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Content marketing vs paid ads: Are paid ads worth it?

It’s no secret that the goal for every marketing department and CMO is to gain more leads and drive sales with high ROI marketing efforts. These efforts are endless with countless trends coming and going over the last decade. There are two strategies however that have stood the test of time. Those strategies being paid advertising and content marketing. Let’s start with what each is so we understand their differences.

Paid advertising: Paying for views and clicks of your content online or television platforms to get people to buy your product.

Content marketing: The creation of content made specifically for your audience to find on search engines or as links from other sites or social media posts.

Both of these strategies have their pros and cons and both can be extremely rewarding if done right and both can be disastrous if done poorly. Let’s start by diving into how paid advertising works, the pros, and the cons.

Paid advertising

Paid advertising on social media is the most popular currently. A great way to get your product/service in front of people that may not know anything about you. On Google, that would mean targeting a keyword or phrase and having your site/landing page show up in the results above other sites that appear organically. On platforms like Instagram and Facebook, paid ads might mean getting your product in front of a highly targeted audience. For whatever your product is, you can select the audience that would most likely be in the market for your product by targeting interests, places they work, job titles or location demographics. You can even target by if they have kids, where they’ve visited recently (if they tag a location) and what pages they visit. Creepy, right? 

Another thing you can do with paid ads is a thing called “remarketing”. Basically, you can target people with ads that have visited certain pages on your website. For instance, if someone’s recently visited your cart or checkout page, you can deliver an ad specifically to them that says, “Come back! :,( ”. Pretty effective stuff right there, but again… a little creepy.

Once you have your audience targeted, you can then deliver multiple ads to those specific people and learn what kind of content they prefer, adjusting and optimizing over time to increase your conversion rate, you’ll be able to hone your message and visuals to create the kind of content that delivers an ROI and drive sales.

The pros of paid advertising

Let’s now take a look at some of the pros of using paid advertising:

  • In some cases, you can make sales quickly. Especially for promotions and holidays.
  • The ability to get quick results with A/B testing and see what content your audience is responding best to. 
  • Get your product in front of your target audience much easier than trying traditional SEO techniques. The traits, interests, job titles you can target in your audience are borderline creepy but extremely helpful for people like us. Love or hate that idea, it helps us understand our audience and communicate to a narrow subsection rather than broadcast to anyone on television.

The cons of paid advertising

Paid ads are a great short term marketing strategy, but it’s by no means a magic bullet for a company to suddenly scale from $0 – $1 million overnight. Let’s take a look at the cons of paid advertising:

  • The part of paying for ads that I strongly dislike is that when people find positive results, they often rely solely on paid ads. Sometimes paying $50k/month to make $60k/month with a profit of only $10k. For some businesses, that have high-cost products or a high rate of return customers, that high cost may be justifiable, but with a high-risk level like that, I personally don’t like the low level or returns. 
  • When you rely on paid ads, you’re only an algorithm change or a new competitor away from your strategy breaking into tiny pieces. And when your ads don’t work, you’re out of business.
  • We’re seeing over the last few years is the emergence of ad blockers completely eliminating the opportunity of getting in front of some audiences.
  • Every day, it’s estimated that we’re advertised to over 5,000 times per day and we’ve grown almost immune to many ads out there completely ignoring their presence.
  • The people that aren’t ignoring your ad, probably don’t trust it very much. As a matter of fact, 84% of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising like paid ads. That number will likely grow in the coming years.

So, do paid ads even work?

Whoa, that’s a pretty large list of cons, I know what you’re thinking, “do paid ads actually work?”. Well, even though there are many cons, paid advertising STILL works. Some words of caution though.

  • It’s not usually that simple to just create an ad and press go, and even once you have a good plan, it sometimes takes much time and money to dial in. 
  • There needs to be a hyper-focus in audience targeting and the content delivered needs to stand out from other ads you’re competing with if you want to see great results.

Now, let’s take a look at an alternative strategy to paid advertising that’s becoming more and more popular every day.

