Organic vs. Paid Marketing: What Are the Differences?

Ankit Vora

Nov 28, 202316 min read
Organic vs. Paid Marketing

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Both organic marketing and paid marketing can improve online visibility. But they rely on different tactics to do so. 

Organic marketing uses non-paid marketing tactics to reach an online audience. On the other hand, paid marketing requires you to spend money to promote your brand or message.

Both of these tactics have their place in a digital marketing strategy. And they may be even more effective when used together. 

Let’s explore the differences between organic and paid marketing—and how using both can grow your visibility in the long and short term.

What Is Organic Marketing?

Organic marketing is the process of using non-paid marketing tactics to improve online visibility. 

These tactics involve publishing content across different channels and optimizing it so it naturally reaches your target audience. 

In most organic marketing channels, if you create valuable content users can discover on their own, you can reach them without paying for ads.

Here’s an example of an organic social media post on Semrush’s Instagram channel:

An organic Instagram post by Semrush

The type of content you create varies by channel.

Examples of organic marketing efforts include:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO): Blog posts, ebooks, and other content discoverable by search engines like Google
  • Video marketing: Videos published to platforms like YouTube are often discoverable via search both in search engines and on the platforms themselves
  • Social media: Unpaid social media posts across Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms

How the Right Keywords Can Boost Your Organic Visibility

One important aspect of an effective content strategy is researching keywords your target audience frequently searches for. Keywords are phrases or words users type into search engines to find information.

For example, a company that sells a graphic design tool is likely to target keywords like “benefits of graphic design tools” or “best graphic design tools.”

“benefits of graphic design tools”entered into Google search

Similarly, depending on your offering, you need to find keywords that your target audience frequently searches for.

Identifying appropriate, relevant keywords is an important first step that you shouldn’t overlook. If you don’t research keywords before creating a post, you risk wasting time, money, and resources on content nobody is searching for. 

So, how can you find good keywords for your business?

A great place to start is the Keyword Magic Tool

The Keyword Magic Tool allows you to quickly analyze an entire search market and learn about the keywords that make sense for your business. 

It shows you not only the Total Volume (combined average monthly search volume of all the keywords in the group you’re analyzing) but also stats like Average Keyword Difficulty (how difficult it is to rank for the keyword on search engine) and Keyword Intent (what the searcher’s intent is).

A keywords table in Keyword Magic Tool with "Intent," "Volume," and "KD%" columns highlighted

Learn more about how to use the Keyword Magic Tool in our Knowledge Base. 

What Is Paid Marketing? 

Paid marketing is the process of using paid advertising channels to target potential customers online. This involves running paid or sponsored advertisements across different channels to directly drive sales rather than just improve online visibility.

Unlike organic marketing, which aims to build brand awareness and increase website traffic, paid marketing is usually more focused on driving conversions related to a specific campaign. 

Though paid tactics cost money, they do have their advantages.

For instance, you don’t have to wait for your content to rank or be discovered by your target audience organically. 

Two popular paid marketing approaches are: 

  • Paid advertising
  • Sponsored advertising

Let’s take a closer look at both these approaches.

What Is Paid Advertising?

Paid advertising is a marketing approach that involves running paid ads on advertising channels like Google, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube to put your content in front of your specified audience.

Here’s an example of a paid ad on LinkedIn: 

A paid LinkedIn ad from Katmai

Once you set up and fund a paid advertising campaign, your ads can start appearing in front of your specified audience almost immediately. 

These ads typically appear with an “Ad,” “Sponsored” or “Promoted” label attached. This differentiates them from organic results.

Here’s an example of a YouTube ad with the “Ad” label:

A YouTube ad with the “Ad” label

There are different paid ad models. One popular model is pay-per-click (PPC)

PPC works exactly as it sounds. You pay each time a user clicks on one of your ads. PPC ads may be run on a variety of platforms, including:

  • Search engines 
  • Social media platforms
  • YouTube videos
  • Online marketplaces like Amazon

To achieve success with PPC ads placed on search engine results pages (SERPs), identifying the right keywords is essential. 

You can do this by using tools like Google Keyword Planner or the Keyword Magic Tool

You can also use our Keyword Overview tool to analyze specific keywords on a local level. 

For example, if you run a bakery in New York and want to analyze the keyword “bakery” in New York, you can quickly do that with the Keyword Overview tool.

To get started, launch the tool.

Enter your preferred keyword, select your location, and click “Search.”

"bakery" entered into Keyword Overview tool search bar

Next, you’ll see a variety of metrics related to the keyword. 

For PPC ads, it’s important to consider the cost per click (CPC) associated with each keyword. This is the amount you will pay every time someone clicks on your ad. 

