their own actions as opposed to coming to a site through a paid pathway like PPC advertising. 

Content marketing is an important element of organic marketing. Why? Because inbound marketing depends on the creation of informative, useful, and relevant content to attract, engage, nurture, and convert prospective customers. 

At the center of your organic marketing strategy is the content you create – the blog posts, social media campaigns, e-books, SEO web pages, videos, infographics, and other types of content you use to educate, inform, entertain, and engage your target audience. Organic digital marketing also encompasses word-of-mouth messaging. When your happiest customers share authentic and useful information, testimonials, or reviews online, they are providing messaging about your brand that may attract new customers to your site.

What is Paid Marketing? 

Paid marketing is a type of marketing where companies pay a publisher (like a newspaper, Facebook, or Google) to publish ads for their company. The ads are typically targeted to a specific audience and promote a pathway to conversion. Paid marketing shares the same main goal as organic marketing – to attract visitors (and future customers) to the brand or website. However, rather than attracting an audience through relevant content, paid marketing brings in visitors through paid ads.

In addition to traditional paid marketing activities like billboards, posters, print ads, radio ads, direct mail, newspaper ads, and telemarketing, modern paid marketing also includes Internet ads like display banner ads, pay-per-click (PPC) ads on search engines, video ads, and social media ads.  Paid marketing is more direct and transactional in nature than organic marketing, and it often provides more immediate results.

As with organic marketing, making the most of paid marketing is not as simple as merely taking out an ad. Maximizing ROI on paid social and search ads requires knowledge of placement opportunities, bidding process, and best practices for ad content. And much like content marketing, there is some experimenting and testing in place to find out which approaches and tactics provide the best results.

Organic Marketing vs. Paid Marketing
Knowing the difference between organic and paid marketing will help you use both more effectively as part of your overall strategy.

Key Differences Between Organic and Paid Marketing Campaigns

Ultimately, the goal of organic marketing and paid marketing are the same: to promote a company’s services and products in order to generate more brand traffic. However, there are some key differences:

1. Organic marketing can be evergreen while paid marketing is temporary.

Once organic content like blog posts hits the Internet, it continues to bring in more traffic as long as it retains relevancy. This is called evergreen content. While not all organic content is evergreen, brands are able to create content that stands the test of time and continues to rank in search engines months or even years after its published. In this sense, organic evergreen content can be thought of as “the gift that keeps on giving.”

On the other hand, paid marketing is only good for as long as you pay for it. As soon as payment stops, ads are no longer displayed and website traffic from this source also ceases. This means that you can never have evergreen content with an ad. 

2. Organic marketing is typically less expensive than paid marketing.

Not only does organic marketing often last longer than paid marketing, but it’s also cheaper. As long as you have an understanding of SEO, you can optimize your website and other content for organic search with very little budget. If you run a small business, organic marketing can be especially appealing. However, many large businesses are also turning to inbound marketing to engage with the needs of their target audiences because of its effectiveness.

While there are costs of organic marketing, such as paying freelance writers to create content or paying for technology like email marketing software or a social media scheduler, these costs are quite small compared to what you might spend on ads week to week. Paid search and other types of paid ads require some budget up front. The higher your budget, the higher your chances of placing competitive bids for the keywords you want to show up for. 

Even though paid marketing typically costs more than organic marketing, it’s important to note that paid marketing can still provide a healthy ROI. For example, if you spent $1,000 on paid search ads but ended up making $15,000 in sales from leads through these search ads, you are getting a return on the investment that you’ve made.

3. Organic marketing takes time while paid marketing offers more instantaneous results.

We’ve established that organic marketing has longevity in its corner. However, it also takes a significant amount of time and effort to get it right. In this long-game approach, it might take weeks or even months before you start to see results. It’s also important to keep in mind that just as you’re attempting to craft high-quality, SEO-focused content, so are your competitors. So you will still be competing for space on the search engine results page (SERP) once your organic content has time to work its magic.

If you don’t have the time to wait for your organic marketing to kick in, paid search can get your products and services in front of viewers sooner. In fact, pay-per-click is the best way to ensure that consumers will see your brand first on the SERP as long as you have the right mechanisms in place. If you want to see faster results with paid marketing, you will need to consistently optimize your ads, adhere to AdWords best practices, create an effective landing page, and work with a competitive marketing budget. 

4. Organic marketing is content-driven. 

Search engines like Google are popular and essential because people trust them to provide the information they need when they need it. Google earns that trust by consistently delivering relevant, high-quality content to its users on the SERP. In order to continue to provide the best search results possible for its users, Google requires that companies provide high-quality content that demonstrates a high level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Brands that want to show up in the organic search results need to focus on quality content that’s relevant and helpful to consumers.

