What is the difference between organic and paid marketing?

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With consumers active on a seemingly endless amount of platforms, marketers must decide where, when, and how to effectively reach them with messaging about their products and services. When nailing down the right strategy, they can choose to organically reach audiences or dip into their budgets to drive paid traffic.

While several digital marketing strategies exist, the core of each one falls under one of two categories: organic or paid. Understanding both approaches helps marketers know when to utilize one over the other, and how to leverage both in a successful integrated marketing campaign.

Marketers planning a digital marketing campaign.

Defining organic marketing

Commonly referred to as inbound marketing, the organic approach is essentially the modern marketer’s way to utilize word-of-mouth messaging. The idea is to take advantage of social media and online search engines to share relevant content targeted to a specific audience. This then begs the question: What is organic traffic? When the efforts to gain visits via these methods are successful, those audience members become organic traffic.

The goals: Organic marketing focuses on educating audiences, optimizing content for better search results, establishing companies as thought leaders in the space, and building long-term relationships with consumers. To measure the success of inbound tactics, marketing teams track search result page rankings, organic traffic numbers, and content-driven leads.

The tactics: This form of marketing is all about content, including blog posts, landing pages, white papers, case studies, and infographics. Marketers create and publish SEO-optimized content, and then promote the links via social media posts and email newsletters.

The benefits: The top advantage of the organic approach is that brands can share information at essentially no cost. Plus, it often feels more authentic to audiences because rather than being a sales pitch, the content is educational, relevant, and helpful for viewers. This is the reason why 51 percent of today’s website traffic comes from organic search and over 40 percent of revenue is the result of organic traffic, according to a recent report from BrightEdge.

The drawbacks: It takes considerable effort to create high-performing content and build consumer trust, which means it takes more time to see results, especially when compared to paid marketing efforts.

Defining paid marketing

When marketers pay for online traffic, they begin to enter paid marketing territory. Traditionally, paid marketing would take the form of a billboard, poster or print advertisement. Today, marketers also boost their digital marketing efforts with a paid approach. As such, the paid traffic definition stems from these efforts, and refers to consumers who reached the brand through paid marketing.

The goals: When marketers choose this approach, they’re essentially paying for results. The focus is on achieving a solid return on investment at a faster rate than organic marketing, which includes converting viewers to customers and meeting sales goals in the designated time frame. Marketers track conversion and engagement rates for each advertisement to measure the success of paid marketing campaigns.

The tactics: In the digital world, this approach involves distributing ads and sponsored posts on social media and search platforms. Pay-per-click campaigns are common paid marketing tactics, in which marketers pay the publisher every time an ad is clicked. When consumers end up on the brand’s website via an ad, their views are counted as paid traffic.

The benefits: Paid marketing allows brands to reach audiences more directly than organic marketing. Rather than waiting for viewers to come across a blog post, marketers can place ads exactly where their audience is already looking.

The drawbacks: Consumers may be quick to ignore paid marketing efforts because they feel as if the content is forced on them.

Combining organic and paid approaches

These two approaches to digital marketing actually complement each other very well, and often perform better when they work together rather than separately. For instance, a brand may post and promote blogs on a regular basis while simultaneously launching a paid social media campaign to drive even more traffic. Additionally, marketers may decide to boost social posts with links to their content.

With that said, many marketing experts argue that every brand should embrace organic marketing at a minimum. According to Jessica Thiefels, Salesforce contributor, freelance writer and content marketing consultant, companies who don’t take advantage of organic marketing lose out on creating influential emotional connections with their consumers and limit the amount of ways their audiences can connect with their brand.

In general, marketers should build out marketing strategies with the approach that’s best suited to meet the goals at hand. Oftentimes organic and paid marketing can work in tandem to drive the desired results.

Learning about digital marketing at the Collat School of Business

The University of Alabama at Birmingham offers a 100-percent online Bachelor of Science in Marketing degree program, which introduces students to the concepts and skills necessary to succeed in the industry. The curriculum considers what to learn in digital marketing for a comprehensive understanding of relevant concepts and strategies, including organic and paid tactics.

The courses that cover marketing strategy and approaches include:

MK 303: Basic marketing

This course covers how to plan, distribute, promote, and price products and services for both domestic and global brands.

MK 410: Integrated marketing communication

Students learn how to strategically use communication tools for marketing campaigns, sales promotion, interactive media, and more.

MK 401: Social media in marketing

This course covers some of the most relevant platforms for distributing both organic and paid marketing efforts. Students will discuss the nuances of marketing through social media, and how that plays into integrated marketing communication programs.

Graduates from the program are equipped with the skills and knowledge to then pursue positions such as advertising sales manager, marketing manager, content marketer, and promotions manager.

To learn more about how an online Bachelor of Science in Marketing degree can benefit your future, reach out to an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended Readings:

Is the bachelor’s of management or bachelor’s of marketing best for you?

Why UAB? The benefits for online students


Online Bachelor of Science in Marketing by the University of Alabama Birmingham

Organic Advertising vs. Paid Advertising by Chron Small Business

The Difference Between Paid and Organic Marketing by Salesforce

Channel Performance Report by BrightEdge