Paid media versus organic traffic isn’t a black and white question for any brand. In fact, let me start out this post by telling your that it shouldn’t ever be paid media vs earned media, it should be understanding when and why to be using both paid and organic and at what levels to use them. Paid media and earned media are both tools that need to be used effectively at the right times within a digital marketing program.

What’s the difference between paid media and organic traffic, which is also called earned media?

Paid media is digital advertising that utilizes various platforms, devices, channels and websites to display certain advertisements to users. This can be in the form of text, graphics, videos or a combination of all three to display an advertisement to individuals online. Earned media or organic traffic however is clicks and/or web traffic that is routed to your website, online property, article or landing page without the use of paid advertising. Earned media traffic typically comes through organic search, social media posts and email marketing lists that you have earned the right to communicate to.

It is extremely important to understand a couple of key data points about paid media advertising online, as well as some related organic search numbers that should be crucial to understanding the current digital marketing landscape. First, Google and Facebook lead online digital ad revenues by a long shot and the two digital ad companies now make up about 60% of all U.S. digital ad spends. Furthermore, the combined Google and Facebook ad revenues equate to over 56 billion dollars in 2017 alone (source eMarketer). That’s billion with a B. In addition, mobile search comprised of both smartphone and tablet searches now reportedly makes up more than 57% of all searches done online. The impact that this has on organic search traffic to many brands big and small is not to be underestimated.

When Is Paid Media Traffic Best?

It is important to point out that those “sponsored ads” on Google, Facebook and other platforms are the main source of income for the search engines and social networks that promote them. Digital ads offer a highly targeted way of getting your offer, brand and products in front of the right audience quickly, while also providing a scalable and more predictable source of traffic volume at a measured cost.

A few great examples of when to use paid media:

Use digital ads early in your digital marketing efforts.

It can be very effective to front load your new digital marketing efforts using digital ads. Paid media ads provide a great solution for startups or brands that have previously floundered online. Utilizing digital ads while your organic earned media and content marketing are maturing is a highly advised tactic to getting traction in the marketplace now.

Supplement with paid media to scale and grow.

Used in conjunction with your effective earned media marketing efforts, digital ads offer the ability to scale traffic, reach and exposure in a calculated fashion. It is relatively easy to track digital ad campaign results and determine the effectiveness, clicks and ROI from your paid media efforts. From there you can do simple math to calculate the costs of scaling clicks and traffic to obtain the desired additional results through paid media.

When Should You NOT Use Digital Ads?

There are several reasons to not use digital ads in your marketing, but I am going to focus on the two that I believe are most relevant for this discussion.

You’re Not Ready For Paid Media Yet:

One of the biggest mistakes we have seen our clients making prior to working with us is doing paid media advertising online, without the needed infrastructure, strategy, website, landing pages, lead funnels and email capture in place to make it effective. If you’re not ready to maximize traffic that you gain from digital advertising, just don’t do it yet. Make sure everything is properly in place, then move forward with strategy, testing and scale.

Exclusively Using Digital Ads Can Be Damaging:

Another big problem we have seen with some clients, is that they have bet everything on paid media for their digital marketing efforts. Though this can be effective short-term, it can more often than not lead to diminishing returns and make your business dependant on the paid formula for some time to come. A proper strategy that integrates value through content and relationship can better work together with a strategic paid media program over the long haul.

When Is Organic Traffic or Earned Media Best?

In my professional opinion there is hardly ever a time that a company wouldn’t want or need organic traffic. However, everything must be done strategically if you’re going to achieve the best results. Part of that strategy may or may not be incorporating paid digital ads, but for many of our clients, we use little to no paid media with integrated digital marketing programs. Therefore organic traffic that is earned better be done effectively or you will quickly be in trouble.

A few great examples of when to use organic traffic:

Use organic traffic early and often.

Obtaining organic traffic through content marketing is something that you should be doing early, as the foundation of your digital marketing efforts. Using it as a way to build “now” traffic to new content is a must to gain brand recognition and value. This means starting early in your digital marketing strategy development and consistently creating both blog and top-level page content within your website. Early and often is also a crucial component that works with the next example below.

Long-term organic traffic focus.integrated digital marketing is half art and half science

In order to effectively build organic traffic, there must be a long-term focus and a long-term strategy in place to achieve that goal. The type of content that is being created from blog posts, top-level website pages, social graphics and videos, must be a part of an overall strategy that looks toward the future and builds to that end. Consistently creating content that your audience wants to consume develops trust, search rank, brand recognition and relationship opportunities. All of which, when done correctly, result in targeted organic traffic to your properties online.

Digital Ads vs Earned Media

At the end of the day, the argument between paid and earned media isn’t an either or discussion. Though every single client we work with is different and requires a different strategy and implementation of that strategy, there should always be a thoughtful inclusion of the paid digital ads and organic traffic components that are constantly being adjusted based on the data.