Marketing is a lifestyle, not a diet.

Benefits of Organic Marketing vs. Paid Marketing

So which is better – organic marketing or paid marketing? 

Isn’t that the digital marketing rivalry of the decade? 

But don’t be too quick to take sides. This isn’t another us versus them debate. There are enough of those in the world right now. 

Deciding whether to focus on organic vs. paid comes down to your business goals. So as we explore the benefits of both organic and paid marketing, consider your own business needs and how each fits into your overall plan. 

Benefits of Paid Marketing

Here are just a few of the benefits that paid marketing can provide businesses of any size:

1. With paid, you can build brand awareness from nothing.

If no one knows about your small business, getting noticed feels like trying to push a two-ton boulder up a hill. You can’t get new customers because you don’t have any customers who can vouch for your ability to deliver on your promises. You have no visibility.

A paid marketing campaign helps expand reach and increase brand awareness fast.

It should come as no surprise that 51% of consumers use Google to find what they’re looking for. However, 49% of consumers say that it also helps them find “new things” they didn’t know they were looking for. By using paid ads, you can get your brand in front of your ideal audience quickly by showing up at the top of the search engine results without having to wait for your organic content to take root.

2. Paid marketing makes it easy to attribute a sale.

Paid marketing also makes it easy for you to track where sales came from. With Google Analytics, you can see how many people clicked on which ads and how many of those people converted. Knowing which ads and landing pages are performing best allows you to maximize your ad spend by increasing the budget for ads that convert and applying similar tactics and messaging to future ads for best results.

3. Paid ads offer straightforward ROI measurement.

Because it’s easy to attribute sales, measuring ROI is also very straightforward with paid marketing. With time and some basic analytics, you learn how many clicks you have to pay for before one of those clickers becomes a sale. You know the average sale amount that results from that click, so you can do the math to get a basic ROI.

4. Paid marketing is fast and easy to setup.

Paid ads are fast and easy to set up. That’s not to say that it’s easy to create and sustain successful digital marketing ad campaigns. But the tools on Google AdWords, Facebook, Instagram, and other ad platforms make it very easy to get set up and start earning impressions across devices.

Even if creating ad copy, imagery, or landing pages isn’t your strong suit; it’s simple and cost-effective to outsource those things to content creators who understand how to attract, compel, and convert through words and images targeting customer intent.

5. PPC plays nice.

PPC is not exclusive or prohibitive. It’s easy to incorporate ads into organic social media marketing, email marketing, organic search marketing, and other marketing efforts. That means that you can use PPC ads to boost your organic marketing efforts.

6. You only pay when they click.

You can experiment with pay-per-click because there’s no huge initial investment. You pay per click. If your ad is unsuccessful, you’ll know because people aren’t clicking. This means that often your mistakes aren’t that costly. When you find what works, it’s easy to scale.

7. Get maximum control over incoming traffic.

If you get more orders than you can fulfill within a reasonable time, you disappoint customers. With paid ads, you have more control over this ebb and flow because you can increase or decrease ad spend and visibility largely at-will.

But while digital ads do give you some excellent control over customer flow, they don’t give you as much control over when people see your ads. Timing is important. Right message. Right time. Right customer. That’s one of the critical places that organic content marketing exceeds. But that’s just the beginning.

Benefits of Organic Marketing

Here are just a few of the benefits that organic marketing provides your organization:

1. Organic costs less than paid.

In some industries, you may end up with a $20 acquisition cost on a $40 sale when buying search engine ads. You can’t make that up in volume! It’s not sustainable.

However, inbound marketing costs are rather low. It costs nothing to set up a Twitter account and start posting regularly to drive initial traffic. A strong blog post or video script may cost $150+ to produce. But tens of thousands of target customers may view it over a period of years and convert into customers through something you paid for once.

2. Organic provides a strong & sustainable marketing foundation.

If you run ad campaigns but don’t have a strong marketing foundation, then the website traffic and foot traffic stop when you stop running ads.

But if you’ve invested in organic marketing content, engaging your target audience on social media, and utilizing SEO strategies, then you have an online presence that is sustainable. Even when you are not running ads, you’ll still have a way to bring in new leads.

3. Organic content helps build relationships.

Google and social ads give us some great tools to target those who are most likely to buy from our brand. You know–the people who love your business, keep buying more and write you amazing reviews. However, organic content helps you build relationships with customers who will be much more likely to invest in your products with less convincing.