For the keyword “bakery,” the average CPC in New York (City) stands at approximately $1.50 (as of the time of this writing). 

This means that every time someone clicks on your ad that targets the keyword “bakery” in New York, you will be charged an average of $1.50.

"CPC" metric shows "$1.50" in New York in Keyword Overview results for "bakery"

Using this tool, you can also check the intent behind a particular keyword. This is an indicator of why the typical searcher is interested in this query.

Keyword Intent is broken down into four general types: Informational, Navigational, Commercial, or Transactional. You can learn more about these types in our guide to search intent.

"Intent" widget shows "Commercial" in Keyword Overview results for "bakery"

You can also scroll down in the Keyword Overview tool to discover more keyword ideas for your PPC ads.

What Is Sponsored Advertising?

Sponsored advertising is a paid marketing approach that involves paying creators or other brands to put your brand and/or content in front of a pre-established audience.

Here’s an example of a sponsored YouTube advertisement:

A sponsored YouTube advertisement

Here, you pay a creator or another brand in your space to display or mention your content and/or brand in front of their pre-established audience. 

A big benefit of sponsored advertising over paid advertising is that, even if your advertising budget ceases, the effects of sponsored advertising can continue to linger. 

Sponsored content stays on the creator’s platform, unless there’s a disagreement or a term in the contract that requires its removal after a certain period.

And as long as this content gets traffic/views, it continues to offer value to your brand, even if your advertising budget ceases.

However, it’s also worth noting that running sponsored ads doesn’t guarantee clicks, unlike a paid advertising campaign. 

Organic vs. Paid Marketing: Four Key Differences

Sometimes, organic and paid marketing target the same channels. You can pay to place ads on search engines or social media platforms, just as you can create content that is organically visible on these channels. 

But organic and paid tactics are fundamentally different

Here are four key differences between organic and paid marketing:

1. Organic Marketing Relies on Non-Paid Strategies

Organic marketing involves creating and publishing content across different channels and optimizing it so that your target audience finds it organically

In other words, you don’t have to pay to put this content in front of them.

Paid marketing, on the other hand, involves funding paid campaigns or sponsorships to put ads in front of your target audience. 

These ads can promote just about anything. Whether it’s a blog post, landing page, or product page.

A table comparing organic and paid marketing with business examples

You may have to pay for writers, graphic designers, optimization tools, and other resources to produce the most competitive content. 

On the bright side, many of these are one-time costs. Some organic tactics can continue to drive traffic well into the future with minimal or modest investment, at least relative to paid marketing.

2. Paid Marketing Can Deliver Faster Results

It may take months or even years before your organic content consistently climbs the search engine rankings. The same applies to other organic marketing channels, like social media and music streaming platforms.

On the other hand, paid marketing delivers faster—sometimes nearly instantaneous—results. 

Once you launch a paid ad campaign, your ads can start appearing in front of your target audience almost immediately. Or in case of sponsored advertising, as the creator’s or brand’s video goes live, your brand can start getting visibility.

As it relates to organic content, search engines like Google prioritize relevant content from authoritative sources

Building this authority takes time and consistent effort.

Of course, even though paid marketing can deliver faster results, it’s not a “get rich quick” approach to marketing. There can be a lot of trial and error involved in paid marketing, and achieving your desired results will likely require considerable patience and persistence.

3. Organic Marketing Can Deliver Longer-Lasting Results

Although organic marketing generally takes time to deliver results, those results can be long-lasting. 

The visibility and traffic generated from organic efforts can continue for months or even years after the content is published. This is especially true if you’re taking the time to update and optimize older content.

Sure, some paid tactics, such as sponsored posts and videos, can continue to yield results after payment stops. But paid ad campaigns typically only deliver results as long as you continue to fund them.

The moment you stop funding your paid ad campaigns, the visibility and traffic they generate cease. 

Important: Even though organic marketing results can be long-lasting, they aren’t necessarily permanent. 

Search engine rankings fluctuate on a regular basis. Search algorithms also undergo periodic updates and changes, which may affect rank in subtle or dramatic ways.

So, it’s a good idea to monitor your organic rankings and continuously update your content to ensure it’s always relevant to your target audience.

How? 

Semrush’s Position Tracking Tool can help.

To get started, head to the tool, enter your domain, and click “Set up tracking.”

"canva.com" entered into Position Tracking Tool search bar

Select your preferred search engine and device, location, and language. Once done, click “Continue to Keywords.”

"Targeting" window in Position Tracking tool settings

Next, add keyword(s) you want to track as part of this campaign.

Select “Start tracking.”

"Keywords" window in Position Tracking tool settings

You now have access to valuable insights and reports. These can help you monitor and optimize your website's rankings and appearance in SERP features.

