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Organic vs. paid social media: A hybrid strategy that works


Let’s cut to the chase: It’s not organic vs. paid social media—it’s organic and paid social media. 

As social becomes even more of a pay-to-play game, “organic social is dead” has become a popular catchphrase for marketing thought leaders. While organic social media definitely isn’t what it used to be, it certainly isn’t dead. 

The truth is you need an effective organic social media marketing strategy if you even want to succeed with ads.

For the sake of maximizing your reach while keeping your budget in check, a hybrid paid and organic social media strategy provides brands with the best of both worlds. In this post, we’ll highlight the strengths of organic and paid channels, and then show you how to combine your efforts to give you the most bang for your buck.

What are the differences between organic vs. paid social media?

The true differences between organic vs. paid social media lie not in the definitions but in the benefits.

A venn diagram showing the differences and similarities between organic and paid social media. Organic social is effective for building audience relationships, driving brand awareness and supporting social customer care. Paid social is most effective for targeting ideal customers, driving leads and reaching new audiences. Together, they help brands gain new followers.

But before we can get into any of that, we need to make sure we have the basics in place. Keep reading for quick primers on organic and paid social, plus details on how they benefit your social media strategy. 

What is organic social media?

Organic social media is any post shared for free without any money spent to increase reach or conversions. 

Despite the popularity of ads and constant algorithm changes, organic social media isn’t going anywhere. In fact, according to a Q1 2023 Sprout Social pulse survey, marketers rank organic social above paid as their most valuable social media tactic.

A data visualization with a title that reads social media tactics marketers rank as their most valuable. Then these items listed in order are one, organic social media, two, paid social media, and three, content creators.

Brands can still promote themselves and their products organically. The key is to not hit your followers over the head with sales pitches post after post.

Here are three benefits of organic social media that prove some things just can’t be bought. 

It raises brand awareness

For starters, your organic presence goes hand in hand with brand awareness.

Brand awareness is the first step in any customer journey. A consistent organic social media strategy can make your business a familiar name for countless existing and future customers. It may be a long game, but that familiarity is proven to drive future sales

A stat call-out that shares the percentage of consumers who say that a brand familiarity makes them more likely to buy on social (80%).

Take cues from brands like Impossible Foods. Their quick video recipes provide fans with creative ways to use their entire roster of plant-based meat products. These posts take the brand’s Facebook page from a simple promotional page to a content hub of vegan and vegetarian-friendly recipes. 

It powers your social customer care strategy

According to The Sprout Social Index™ 2022, more than half of all consumers expect a response from a brand within 12 hours of the initial message. In today’s world, the speed and quality of your service on social can be a major differentiator. 

That’s why managing customers and communities is a vital part of your organic presence. Offering an instant, free channel for people to get in touch will always be in demand, even as paid social media grows.

It drives more authentic customer-centric content

Questions and concerns aren’t your only opportunity to connect with your customers.

For example, social media is the perfect place to pick your followers’ brains for future content ideas. Also, it’s a prime place for curating user-generated content like customer photos and videos so your fans can see your product or service in action. 

What is paid social media?  

As you may have guessed, paid social media is any sponsored social advertising content that targets specific audiences. 

Running social ads allows you to go beyond the confines of an algorithm to reach your target audience. Rather than get buried beneath competing content, ads put your stuff front and center in people’s feeds.

Although goals and KPIs might differ from business to business, below are three primary benefits of paid social.

It supports targeting 

Facebook and Instagram’s respective ad platforms get ultra-granular in terms of targeting. This allows you to reach relevant prospects based on their activity, location, age and so on.

This Publix ad from Facebook is a good example. Given that their stores are only located in the Southeastern United States, highly targeted ads based on geography make sense. Furthermore, this particular ad is only for those 21+ and includes store-specific promotions in its CTA. 

A targeted advertisement for the grocery chain Publix. The ad copy reads

It boosts lead generation

If you have a strong piece of gated content, a paid campaign helps ensure that it doesn’t go unseen. For example, this promoted LinkedIn post from Smartsheet is driving leads by enticing people to download their latest guide to project management. 

A sponsored LinkedIn ad from Smartsheet promoting a gated asset tited

Whether it’s a case study, webinar or any other prioritized promotion, such items are brilliant ways to encourage visits from new and former fans alike.

It helps you reach new audiences quickly

If organic social is a marathon, then paid social is a sprint. A single, well-targeted campaign can bring a ton of new fans to your social profiles. It’s an ideal trick to have in your back pocket if you notice organic social media growth stalling. 

Growing engagement with social media organic marketing

Paid social media has immense value. But it shouldn’t operate alone.

In today’s shifting economy, expanding your social media budget isn’t an easy ask. And with social teams reporting bandwidth as their number one challenge (The Sprout Social Index™), you need to sustainably build your social reach and community, without causing budget or talent burnout.

An organic social media strategy empowers you to more deeply connect with your audience. It even strengthens your paid strategy by helping you understand what types of posts perform best while getting the most bang for your buck.