Organic marketing involves creating content that people find when they’re looking for it based upon where they are in the buyer’s journey. When they come across your content that helps them understand and solve their problems, they are more invested in your brand than someone who just comes through an ad. It’s not hard to convince them to buy because they are already invested in your brand and its content.

4. Organic marketing can provide a higher ROI.

Organic traffic rocks! You’re not paying for it. But here it is. And the visitors just keep on coming.

While organic marketing content may require an initial investment, the cost is often far more affordable than regularly running ads. However, the money that you invest in content creators, SEO specialists, designers, and web gurus is just that – an investment. And one that pays handsomely if done right.

For example, let’s say that you pay a freelance writer to create a blog post on a topic that’s important to your audience. You pay an SEO specialist $50 to do the keyword research and the writer $200 to write the blog post.

When you compare the ongoing traffic that this $250 blog post brings in month after month to the traffic that $250 gets you through ads, you’ll quickly see that the organic investment is more affordable.

Email marketing is a great example of an organic marketing channel that provides a high ROI. With 99% of people checking their email every day, email marketing is a great way to reach and engage your audience. And with low startup and operational costs, email has an ROI of around $38 for every $1 spent.

5. Organic marketing isn’t disruptive.

When’s the last time you ignored an ad or turned on an ad blocker so that you don’t even have to see them?

That annoyance you feel when you see an ad is most likely because the ad has disrupted your experience online. Whether it’s an Instagram ad that’s clogging your feed or a SERP ad that makes you scroll further to get to the content you actually want to see, ads can be disruptive and annoying.

However, organic marketing is built on the premise that the people who are viewing your content want to. In fact, they are searching for content like yours. When content is helpful and desired rather than disruptive, it’s bound to have a greater impact and leave a more positive impression on the visitor.

Benefits Depend on Your Business Goals

It’s easy to see that both paid and organic have some strengths and weaknesses. However, the better option for your brand will depend on the campaign, its goals, and the audience you’re trying to reach.

If your business is a startup that needs to earn some easy brand awareness, paid will be faster. But it will come at a cost.  To time the perfect message and nurture those potential customers to make a sale and increase customer lifetime value, you’ll want to invest in organic content. 

As business goals change, you may find yourself focusing more on organic vs. paid or vice versa. The goal is to use the type of marketing that makes the most sense for your desired outcomes.

Organic Marketing Costs vs. Paid Marketing Costs

Now that we’ve talked a bit about the differences and benefits of both paid and organic marketing, let’s take a look at the costs of each.

When it comes to both paid digital marketing and organic digital marketing, there’s no single number, spending strategy, or percent of sales that is right for every business. The amount you choose to invest in various marketing tactics will depend on your total marketing budget, your preferred advertising platforms, your company’s goals, your overarching content marketing strategy, and a number of other things.

With that in mind, let’s take a peek at what is involved in both paid and organic marketing costs.

Talking benefits is great and all, but what is it gonna cost you?

How Much Does Paid Marketing Cost?

Paid marketing costs can vary wildly between advertising platforms, keyword phrases, and industries.

For example, the most expensive keywords in Google Ads cost more than $50 per click, while the most affordable keyword phrases cost mere pennies per click. Across all industries, the average cost per click (CPC) on AdWords is $2.69, but industries like Consumer Services and Legal pay averages at well above $6.00 per click. On Facebook Ads, the average CPC rings in at about $0.35. 

In addition to your industry, SEO strategy, and advertising platform of choice, the cost of paid digital marketing can also be affected by your geographic location because different phrases and industries are in higher demand in certain parts of the world. It’s likely pretty inexpensive to advertise sub-zero winter parkas to internet users in locations along the equator. 

Another cost you might want to factor into paid marketing is labor costs. If you are not a PPC expert or Facebook ad guru, you’ll probably need to hire someone who is. Remember, every click is money spent. So if the wrong people are clicking on your ads, then your will ROI tank. When you hire someone who knows what they’re doing, they can help you get more bang for your buck.

How Much Does Organic Marketing Cost?

Like paid media, it’s tough to put an exact price on organic marketing because the cost depends on the quality and quantity of inbound marketing assets you choose to invest in. The cost (and effectiveness) of organic marketing depends on how well you do it. The better the digital marketing assets you put into the world, the stronger return you will see, and the more you will probably spend. 

Here’s a few factors that will impact organic marketing costs:

1. Time

Whether you have a marketing department on-hand, choose to outsource your company’s marketing functions, or will handle the job yourself, it’s going to require time. Obviously, trying to manage all of your business’s content marketing on your own will require the most time. 

It’s important to consider whether this is actually the most cost-effective decision to make. Yes, you’ll save money in outsourcing costs, but ultimately you’ll probably end up spending more in opportunity costs.

