I think it's funny how quickly our expectations as marketers regarding content distribution has changed in just a few short years.
When I was in school getting a degree in advertising, the idea of sharing a brand's content without paying for placement never even came up. I never once had a project that weighed the pros and cons of earned and paid media. Earned media was PR's job. The advertising folks made the cool creative and used the advertising budget accordingly.
Then social media came along and screwed all that up.
My first few years out of school, the brands I worked with shared their content for free. Sure, they were paying me and some creative folks to actually create and plan a strategy of how to maximize that free reach. But it was still free. I remember about four years ago talking to one fairly large and recognizable brand about trying out some advertising buys on Facebook. That idea got shot down hard. No real discussion. You just didn't buy ads on Facebook because the best brands "went viral for free."
Free content distribution. It was social media's biggest selling point. As more and more marketers bought in, there was more content to sift through. So social media channels like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter started making us buy ads to get noticed.
It felt like a huge bait and switch. But was it?
When I was in school, advertisers would buy space in places that they felt would reach an engaged audience. Just like TV now, you see Bud Light commercials during football games, video game ads on late night Comedy Central, and toy commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. And those buys are made via what I would consider vague demographic information.
Now, thanks to the so-detailed-it-is-honestly-a-bit-creepy amount of demographic data networks like Facebook have, marketers now have the opportunity to serve messages to the right people. In theory, marketers should actually be getting more bang for their buck than they have in the past.
What I appreciate about Facebook ads is that they actually make you pay more for crappy content. If whatever link/photo/video you made isn't getting newsfeed engagement, it actually costs you more to keep it relevant. While that sometimes stinks for many marketers, it's a good thing for users.
Organic Is Still Important
That said, there's still a place for organic. Your organic, day-to-day content should help support your paid media strategy. The rise of paid advertising on social media shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water. Measuring engagement on your organic content helps you make more strategic paid decisions when you get the budget to spend. Just like how being on social media doesn't guarantee success, throwing money at content without thinking it through doesn't guarantee success either.
"But I work for a small brand and we don't have an advertising budget."
Trust me, I understand. My day job is working with a lot of nonprofits where ad budgets are often at a minimum (if they exist at all). Paid ads on social force you to prioritize how you spend your content creating resources online. If you aren't willing to spend money on a channel, should you be willing to use it at all? Or are your resources better spent reaching people elsewhere? Sometimes the most effective choice is the least exciting one.
The pay-to-play world we live in on social media is unfortunate. And it's hard. But it shouldn't drive us to complain that "it's not fair." Life normally isn't fair.
This new dynamic should force us to be better at what we do: reaching people with a message in the most effective way possible with the resources at our disposal.
Paid social media isn't the enemy. It's just the new reality.