A Brief History of Organic vs. Paid Social Media

Strategic Marketing Partnerships
Travis Grant By: Travis Grant

Like disruptive communications technologies before it (the printing press, radio, and television), social media changed the world in deeply profound ways, starting with the launch of Facebook and Twitter in 2006. These platforms shook norms by rapidly spreading and aggregating intellectual capital, as local ideas became global and were consumed by massive yet increasingly nuanced audiences who, in turn, had a platform to express themselves. At present, Facebook alone has somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2.2 billion daily users. That’s more people congregating in Mark Zuckerberg’s digital public square than the population of any given country on the planet. 

Audiences are becoming increasingly literate in the digital space, especially among the younger generations of millennials and zennials, whose digital skills are generally exponentially vast compared to boomers and GenXers. For the time being, at any rate, the Internet in general and social media in particular are where people exchange ideas, shop, act on referrals, build brands, consume news, seek answers to questions, debate ideas, and air grievances, among other things. So when the question arises, “Should my business or organization be using social media?” the short answer is “probably.” But the bigger question is “how should I be using social media?” Answering this question depends entirely on your resources and business objectives, as well as a cursory understanding of how social media sites work in 2020. 

On reach and engagement

Back in the early days of social media, growing a following was the prime objective and it was a cinch, as long as your content was even mildly compelling. But this was only ever intended as the first stage. From the beginning, companies like Facebook strategized phased evolution, from audience building to the introduction of corporate brands seeking to build direct consumer relationships, arriving, finally, at the key business objective: monetization. 

Facebook isn’t singular in its efforts to monetize. Other sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Snapchat have all deployed varying degrees and styles of monetization strategies aimed at connecting brands with consumer audiences. But Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook purchased in 2012, typically loom largest in social strategies, with a parallel priority given to paid search and display strategies on Google. 

Those of us who’ve used Facebook from the start likely remember the shift in user experience around 2014. This is when the platform’s algorithm began throttling reach to followers. I can’t understate how profound the audience throttling was. Brands that had ~50,000 followers, with an average reach of 300,000 users per post were suddenly reaching a mere 300 people. For users with personal profiles, the shift was mildly annoying, but for businesses and brands that had built large followings and integrated social media platforms into their day-to-day marketing and communications efforts, an important decision needed to be made: should they play along and develop a paid strategy to stay connected and drive business? Or should they rely solely on dramatically diminished organic reach? In the end, the answer for most small-to-medium businesses was a bit of both. 

The difference between organic and paid

The 2014 algorithm changes forked the social media experience into divergent streams, particularly on Facebook. One side of the fork retained the form we all knew from the outset: organic sharing and reach. The social aspects, narrow as they had become, remained intact as a digital meeting place where people shared moments from their lives and had conversations. 

For businesses, it was also the same familiar practice of sharing content on a regular or semi-regular basis, in order to show followers what was happening day to day or to share industry expertise that followers might find compelling. This approach is still effective, particularly when tethered to a sophisticated content strategy (which, if possible, I always recommend), or it can be ad hoc, if your goal, for whatever reason, is simply to have a presence, with no real measurable objective. 

Whether strategic or ad hoc, good use of social media lends a humanizing quality to your brand. It shows your audiences the people behind it, by sharing stories and engaging in conversation. Even in the age of diminished reach, an honest and authentic organic strategy still has substantial value. How far you take it depends on a mixture of available time, resources, and wherewithal, and it ought to be proportional to your established needs and objectives. 

Paid social media, on the other hand, is the social media business model laid bare. All that free access to people, instant messaging, and photo storage, along with invitations to profile yourself in detail, while “liking” your favourite movies, television shows, music, hobbies, books, personalities, celebrities, and infinitely more was just the data collection phase that would transform Facebook into one of the most powerful marketing and advertising vehicles on the planet. 

From a certain perspective, some might wince at the thought of an Orwellian cluster of tech giants harvesting billions of data points from users as we casually exchange privacy for the convenience of self-expression. But like any technology, there’s always an upside. All of those data points enable personalised interest- and geographic-based targeting at a relatively low cost, which means your brand can reach highly relevant audiences who see themselves and their beliefs in what you do. We now live in an age where highly relevant ads are served to people who actually want to see them. Marketing has never been so precise. 

It should be noted that this kind of targeting isn’t the same as merely boosting a post with a few dollars in order to reach a few thousand people. The process involves creating specific targeted audiences by using the tools on the paid ad side of social media platforms, to funnel users who may or may not already follow or know you, from acquisition (the first touch point with your brand), to engagement (interactions with the brand), to conversion (purchasing the goods or services your brand offers). This is a strategy, with layers of sophistication, that shares audience-specific content in parallel with the usual content your business or organization shares on social media. To put it another way, they’re parallel streams that need never cross and they achieve very different objectives. 

So there you have it. Understanding the difference between organic and paid social media is critical to effectively using social media platforms like Facebook in 2020. Having a social media presence can be great for your brand and it can help give you a competitive advantage in the marketplace.