If you’re the business owner or CEO, odds are your time is extremely valuable and would be better spent focusing on your business’s core functions. Plus, you will likely generate better content by hiring professional talent than trying to take on the creative work yourself. 

2. Content Strategy Planning

An effective organic marketing strategy requires planning. You’ll need to develop buyer personas, a customer journey map, your value proposition, brand identity, core messaging, and marketing objectives. Then you’ll need to devise a strategy to help you achieve your goals. 

Creating a content strategy may require you to hire an expert content strategist. While this does require an upfront investment, you can use the strategy that this professional creates to develop strategic, effective content that will continue to bring you traffic long after it’s published.

3. Tools and Technology

From idea generation and SEO strategy to content scheduling and publication, there is a myriad of tools available to improve your organic marketing game. To maximize your ROI, you’ll want to research what’s available and invest in the best tools for your business.

While there are some free or relatively inexpensive tools, other tools may cost hundreds of dollars per month. The cost here really depends on which tools you are using.

4. Website Development

If you’re in business, then you need a website (for both paid and organic digital marketing). It’s essential that your website appears professional and trustworthy, while also offering up a sleek user experience to visitors. 

Website development is often something that businesses outsource to professionals. Having a poorly designed website that users can’t use can end up costing you more than the investment in a good developer.

5. Search Engine Optimization

As part of your investment in organic content marketing, you may want to hire an SEO specialist to make sure that your website and the content you’re publishing are optimized for search engines.

In addition to auditing your website, and SEO specialist can also help with ongoing website optimization and keyword research for your content. Again, costs vary depending on who you hire, what they are helping you with, and whether you decide to outsource or bring this work in-house.

6. Content Creation and Talent

For content to be successful, it must be captivating, informative, professional, useful, and entertaining. Unless you’re a star writer, an expert audio editor, and a crackerjack graphic designer, then you’re probably going to need to hire in-house or outsource talent for your content creation.

As is the case in most fields, better talent and more detailed work tend to cost more than hiring less-experienced talent and ordering lack-luster content. Content creation costs will depend on what type of content you’re creating, how much you are creating, and who you’re hiring.

7. Social Media Management

Unless you’re savvy with social media and have enough time in your schedule, you may want to hire a social media manager to wrangle all your posts and profiles. Costs for this type of work will depend on what type of help you need. For instance, you may want to hire a social media professional to write content but use an in-house customer service rep to field questions and engage with commenters. The more you ask your social media person to do, the more it will cost.

If you’re not ready to hire a full-time employee, you will still need to invest in some type of social media management tool that will help you do it yourself. These tools range from free to hundreds of dollars a month, depending on what type of feature you need.

Organic vs. Paid Ad Costs: Which Is Better?

After looking at the costs of both organic and paid marketing, what is better for your company really depends on the specifics. Deciding whether organic or paid digital marketing is better for your business will depend on your overall strategy, goals, and the amount of time you have to develop your content marketing strategy to achieve those goals.

Evaluating Paid Marketing ROI

Paid marketing assets (the digital ads you run) are temporary but effective. Although paid marketing can be more expensive, it typically offers a much faster turnaround than organic marketing. With paid marketing efforts, you find your customers rather than waiting for them to come to you. Plus, paid advertising will drive traffic directly to your website. Paid marketing is typically a good choice when you need to increase your sales or conversion rate quickly. 

Evaluating Organic Marketing ROI

Unlike paid advertising, content created for organic marketing purposes is always available to you and your customers, which means it never stops working. A single article, podcast, or infographic can be published multiple times across several marketing channels. 

As you develop your online presence and brand awareness through organic media channels like blog content, email marketing, and social media, you’ll develop long-lasting relationships with your customers, increasing customer lifetime value and customer retention. Also, you’ll more easily gain earned media via likes, comments, shares, recommendations, and reviews from your followers. 

Organic marketing tends to be less expensive than paid ads, but in terms of ROI it’s a much slower burn. In the long run, however, organic marketing can pay off big-time, making it worth the wait and the initial investment.

Why You Need an Integrated Approach to Digital Marketing

There are some things that organic marketing just can’t do, just as there are certain things that can’t be accomplished with paid marketing. Weighing down your strategy too heavily with one or the other will not give you the results you want.

An integrated approach is a balanced approach. And balance is good.

Balance is good. Just ask this guy…

Organic and paid marketing can work hand in hand to guide a person through the buyer’s journey, taking them from curious visitor to loyal customer and enthusiastic fan.

Pretty cool, right?

Why is organic marketing crucial for any organization?