Plus, with less funds required, organic social efforts have a stronger ROI—which can only help you prove the impact of your team’s efforts and secure future resources.

In the “organic vs paid social media” debate, there’s no question that organic social can supercharge your strategy. Let’s cover 6 tried-and-true tactics, and how insights from a tool like Sprout can amplify your efforts.

Use popular content formats

Some content formats are just better for organic growth. In part, because of algorithms. But also due to audience preference. 

For example, short-form video is basically an organic growth hack. According to The Sprout Social Index™, 66% of people say short-form video is the most engaging type of in-feed content. 

Keep up with and try content formats that are making waves. 

Level up: Using the same content formats as your competitors helps you stay competitive. Plus, this is your chance to improve upon what your competition is doing to pull ahead.  

With Sprout’s Competitive Analysis Reports, uncover impactful insights about the formats that work for your competitors on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Use this information to uncover trends and boost your content strategy, without manually reviewing competitor feeds.

Sprout Social's competitive analysis report in the Sprout listening tool.

Lean on employee advocacy

According to recent Sprout research, 72% of consumers feel more connected to a brand whose employees share information about it on social media. 

This is where employee advocacy comes in. When an employee posts about work culture or company news, they spread the word about your brand to their entire follower base. Thus, helping you organically reach more people, through a trusted voice.

A LinkedIn post from an employee at CoHatch sharing behind the scenes photos of a new business location.

Level up: It can be daunting to post about your company, but 72% of engaged social users say they would post about their company if the content was already written for them. 

With a platform, like Employee Advocacy by Sprout, you can curate share-ready content and posts for employees, making it easier for them to post more often, and more confidently.

Sprout's Employee Advocacy platform where you can see how posts are curated for employees to share.

Use data to understand what your audience likes

There’s a reason that 83% of marketers said the use of social data will increase (Q1 2023 Sprout pulse survey). Data is your ticket to understanding what content does well organically.

A green data visualization with an arrow pointing upward and a stat that reads, 83 percent of marketers say the use of social data will increase in 2023.

Learn from the posts that do well. Then, replicate them, adapt them, even repost them. 

For example, Shedd Aquarium’s penguin and sea otter content has gone viral a few times. So it’s no surprise that they feature these animals often. They’re popular with new and old fans alike.

Level up: Speed up your data-gathering process to uncover audience and post insights faster. Sprout’s automated analytics and reports pull metrics across networks into one place, creating presentation-ready reports that can help you optimize your strategy.

Also use our ready-made reports, or customize your own, to prove social media ROI using the analytics that matter most to your team.

Sprout's Post Performance Report, which shows your top performing content across all of your social channels, individually or all together.

Jump on trends 

Trends like social media memes or trending video sounds shouldn’t be your entire social strategy. 

But hopping on trends when it makes sense can supercharge your organic growth—just make sure you’re staying true to your brand. 

For example, brands successfully adapted the same it’s corn” viral trend into content that made sense with their brand. 

Three different TikTok videos, one from Sprout social featuring an employee, one from Shedd Aquarium featuring a large red parrot eating corn, and one from Grammarly featuring an employee. All three videos use the same trending song,

Level up: Trends move fast. The best way to discover trends early and avoid playing catch-up is to keep a constant ear to the ground.

A social listening tool, like Sprout’s, empowers you to do this without adding more to your team’s already-full plate. Social listening identifies trending keywords and topics across the social space, so that you don’t have to manually. 

Aside from social trends, listening also hones in on trends in your industry and audience that your business can capitalize on—from new product features, to audience-informed product use cases.

Focus on your community 

Start and join conversations with the community you’ve already cultivated. This is a key engagement driver, and engagement is a major driver for increasing post reach.

Chewy is the ruler of audience engagement. They will prompt audience participation, and then proceed to engage with as many comments as possible—not a small feat.

And they go beyond simply responding by asking their audience questions and starting a real conversation. 

A comment on a Chewy tweet asking for pet photos containing a photo of a cat sitting in front of a window at dusk watching the sky for birds with the copy, enjoys bird watching. Chewy has responded, do they make a chirping noise when they see a bird?

According to Sprout’s #BrandsGetReal report, 55% of people say that when brands like or respond to customers, it helps brands connect with those customers. Encourage, join and cultivate conversation to strengthen and grow your audience. 

Level up: Keeping your audience engaged means responding to as many comments and DMs as possible. Sprout’s Smart Inbox funnels messages from all of your social channels into one place to ensure you never miss a chance to connect. Pair this with a custom chatbot using Sprout’s bot builder to automate answers to FAQs, lightening your team’s load.

Try Sprout’s social media management solutions free for 30-days.

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Tap into brand advocates

Creator or influencer partnerships are usually part of a paid social media strategy. But don’t rule out user-generated content you can leverage for free.

According to The Sprout Social Index™, 39% of people say they like to see customer testimonials or real customer demos from brands. Brand advocates can contribute organic testimonials, content and demos—and connect you to their audience.

Using a mix of Sprout’s social listening tool and the Smart Inbox will uncover user-generated content—even when your brand isn’t tagged. Listening can even uncover your biggest brand advocates that you may want to partner with.

