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Paid Social vs. Paid Search: A Strategic Guide for Modern Marketers

Navigating the digital marketing landscape can be a complex task, especially when there are a multitude of options, and opportunities, at your disposal. One such conundrum that modern marketers face is whether Paid Social, or Paid Search, is the most effective avenue in which to place valuable marketing budget.

Whilst each has its own individual merits that can significantly boost brand presence and performance, understanding these platforms is crucial for making informed, strategic decisions that align with your specific business goals.

By identifying and exploring the core differences, benefits and best practices for both paid search and social, you should have the information you need to make the right decision for your organisation.

Decoding Paid Social and Paid Search

Paid Social refers to ads placed on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Twitter, and Pinterest. These ads are seamlessly woven into users' feeds, stories, or sidebars, making them a fully integrated and naturally occurring part of the social media experience.

Paid Search involves adverts that appear on the search engine results pages (SERPs) such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo. These ads are triggered by specific keywords or phrases, appearing at the top or bottom of the search results to capture users actively looking for information.

Key Differences Between Paid Social and Paid Search

Targeting Precision

Paid Social offers highly detailed targeting based on demographics, interests, behaviours, and specific actions. This enables you to reach both large, and incredibly niche audience segments. Paid Search relies on targeting users based on their search queries, meaning that ads are shown to individuals actively seeking information or solutions, using your keywords.

User Intent

Paid Social is effective for brand awareness and engagement, seeing as many users on social platforms are browsing passively. However, social channels are increasingly allowing advertisers to target audiences in the lower parts of the marketing funnel. For example, LinkedIn provides the opportunity to run lead generation and conversion-based campaigns, and the continual rise of social commerce allows users to purchase products and services directly within social apps. Paid Search has historically had a clearer stance when it comes to intent, as users are actively searching for information and/or products. This makes it ideal for capturing leads and driving conversions, but this focus on commercial intent also means that usually, a higher price tag is attached too.

Ad Formats

Due to the nature of its various platforms, Paid Social offers businesses a variety of engaging ad formats to choose from, including images, videos, carousels, stories and more, allowing endless options for creative storytelling. On the other end of the spectrum, Paid Search ads are generally heavily text-based (seeing as they’re placed within the SERPs), although there are format types depending on the product or service being advertised, with product listings and shopping ads utilising imagery.

Cost Structure

Costs for Paid Social have undergone a shift, where previously they regularly operated on a cost-per-thousand impressions or cost-per-click (CPC) model, the majority of platforms now adopt price models focusing on cost-per-conversion, or cost-per-engagement. A similar transition is afoot with Paid Search too, with cost-per-click acting as an initial cost model, with advertisers being steered towards smarter bidding strategies that operate on cost-per-conversion, or return on ad spend (ROAS). Access to enough data is key for these models, and more recently, CPC campaigns have not been recommended by Google.

As with any paid campaign, the various settings and objectives can severely impact the overall cost. This is why mapping out a clear strategy with a specialist is advisable; enabling clear goals and budgets to be set in order to achieve the best possible outcome.

Performance Metrics

Performance metrics are imperative for any paid campaign, whether social or search-based. Tools such as Google Analytics are highly recommended to help advertisers track campaign effectiveness across a plethora of insightful metrics such as engaged sessions, time on page and many more.

Key metrics to consider for Paid Social include impressions, reach, engagement, click-through rates and conversions. It’s important to know how users are interacting with your ad content so you can optimise spending for the future and get the most out of each campaign. Paid Search instead tends to focus on clicks, click-through rate, cost per conversion and ROAS. The focus should be around what ads are driving the most traffic to your website, and how many conversions are being achieved?

Benefits of Paid Social

  • Brand visibility and awareness: Perfect for reaching the right audience due to a multitude of user insights and demographics to choose from.

  • Engagement: Encourages interactions, fostering community and brand loyalty.

  • Creative flexibility: Diverse ad formats for compelling storytelling and showcasing products.

Benefits of Paid Search

  • High-intent traffic: Captures users at the bottom of the funnel, or seeking specific information.

  • Measurable ROI: Clear metrics on clicks and conversions make it easier to track ROI.

  • Competitive edge: Effective for outranking competitors on valuable search terms.

When to Use Paid Social vs. Paid Search

Homing in on your key business objectives should help determine what avenue is the most suitable. For example, Paid Social is generally ideal for top of the funnel marketing; raising awareness surrounding new products or services and creating demand. Remarketing also comes into play, whereby previous visitors or existing customers can be targeted with the same, or similar products. Paid Social is also an effective way of reaching specific audience demographics or users sharing certain interests.

Paid Search is more useful for driving enquiries and sales for established products or services, and capturing demand from users who are actively searching for solutions. The higher intent associated with Paid Search allows brands to work towards increasing their site’s relevant website traffic, which, when done effectively, can increase conversions exponentially. In some cases, an integrated approach is the best course of action, of which we explain more in the following section.

Combining Paid Social and Paid Search

For many businesses, combining Paid Social and Paid Search strategies often delivers the most optimal outcome. Depending on your organisation’s KPIs and objectives, implementing a cross-channel approach provides scope to target the entire marketing funnel, from raising brand awareness to capturing leads and converting new and existing customers. A study by LinkedIn highlights the importance of an integrated approach with the 95-5 rule, whereby 95% of potential customers are not ready to buy today, but will be at some point in the future. So, by ensuring that Paid Social and Paid Search are working simultaneously to target potential customers at every stage of the funnel, brands can enhance their awareness and foster engagement, whilst capturing high-intent leads via search engines and making the most of every opportunity.

Final Thoughts

Both Paid Social and Paid Search have unique advantages and are essential components of a comprehensive digital marketing strategy. By understanding their strengths and aligning them with your business objectives, you can create an effective strategy that allocates your marketing budget to the right audiences, in order to increase reach, engagement, and conversions. Whether you choose to invest in one or combine both, maximising performance is reliant upon continuous analysis and optimisation of your campaigns.

If you would like support in crafting your paid strategies to reach their full potential, we can get you started with a free, 30-minute consultation with one of our PPC specialists. Get in contact today.