Paid advertising does a pretty decent job of driving traffic to your site, but what happens when they get there? If the elements of your organic marketing efforts aren’t up to par – or are completely absent – just how well is that paid ad investment working for you?

Probably not so well.

Sure, there may be some returns, a little traffic here and there, but is it relevant? Is it doing what you want it to do? Are you getting the results you were after when you began your campaign?

In all likelihood, the answer is no. An integrated approach to digital marketing is a more rounded strategy that offers a more effective way of achieving your marketing goals in both the long term and short term.

That is why organic marketing is crucial for any organization. While it does drive traffic, it also takes care of your visitors when they get to your site. Your SEO, your awesome content, your social media profiles, they all work to create a nurturing environment that guides your visitor through your website, helping them find exactly what they are working for.

An organic presence should be one of your top inbound marketing priorities. Sure, it takes a little longer, but the effects are long-lasting and far-reaching. When you allow the right organic strategy to naturally generate traffic for your business over time, you can attract new prospects with little to no impact on your marketing budget.

Organizations need organic digital marketing because, quite frankly, money can’t buy many of its benefits. It allows you to build trust in the customer relationship and increase your brand authority. 

What’s more, it will give your brand a voice, a personality, drawing consumers to you, engaging them, and making lasting connections.

Human beings don’t connect with an advertisement. They connect with a voice, a personality, with goals and values that align with their own. This allows them to form a relationship with the brand and become more than a spectator reading an ad. 

No matter how much money you dump into your marketing budget, you just can’t buy that. It has to come from a more natural source that is more honest and authentic.

How can you use organic and paid marketing together to create an integrated strategy?

An integrated strategy can bring some powerful benefits. When you combine paid advertising and organic marketing, you have an effective two-pronged approach to driving traffic and generating qualified leads. 

Successfully integrating paid and organic marketing should feel natural and seamless. SEO is at the core of organic marketing so each should support the other. For instance, a strong, SEO-rich content strategy may share keyword data with the paid marketing campaign. This blends the content with the advertising so that they work together as opposed to feeling like separate, unrelated strategies.

There are other SEO opportunities with paid advertising data. Implementing Google AdWords sitelinks to support content such as blog posts is very effective. Of course, your content strategy has to be exceptional, providing solid, informational blog posts that add value and engage readers. This also improves the performance of the content by increasing click-through rates and engagement on ads as well as the content.

Organic data can also be a very effective tool for planning your paid advertising strategy. Regularly study your content’s organic traffic trends to identify peak times for views and engagement. This can be very beneficial for aligning your content with the best times for engagement and visibility.

It is a delicate process though. One study found that as many as 80% of internet searchers will skip the paid ads in favor of organic results. What’s more, an estimated 39% of ecommerce traffic originates in a search engine like Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Of that number, 4% is paid ads while 35% is organic.

Integrated Marketing Tools

There are several very good tools available that can help with integrating your digital marketing strategy.

This is just a drop in the bucket. There are plenty of great SEO and advertising tools out there.

Why is it better to use both paid and organic vs. just one or the other?

Both paid and organic marketing have their place, but why is it better to take an integrated approach as opposed to choosing one or the other?

When it comes down to it, the two just work together. The benefits are so great, most notably being that paid marketing will work until the money runs out. Organic marketing, on the other hand, keeps on working regardless because it does not rely on financial support in order to perform well.

The effective use of well-chosen, well-placed keywords is another compelling reason to integrate your digital marketing. The same keywords can be used in both strategies, working together, complementing each other to create a stronger overall marketing strategy.

When these two strategies are carefully crafted to work together, one supports the other. Strong paid and organic visibility ensure an ongoing effort. Paid marketing tends to work quickly, driving traffic to its intended target pretty much from day one. Organic marketing does not work as quickly, but it supports paid while being supported by paid, which can speed up the process a little in some cases.

Bottom line, an integrated approach to marketing is a sound strategy that works. It increases brand awareness while instilling confidence and trust in your customers. It can help propel your business to top sales numbers when done well.

If you haven’t considered integrating your digital marketing, now is as good a time as any to start.

Special thanks to the WriterAccess freelancers who contributed to this post: Joanna H., Leigh M.Jennifer G., and Stephanie M.

Sarah Jane Burt Headshot

Sarah Jane Burt is Sr. Content Strategist at WriterAccess. For the past decade, she’s helped brands big and small, from tech giant IBM to the local plumber, tell their stories and create strategies for customer-driven content. When she’s not working on developing and implementing our content strategy, she’s writing blog posts that help demystify content marketing and strategy for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and enterprise content teams.

Find her on Twitter or reach out on LinkedIn.

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