Position Tracking "Landscape" dashboard for "canva.com"

Want to see the bigger picture? 

Check the “Overview” section to see how you're doing in rankings. You can also keep an eye on which keywords have SERP features. 

"Rankings Overview" section in Position Tracking tool

4. Organic Marketing Benefits From the ‘Trust Factor’

Another key difference between organic and paid marketing is the “trust factor.” 

When users cross paths with your content organically, they may be more likely to trust in its legitimacy and authority. If a search engine like Google considers your content valuable and relevant, chances are its users will, too.

On the other hand, when your content appears as a paid ad or sponsored post, some users might be more skeptical of its helpfulness. 

These users often know the content is being promoted to sell them a service or product. Therefore, they might not be inclined to view it as unbiased or particularly valuable to their search. 

To underline the difference between organic and paid content, platforms often label paid marketing results as “Sponsored” or “Ad.” 

For example: Google PPC ads are labeled as “Sponsored.”

Google PPC ads for "digital marketing agency" query with “Sponsored" labels highlighted

On the other hand, organic search results don’t carry such a label. 

Now that we’ve covered the main differences between organic and paid marketing, let’s navigate the different marketing channels each taps into.

Organic Marketing Channels

1. Search Engines

Millions of people use search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo to consume information every day.

This makes it extremely important to leverage search engines to put your brand in front of your target audience.

One way to do this organically is by publishing SEO-friendly content on your website. With relevant, helpful content that’s well-optimized for search engines, you can increase the chances of your posts organically appearing in search results for your target keywords. 

Google organic search results for "what is project management" query

Search engines also fetch information from other platforms like YouTube, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. YouTube is especially important to watch out for, as it’s owned by Google. 

Here’s an example of a YouTube video appearing in Google’s video results:

A YouTube video in Google’s video results for "what is project management" query

Bottom line: By creating the most helpful and relevant content possible, you can increase its chances of appearing in front of your target audience when they search for relevant keywords.

2. Social Media Platforms

According to a 2023 trends study by DataReportal, nearly 29.8% of social media users use social media to discover content, 28.4% use it to see what’s being talked about, and 26% use it to find products to purchase

These numbers make social media platforms great for both businesses and individuals looking to establish a presence, share information, and connect with a wider audience.

Some of the most popular social media channels are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.

But which platform is the right fit for your business?

Instead of simply looking at the size of each platform’s user base, identify the places where your target audience hangs out the most. 

For example, if you sell cloud-based software as a service (SaaS), business/professional-focused platforms like LinkedIn and X (formerly Twitter) might be more relevant for you than TikTok or Snapchat. 

On the other hand, if you run a fashion brand targeting younger audiences, Instagram and TikTok could be your go-to platforms.

Depending on the platform you choose, the kind of content you create will vary. For example:

  • Facebook: Best for text-based posts, sharing information about your company, and promoting events or products. You can also use it to share images and videos with your audience. 
  • Instagram: Best for visual content and sharing images of company events, infographics, promotional content, and short videos through Instagram Stories and Reels.
  • LinkedIn: Best for sharing industry news, updates about your business, and thought leadership articles with your professional network. 

To improve your visibility on these platforms, put in consistent efforts and publish high-quality content on a regular basis. And don’t neglect the power of engaging with your audience in the comments. 

Building an organic social audience is not easy. You’ll never know how you’re progressing if you don’t make a habit of tracking your social media performance. 

Doing so across multiple platforms can be challenging, but you can leverage tools to help.

Semrush’s Social Analytics tool, for example, makes it easier to track your performance across different social media channels under one roof.

To get started, launch the tool. 

You’ll first be prompted to connect your social media profiles.

A demo project in Social Analytics tool

Next, you can analyze metrics like new followers, post reach, post engagements, and engagement rate for every platform from a single dashboard.

"Overview" report in Social Analytics tool

You can also dive deeper into individual platform metrics to better understand your performance on them.

3. Audio Streaming Platforms

People love listening to podcasts on music streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcasts. That makes these platforms an enticing option for organic marketing. 

Hosting your own branded podcast can be a great way to increase brand awareness and establish authority.

For instance, if you sell fitness gear, you might consider starting a podcast that covers topics like the benefits of regular exercise and how to choose the right fitness equipment. Such topics may attract listeners who seek podcasts for fitness advice and insights. 

Keywords are important here, too, as platforms like Spotify function as search engines in their own right. Here’s a recent screenshot of Spotify’s search result for the keyword “how to lose weight”:

Spotify’s search result for the keyword “how to lose weight”

If your podcast episodes are genuinely insightful and deliver value, listeners will likely share them with their network. They may even head over to your website to make a purchase or explore your business.

