Once upon a time, advertising used to be owned by big brands, and if you didn’t switch on the telly, turn on the radio, walk past a big billboard, or spread open a popular newspaper, you probably wouldn’t ever see that important message they had for you. These days, brands of any size, even individuals, can reach just about any group(s) of intended audience, with considerably much lesser budgets, and more efficiency too. Much of this is as a result of the internet’s ability to shrink the world into a truly connected global village, and with platforms like search engines and social media, both of which have billions of unique users. In general, the movement of advertising from traditional media to the internet can be summarized under the compound name ‘Digital Marketing’, or Internet Marketing, and while there are many different strategies to this, the use of search engines and social media are just two of the most popular ones, but which of the two is the better avenue to put advertising money on?

Paid search

This is the arm of digital marketing whereby brands and advertisers pay a search engine to have their adverts displayed on relevant search engine results pages (SERPs), usually with the aim of appearing as high as possible on those pages in order to drive as much traffic as possible to their websites or intended messages. Some of these search engines are Google and Bing, among others, and some of the forms of search engine marketing include search engine advertising, sponsored listings, pay-per-click (PPC), etc.

While the others too can be quite effective, PPC is one of the most used. This is largely due to the fact that when using it, advertisers only pay after their ads have been clicked on. This means that the cost of placing ads here is not by how many people have seen the advert, but by how many people actually engage with it. This fact alone makes PPC very attractive to advertisers because knowing they’re only paying for users who are actually interested in their adverts makes it very cost effective and controllable for them.

Paid social

Social networking platforms are the new market square, the new city centre where everyone registers their presence. This presence is usually in varying degrees, with some being sparse while some others feel as though they neither ever leave nor sleep. Top social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, YouTube, LinkedIn, Snapchat all have millions of unique users daily, and they all offer advertising services too. This makes social networking platforms a very attractive avenue for advertisers to display their adverts and messages.

Paid Social is thus the practice of placing sponsored advertising on third party social media platforms where specific customer demographics are targeted for desired results. A well-crafted paid social campaign can achieve a broad range of objectives and with immediate results, from raising brand awareness, to driving traffic and leads. Some of the types of paid social ads include static image ads, video ads, stories ads, messenger ads, display ads, and Twitter ads.

While all the popular social networking platforms offer advertising in one form or the other, most advertisers who use this form of marketing often focus on specific networks where they want to grow a presence or on channels which are popular with the customer demographics that they’re targeting.

For this form of marketing, ads usually appear on the feeds or timelines of users of the social networking platform being used, forming a part of those feeds/timelines that the users scroll through on their usual daily updates. For this method, there are typically two advertisement payment models. In the first, advertisers pay every time their ads are clicked on, while in the second, payment is only made if and when a conversion is made on the ads placed.

Paid search vs. paid social

Now that we have some basic knowledge about each of paid search and paid social, we can effectively look at both and highlight both their similarities and differences with the aim of weighing them against each other and identifying which is better for what occasion and/or purpose.

Firstly, both paid search and paid social are effective strategies in the bigger realm of digital marketing, but while both are geared towards getting the message right before the eyes of intended customers, they differ very much in their setup, their approach, and even their expected results. The biggest difference which sets them apart in a primary sense is their individual ad networks as this determines what formats ads are presented in, where they appear, as well as how their performances are measured.

Also consumers use search engines and social networking platforms for different reasons and in different ways. Consequently, paid search is built on the use of keywords and phrases that can be used when consumers conduct searches online, while paid social is based on targeting consumers based on their demographics and registered interests. These are all key factors that influence how advertisers view and engage both approaches.

Many refer to paid search as responsive advertising because the customer in this case is already searching for related topics which prompts the ads to come up as part of those searches. Paid social on the other hand is referred to as intrusive advertising because the ads appear alongside, and sometimes in-between, ordinary content on consumers’ social media feeds and timelines, much like radio and TV ads in between segments of a show.

Paid search is often short term as the aim is to get the consumer to click and engage. Paid social on the other hand can be much longer term, often deployed to gain consumer loyalty among targeted demographics. Summarily, paid search is ideal for grabbing consumers who know what they want and are prepared to make a purchase there and then, while paid social works best to generate interest, build relationships, and earn brand loyalty among desired and target consumer audiences.

In terms of key strengths, paid search is loved by advertisers because of its speed and its high intent. Campaigns on paid search usually deliver fast results, engagements and sales, especially when good knowledge of keywords and search engine optimization (SEO) is employed in identifying which search terms consumers are looking for online.

Also, when an ad ranks very high amidst its competitors, it will likely be the first (or one of the first) that consumers see when they decide to look for anything in its related field, often resulting in a very high conversion rate. Another thing that works in favour of paid search is the audience share. Google’s market share in the search engine sphere is about 87%, meaning that most consumers are searching one platform, something that paid social cannot boast of.

Paid social, however, does have its strengths too. Some of them include ad options, impulse buying, the paid social marketing funnel, ad targeting, and cost. Paid social offers an extensive range of options, both in terms of social networking platforms as well as ad mediums. Ads can come in the form of images, carousels, videos, and even more immersive experiences.

Also, paid social has the potential of showing consumers things they never knew existed, as well as things they had no idea they needed. With ads presented in an array of attractive forms, most customers have already paid before buyers’ remorse kicks in. The marketing funnel works in such a way that ads can be deployed in concert with each other such that they nudge consumers on from not knowing a brand the first minute and becoming loyal followers in the second. Some consumers can even go as far as becoming vocal brand advocates, reposting ads or making dedicated posts of their own.

In terms of key weaknesses, most paid search campaigns are primary text based, with the only other supported format being images included in display ads. This pales in comparison with paid social that offers an array of very rich mediums. Also, paid search campaigns usually throw up many options for the same search, making it as easy for an advertiser to make a sale as it is for the competition, meaning they could also go with the competition rather than with the advertiser.

Another thing is the functionality of the funnel which works in such a way that customers can’t easily be met earlier in their decision-making journey, unlike in paid social where an ad about a little known item could be the one sparking the journey in the first place.

When it comes to paid social, the first major limitations are the perception that it is intrusive as it mostly comes uninvited into people’s feeds. Also, the excessive variety can sometimes cause confusion, making it hard for advertisers to identify where really the consumers hang out and what ad format would work best for which platform. More headaches for advertisers? Usually, the trend moves so fast that what works on social media this week could be obsolete in the next. And the cost could seem low this minute, but with so many platforms to advertise on, that could shoot up the budget quickly and make it too expensive to keep up with. One last issue is that of the click-through rate, largely due to large proportions of irrelevant content as much as disinterested audiences.

In the end, both paid search and paid social can be highly effective, as long as you as an advertiser are able to compare both and identify which best serves your intended purpose. And who says you can’t use both? Just to be sure to master their unique qualities, as well as their individual strengths and weaknesses before diving in.