Create a relationship with your brand advocates. And ask them if they’d be willing to let you repost their content on your channel. Chances are, they’ll be thrilled. 

Creating a hybrid strategy that isn’t strictly organic vs. paid social media

Now that we understand how paid and organic social media work on their own, let’s get into how they work together. 

Below are six key ways to combine your paid and organic efforts.

Budget for social media marketing efforts 

It’s impossible to maintain a hybrid organic-paid strategy if you run out of budget halfway through the year. That’s why it’s so important to monitor your social media ad budget regularly. 

Set aside a designated time to check in on the performance of your paid ads. Measure the actual costs against what was initially allocated toward the campaign. That way, you can anticipate whether it’s performing reasonably or if it’s time to pivot. 

Use this social media budget spreadsheet template to track organic and paid social media marketing expenses. Alternatively, if you’re using Sprout, you can keep an eye on your paid spend by toggling through the reports located under Paid By Network in the Reports Home. 

A screenshot of Sprout Social's Facebook & Instagram Paid Performance Report. The report features a table showcasing metrics including impressions, CPM, clicks, CPC, engagement, CPE, web conversions and cost per conversion.

Set date comparisons to see how your paid performance metrics are trending month over month and make strategic decisions from there.

Determine your most popular content

If you have a particular piece of content that converts well or enters into viral territory, it might be the perfect material for an ad. For example, you can quickly boost a Facebook post to convert your content into a promotion in a matter of clicks.

Looking at your social analytics is the first step to running any successful paid advertisement. Variables such as imagery, calls-to-action and copy all deserve your attention when it comes time to whip up a paid post. Metrics such as clicks and followers earned are good starting points for spotting top content.

If you’re using Sprout, turn to the Post Performance Report to analyze your published content across all social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and TikTok.

A screenshot of Sprout's Post Performance Report, showcasing the top three cross-network social media posts from a fake coffee brand called Sprout Coffee.

Remember that not all promotional posts should be paid

Your social data can help you identify which posts have the potential to work as an ad, but only some high-performing posts call for paid ad spend. 

Look for content that aligns with your marketing and business KPIs to determine which posts are worth throwing some extra dollars behind. For example, if a high-priority goal for your team is to drum up registrations for an upcoming event, it makes sense to promote a big agenda announcement or a last call for tickets. 

On the other hand, if your goal is to raise brand awareness or promote a new product, rely on your organic social media toolkit. 

For some inspiration, check out the example from Auntie Anne’s Twitter profile. Combining the power of the cover photo and pinned tweet creates an eye-catching promo for a new menu item.

A screenshot of the Auntie Anne's Twitter account. Both the cover photo and pinned tweet are promoting a new menu item, a salted caramel chocolate frost.

Use A/B testing

We’ve shared a bit about how your organic strategy can inform your paid efforts. Now let’s get into the reverse with social media testing. 

Testing on social media—whether A/B or multivariable testing—can provide meaningful insights on what works best for your audience. The only caveat? Substantial results require a substantial audience.

Think about it: Testing creative organically within a small audience won’t give you the impressions and engagement data needed for statistically significant results. Paid, however, can give your post the reach it needs to confirm or refute a hypothesis. 

You can then use these results to inform your organic strategy in the future.

Try retargeting and lookalike audiences

Retargeting via Facebook or Instagram is one of the most popular and high-converting types of social promotions. These ads allow you to create a custom audience to target former customers, site visitors, people on your email list or CRM leads. You can also create lookalike audiences to target new prospects who share characteristics with your existing fans. 

And with Meta’s latest ad roll-out, you can specifically target people who’ve previously engaged your content on either network. 

A screenshot of the custom audience creation options in Meta's ad manager. Options include creating custom audiences based on uploaded data, website traffic, app activity and engagement.

In other words, these tools give you the power to capitalize on organic interactions for more conversions down the line. 

Monitor your data and measure results

The common thread between combining your paid and organic social strategies is data.

No matter how you slice it, social ads can get pricey. For the sake of your ROI, it’s to your benefit to have a consistent pulse on your social data—before, during and after your paid campaigns.

Keeping an eye on specific metrics will ensure that your paid social media strategy is working in harmony with your brand-forward organic approach. And monitor these chosen metrics in one place. Consider adding paid metrics—like click through rate, website visits and conversions—to look at alongside organic social metrics to see how the two strategies work together.

That’s precisely why Sprout’s custom reporting options are a game changer for brands. Use it to elevate the metrics that matter most for your strategy in a single, easy-to-interpret report. 

A screenshot of the custom report builder in Sprout Social. The report features a Performance Summary table that features metrics including impressions, engagements and post link clicks.

Organic and paid social go hand in hand

Rather than thinking of it as “organic vs. paid social media,” try looking for ways one strategy could support the other. That’s how you’ll get to the bottom of what drives the best results for your brand.

Of course, double the strategies mean double the metrics. Use this social media analytics template to track your efforts. It provides a birds-eye view of your performance so you can easily tie it back to business goals. 

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