But standing up your own podcast can be costly and time-consuming. You may struggle to find an engaging host who can commit the time and energy to making it successful—assuming you can’t do it yourself.

A better option might be to appear as a guest on others’ podcasts. If you can find podcasts that already reach your target audience and convince them to have you on as an expert guest, you may attract considerable engagement—all without paying a cent of advertising money. 

4. Email 

Sending insightful emails to subscribers is a great way to keep them engaged and build brand awareness. A big benefit of building an email list is that you own it. 

Unlike social media platforms or search engines, where algorithms can change and affect your visibility, an email list is something you have full control over.

Not sure what a helpful newsletter looks like? 

Here’s an example of a newsletter that aims to deliver real value to users in the form of practical, relatable job advice:

A newsletter titled: "cf #68: behind the scenes of a VP of Content selection process"

By sending regular newsletters, you can:

  1. Keep your audience informed about the latest news, product launches, and updates
  2. Share valuable content like blog posts, videos, or podcast episodes
  3. Offer exclusive promotions or deals
  4. Share personal stories, insights or behind-the-scenes looks to build a deeper relationship with your audience
  5. Drive traffic to specific landing pages or your website

Aside from the ones mentioned above, you can also tap into other organic marketing channels. These include guest articles on other websites, forums, community groups, and more. 

These platforms can help you share your expertise, answer questions, and engage with a wider audience. 

By engaging and providing value on these platforms, you can drive organic traffic to your website and establish your business as an authoritative source in your industry. 

Next, let’s look at the list of paid marketing channels you should focus on.

1. Search Engines

Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo not only allow paid advertisements, but generate a significant portion of their revenue from such ads. YouTube and other video platforms also allow for other types of video- or image-based ads.

On Google, you can run different types of ad campaigns that may appear across different Google services like Search, Maps, and Shopping.

For example, if you run a local business, you can run an advertising campaign that lets you reach your target audience on Google Maps when they search for local keywords like “best restaurants near me”:

Google local pack results for “best restaurants in new york" query

2. Social Media Platforms

Just like on search engines, you can run paid social media ads on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn.

On Facebook, you can run ad campaigns that appear in your target audience’s Facebook Feed, Stories, Marketplace, and even Messenger. 

These ads can be image-based, video-based, presented in a carousel, or shown in other formats depending on the placement.

Here’s an example of a Facebook Feed ad:

A Facebook Feed ad from "Six Stories"

On Instagram, you can run paid ads that appear in your target audience’s Instagram Feed, Reels, Stories, and Explore section. Depending on the placement, the ad format varies. 

Here’s an example of an Instagram Stories ad:

An Instagram Stories ad from "lavani.jewels"

Similarly, you can run paid ads on other social media platforms to put your brand in front of your target audience almost instantly.

3. Audio Streaming Platforms

Because millions of people listen to podcasts on music streaming platforms regularly, these platforms have become a lucrative space for advertisers. 

On Spotify, you can run audio ads that play between songs or throughout podcast episodes. These ads can be accompanied by a clickable banner that redirects listeners to your website or to a specific landing page. 

While Apple Podcasts doesn’t really allow you to run ads, you can sponsor specific podcast episodes. 

This is becoming a popular approach for reaching audiences across nearly all podcast networks—especially since many paying subscribers are exempt from hearing ads.

One big advantage of sponsoring a podcast? You’re more likely to get your brand in front of that podcast’s audience. It’s harder for a listener to avoid your brand’s name if the podcast host mentions your products or services in a way that seamlessly ties into the rest of the show.

This type of advertising can also feel less intrusive to the listener, which can help build long-term trust and positive sentiment around your brand.

Organic vs. Paid Marketing: Which Is Better?

Neither organic marketing nor paid marketing is better than the other in all cases. 

If you’re looking for a “growth hack” that can deliver you immediate results, paid marketing may be the better approach. Just keep in mind that getting a positive return on your investment (ROI) requires a lot of skill and nuance. And paid efforts in some industries work better than in others.

Organic marketing is a longer-term process.

If you want to build a long-lasting relationship with your audience and achieve sustainable growth (even if you stop investing money), organic marketing is the ideal choice. 

You can—and probably should—invest in both organic and paid marketing to get the best of both worlds. In many cases, the brand awareness and results you see from one effort can improve the efficacy of the other. And vice versa.

For both paid and organic marketing efforts, take advantage of Semrush’s comprehensive suite of digital marketing tools to get real traction fast:

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Ankit is a freelance B2B SaaS writer (WordPress, HubSpot, Buffer, Zapier & more) with over seven years of SEO and content marketing experience. He’s a gamer during the day and a writer at night (because opposite time zones are a thing.)
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