Content marketing

The strategic use of content marketing is quite different than paid advertising. Creating valuable or entertaining content directly for your audience in exchange for awareness and trust. While that idea sounds extremely simple, it can become rather complex when you look at all the possibilities available to do something like that. Things like written blogs (like this one), videos, podcasts, webinars, events, etc.. can all be considered types of content marketing. The idea is that you create and publish this kind of content and strangers become part of your audience, then over time, your audience (hopefully) becomes your customer. 

One secret to content marketing is that every decision you make is FOR your audience and you shouldn’t ask for anything from them right away. Think about if your neighbor came over, said “hi there, can I borrow your mower,” in the same sentence like that. You might do it, but it’s going to make you feel weird and you’re not going to want to. The idea with content marketing is like your neighbor bringing tomatoes over from their garden over, a pie, some advice on what works for your lawn, THEN asking to borrow your mower. In that case, you won’t even think twice.

Content marketing works because of reciprocity. When you give, others feel the want to give back. Maybe they can’t or don’t want to buy, but at least they’ll empathetically hear you out.

The pros of content marketing

Like paid ads, while it’s no magic bullet, there are many pros to using content marketing. Let’s take a look at a few:

  • Content marketing is a great strategy for not creating more “noise” in the world. With all the junk thrown at us all day, it’s refreshing for people to receive something more.
  • It’s a way to provide people with meaningful content that can create a number of emotions. “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel” – Carl W. Buehner.
  • It’s probably the only kind of honest selling in the world today. Unlike forceful car salesmen yelling on your TV screen, content marketing shows a great deal of effort to understand and recommend.
  • Content marketing helps companies show up on the first pages of google without having to temporarily buy a position on a page. 
  • it’s shared by people much more organically than paid ads are.

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel 

– Carl W. Buehner

Seth Godin famously said in 2008 that “content marketing is all the marketing that’s left”. It’s believed by many industry experts that because of the many cons of paid advertising, content marketing is the future of marketing.

The cons of content marketing

While the idea of content marketing seems great and fruitful, there are a few cons that should be known:

  • The first being that like paid ads, content marketing can be expensive (up front)
  • For it to work well in creating a high ROI, it needs to be high-quality content and delivered consistently. This means that content marketing can get pretty expensive in both money and time for it to be effective. 
  • Unlike paid ads, content marketing takes time to start really working for brands. Some research shows it takes at least 6 – 12 months to start seeing clear results from consistent content marketing (source: Fractl). Some say the sweet spot is at about 36 months. However, in this con, there is a pro: After 36 months, if you post weekly, you’ll have over 140 pieces of content that will compound to work for you at an extremely high rate… Without any spend on promotion.

So, does content marketing actually work?

Absolutely! Some words of caution though:

  • A single high-quality piece of content isn’t enough to reap the rewards of content marketing. There must be consistent efforts — at a high quality.
  • Content marketing is a marathon. It takes a bit of time and patience to really see the results, but once it kicks in, you’ll see a clear ROI.

Now, let’s compare the two strategies before crowning our winner.

Paid ads vs Content Marketing

Audience targeting: Advantage, paid ads

Speed of ROI: Advantage, paid ads

Cost-effectiveness: Advantage, content marketing

Trust building: Advantage, content marketing

Quickness of feedback: Advantage, paid ads

SEO: Advantage, content marketing

Risk factor: Advantage, content marketing

Emotional impact: Advantage, content marketing

Longevity: Advantage, content marketing

And with all that being said,

Our winner is…

Content marketing! 🎉 Like any kind of marketing, content marketing is difficult but requires less “luck” than paid ads need to work. And its impact on people can be felt in a positive way on day one. the advantages simply outnumber paid a… but wait, whos that in second!? 

Coming in at second place, paid ads! Paid advertising can also play a very important role in marketing strategies. This is somewhat an apples and oranges debate since these strategies can actually work together. It’s a great way to boost what’s working with your content marketing. It’s also a great way to learn what kind of content to create more for your company. 

Want to know more about content marketing? Check out this link to learn more about what goes into content marketing.

Written by: Matt Vojacek, Founder and Creative Director of Made By Things

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