If you want to get true engagement online, tradition (if there can be such a thing as tradition in the world of social media) has it that using organic ways to get noticed are best. But Adam Mack, independent communications and marketing strategist, now has his doubts: "Having grown up in an earned, organic environment, I have (like many in PR) long regarded the paid trade with a little disdain. There is a general industry consensus that getting earned profile (whether through off- and online PR or social media) is tougher than getting paid. We have never really been ones to wave our wallets around – our art has been in developing ideas that have a life of their own and in negotiating profile for our clients with a cynical influencer base.
“Whilst much of this is true, experimenting with building a dadblog brand has shown me another reality. One where paid is the best way of getting eyeballs on content (at least in terms of reach and likes) and where paying to boost a post and leads to an uplift in earned or organic reach. One where paid is critical (and not a dirty word).”
But just getting attention isn’t always what you want. Mack says: “The problem comes if you want truly engaged eyeballs. These you can’t buy. The eyeballs that we have earned through our posts are much more likely to visit our site, to subscribe, to follow and to share than those we have bought. So the new art of (socially-driven) PR is in converting paid reach to engagement through intriguing content that draws influencers and their followers in and gives them a crystal-clear, business-driven call to action."
In a nutshell, paid social posts get you numbers. Errol Jayawardene, head of digital at PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry: “Organic reach on most platforms is generally low because the social networks want to reward people that pay – they need to make money. Platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook use sophisticated algorithms that allow you to use pay per click to quickly reach out beyond your existing communities. It can be really useful in targeting prospects on your CRM or by other factors like geography, company size and job title.”
Organic is overvalued
In fact, paid social media marketing can be so useful that it makes organic social marketing look less appealing. Mark Pinsent, managing director Europe of communications agency The Hoffman Agency, argues: “Organic social media activity is producing such minimal reach and impact with an organisation’s target audience that businesses should be questioning its value. The time, effort and resources applied to creating content which is posted organically on social feeds is almost certainly not delivering a return.
“Social media has just become media. And as with any media spend, the return is the key thing. Paid social should play a valuable part of any integrated content marketing or lead generation activity. To varying degrees, depending on the platform, specific audience segments can be accurately targeted, and it’s easy to test activity at modest levels, assess performance and optimise campaigns.
“But the real beauty is, it’s entirely measurable (if correctly set up, using trackable links and integrated with web analytics). Every engagement with the paid social post can be seen, of course, but what’s essential is tracking a user through the entire online journey which starts with the click on a link in social media. Hook that up, and the ROI from paid social will knock that of organic into a cocked hat.”
In complete agreement about the power of paid, Jim Hawker, co-founder of PR agency Threepipe, explains why he rates it so highly: “Paid social is a booming business for agencies, driven by a number of factors. Firstly, the organic reach is so small that a paid content distribution in a must for brand-led campaigns. Paid spend also allows for a far more targeted content distribution which is just as key to creating good content. I would also classify influencer programmes under paid social which is clearly a channel which more brands are investing in, either for brand or for commerce opportunities.
“Many of our clients are now investing in paid social, principally through Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest to drive multiple commercial objectives, whether that’s driving footfall into stores or direct sales. There has been a big shift towards these channels, rather than investing in TV, which is seen as having too much wastage. We have the ability to constantly monitor the performance of our paid social programmes, to change the creative or adapt the targeting and clients are attracted to the flexibility that this provides.”
Below, other advocates of paid social suggest the best ways to make the most of this tool.
Five ways to make paid pay
- Never spam, always target says Lee Benecke, head of social media at PR agency Brazen: “People misuse the power of paid to effectively spam en masse rather than focus on delivering high-quality content to interested users. It’s the ‘spray-and-pray’ method and it needs to stop.
“We would never recommend this approach and instead suggest a formula for success made up of genuine audience insight to inform targeting, channel know-how to inform placement and creative content magic to really get under the skin of your customer or brand fan.
“Focus your efforts and budget to what works best for your brand and – most importantly – your customer. No more spray. No more pray. Just a future-proof approach to paid social that ensures your brand is seen as always delivering targeted and bespoke comms that is welcome in the newsfeed.
“Get these fundamentals in place and paid media becomes rocket fuel for your social media strategies.”
- Go back to basics says Pete Knott, digital account director at PR firm Lansons: “Success in paid social should focus on going back to basics: understanding your audience. You can spend all the time or money in the world on advertising, but if it doesn’t provoke the desired reaction from your audience then you won’t get the desired outcomes. We’ve found that our most successful paid-for social media campaigns are those that would have had the best organic results. This suggests your primary focus should be on the content and concept, then to use paid social activity (as well as other distribution channels) to either give this a boost or deliver the message to a specific audience.”
- Give the audience what it wants says Jessica McAndrew, digital comms director at communications agency Beattie: “With Facebook’s algorithm only allowing brands a maximum 6% organic visibility – and many other social channels following suit – the model is quickly becoming pay-to-play. Effective social marketing should follow the same pattern: create and distribute content based on what followers want to see. The more a brand gives people what they want, the more those followers will engage. The higher the engagement rates, the greater the reach. It’s really that simple. The best way to develop a strong social media strategy is to start by digging deep into the data you have on current followers. Who are they? What other pages do they follow? What types of content do they interact with? Once those key points are identified, it’s easy to tailor a strategy based specifically around creating engaging content. But, no matter how engaging a brand’s content is – it will still not reach any more than 6% of total follower numbers organically. How do you increase that reach? Pay up.”
- Tailor content to suit the site says Ricky Malhi, social media manager at website for parents, Day Out With The Kids: “You need to understand your different social media channels and create a campaign that is consistent but also uses each social media channels USP. You would never approach Instagram and Twitter in the same way. Any good campaign starts with research. Understand your audience and their needs before you create any content for social.”
- Fit it into a larger strategy says Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s Jayawardene: “Paid should form part of a content strategy which should include different strategies like organic social media, influencer marketing, media relations and SEO. At the end of the day your content's success or failure will still depend on how much value it provides to the reader. Paid isn't over-rated nor is it a panacea – used in the right way it can certainly help."
The answer to the question “Is paid social overrated?” seems to be a resounding “no!” and, in fact, leaves many to question whether it is organic social media work that is overrated…
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