Organic vs. paid digital marketing

If you want to attract visitors and customers online, you can reach an audience with organic content to post on social media. You can also run paid ads on social media and search engines to reach a brand new targeted audience who may have never seen your profile before. 

Digital marketing shouldn’t be about choosing one over the other. It’s better to understand the benefits of both organic and paid media and how they combine.

Each strategy comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. In this post we explore what those are.

What is organic digital marketing?

Organic digital marketing, or inbound marketing, is a tactic of driving traffic to your website and social media channels without using paid advertising. You grow these channels over time and build up your online presence by creating valuable content that users enjoy and share. Platforms boost valuable content as it tends to help them keep users within the platform. 

There are a variety of ways you can do this. One of the most popular forms is with content marketing, where you create blog posts or videos which answer a question. Or, your content provides information on a particular topic that’s relevant to your audience. This article is an example.

The aim is to engage your target audience with content that adds value to the user. This builds your brand, and helps to nurture prospects and potentially turn them into followers or customers.

Organic digital marketing is an investment. It takes time to see results. And it’s not as fast as using paid ads on search engines and social media to generate leads or sales. It can feel very hit and miss, but great organic posts can enjoy moments of virality and therefore tonnes of ‘free’ exposure at the right times. 

And when it comes to ranking on the first page of Google with your blog content, you’ll need to consider invest time and energy in Search Engine Optimisation. Google attributes a number of ranking factors to content, which you can read about here.

Your SEO strategy should factor in the publication of high quality content. This content should match users’ search intent for specific keywords. You’ll also need to build inbound links to your content to increase search engine rankings. Organic content includes all of the digital assets and elements that you can create and release yourself without putting paid advertising dollars behind it. 

Advantages of organic marketing

Here are some of the benefits organic marketing can provide: 

  • Nurtures relationships and helps qualify leads. When you regularly produce content which your audience values, such as by educating, entertaining or inspiring them, you build brand recognition and add value to the online experience of your brand. Relevant organic content engages your audience, which can increase the chance of a conversion lower down in your marketing funnel.
  • Builds long-term, lasting brand visibility. When you produce content on the channels which your audience likes to browse through, they will remember you and keep coming back to your website or social media page. 
  • Makes your brand more competitive. The most successful brands often have a strong online presence, which they’ve built up with probably years of content marketing and SEO efforts, and that’s not something you can have overnight. This added brand recognition will help you to be more competitive in the long-run, making it a worthwhile investment.

A spider diagram with SEO in the centre. The branches are community, design, html, analysis, profits and search. Organic vs paid digital marketing.

Disadvantages of organic marketing

Organic marketing online has a number of drawbacks:

  • It takes time to see results. Building up the strength of your rankings in search and number of followers on social media does take time. It requires consistent posting, management and optimisation to see the fruits of your labour. Often, marketers get discouraged by the lack of results, and don’t always give it enough attention.
  • It isn’t always lower in cost. Some markets are more competitive than others, and to get all the many elements of organic content together takes time and resource. Good organic content on social media will likely need video creation and editing resource. The time to schedule and plan posts and write copies. Organic content can also be demanding financially and on resource.
  • Targeting can be less precise. When you publish organic content, you can’t directly target prospects according to audience specifics, and you can’t always optimise content directly towards business outcomes. Your video may entertain a certain audience and may be algorithmically boosted to a particular type of person. You do not have much control over this. 

What is inorganic or ‘paid’ digital marketing?

Paid digital marketing is where you pay a platform to publish ads for your company. Paid ads often get results more quickly, like more leads or sales, and promote a more direct pathway to conversion. They can often be optimised for different goals, which is a way ads platforms rank order a target group for placing adverts. 

You measure the success of paid digital marketing by many metrics, such as return on ad spend (ROAS), click-through-rates (CTR), impressions and conversions. Data on the performance of ads can be accumulated, which can be utilised to optimise campaigns and drive results. The level of control on paid digital marketing can be notably increased. 

When you run paid ads on search engines or social media, you can choose specific users to target based on demographics, browsing habits or custom audiences with data from your website (more on this below). 

You can find more about paid ads and targeting here.

Advantages of paid marketing

Along with quicker results, there are several advantages of using paid digital marketing:

  • Build brand awareness and engagement from the get-go. Paid ads running on social media platforms or search engines allow businesses to reach the right users straight away. Ads on social media that appear in the feeds of a target audience once the campaign launches gives brands immediate results and the opportunity to engage and cultivate new customers. 
  • Form data-driven strategies to achieve higher levels of engagement and conversion. You can send first-party data from your website to the platforms you advertise on and use it to create and therefore retarget custom audiences who have engaged with your brand at different stages. This can give you better results and higher levels of ROI from marketing spend. You can see what is ‘working’ and what is ‘not working’ by looking at the data these ads collect. This data can be a game-changer for business attempting to learn what elements of operations are more fruitful than others. 
  • Micro-target based on very specific customer details. Whether you’re using Google Ads, Facebook or TikTok, you can target prospects according to specific demographics, browsing or shopping habits. The results are almost immediate, and by using data, you can optimise your campaigns further for even higher levels of conversion. We wrote a book about this to explain it in more detail.

A computer screen with bar charts. Organic vs paid digital marketing.

Disadvantages of paid marketing

Running paid ads is not without its challenges. Here are some of them:

  • Can be expensive to run. Platforms like Meta and Google base the costs of ads according to bids, which can vary according to industry. When you run ads on search or social media, you pay per impression or click. Highly competition industries can be very expensive to compete in. 
  • Requires careful configuration and setup. If you haven’t correctly targeted your audience, you could quickly run up a bill that hasn’t got the results you had hoped for. And if you want to retarget prospects who visited your site, you’ll need to correctly set up and configure ad platforms and data streams to target the right audience. Google Tag Manager setups can be complicated, and if they are not done properly, you could end up wasting your budget. 
  • Need monitoring and optimising. Once you’ve correctly set up your paid ads, and launched them, you need to monitor campaign performance using data and metrics. This is a skill in itself and you might need to hire a specialist.

Use a combination of organic and paid digital marketing

For most businesses, it’s best to use a combination of both organic and paid online ads. You can use the performance data of your organic marketing efforts to guage how your content performs without paid ads. Once you see the strongest performers, it can influence what to show to your customers with repurposed paid ads. 

For example, perhaps you run an eCommerce store for bicycles, and after looking at your Google Analytics data, you can see that your ‘how-to’ content on fixing bikes has high levels of engagement. Perhaps repurposing highly engaging content for your bike shop that gives value to the client base, can be more effective than a high-end advert for a bike. Testing things is always the best way to make a decision. Content that performs well organically is often a great place to start when deciding what content to use in paid ads. 


Organic and paid digital marketing isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and which method you use depends on the nature of your industry and business. Some markets are more competitive than others, and need aggressive targeting and ads. Whereas some audiences might prefer to be engaged with content that inspires, and builds a community of followers.

You should define specific and measure marketing goals, and form a strategy which targets your audience with content and ads which work towards those goals. Think about what channels your audience might like to browse on, and use data on campaign performance to optimise for results. 

Here at TDS, we work with a number of businesses in the media, eCommerce and entertainment industries. We run ads on behalf of our clients, and use data to track and measure performance. You can read more about our services here.

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