What’s the skinny on paid social media? Does it actually work? Does it enhance the features of both paid and social media formats, or is it a lacklustre half-fusion of the two?

*Adopts David Attenborough-style Planet Earth voiceover*

“The paid media ad. Often manifesting as a banner, skyscraper, or a short text; this once abundant species is now sadly endangered, thanks to the ongoing proliferation of ad blockers and a general reluctance by web users to pay them any attention whatsoever…

“…then we have the social media message. Once considered a panacea for modern marketers keen to create conversation and directly engage customers, their impact has become significantly stifled as a result of increasingly crowded content platforms….”

*Snaps out of it*

But wait… what if they joined forces? Y’know, united — like the Power Rangers??

That’d be swell, right? That’s exactly what they’ve gone and done. In fact, they’ve been doing it for some time. And it’s working out pretty darn well. For one, unlike your standard forms of online ad, paid social’s immune to ad blockers. Which helps a lot — particularly when your customer base is aged 18-24.

Cool. So, you’re thinking of dabbling in paid social, right? BUT, before you part with a single cent, the best thing to do is have a good look under the hood at what Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat have to offer. Despite their sunny exteriors, you’ll quickly discover that where generating advertising revenues are concerned, they mean business. All of them.

From promoted tweets to sponsored LinkedIn posts, as well as influencer-indulged Instagram endorsements (a la Kardashian) and Snapchat’s location-based geofilters (they’re all the rage you know), whether you want to boost general brand awareness or encourage a direct response — for customers to call you, like your company page, email you, or visit your website — it’s all possible.  

The problem is, at least to the casual dabbler, that we were sold the idea that social media was effectively a ‘free’ way of advertising our brands. So why do we need to put cash behind it to make it work properly?

Two things.

To really get the benefit of paid social, you need to look at it as part of a wider strategy of building an online community. Are people interested in what you have to say? That’s a given if you’re Trudeau, Tim Horton’s, or (gulp) Trump. All you need do is shout and someone’ll holla back if you’re high profile enough. But if you’re building a business, social media is good marketing — pure and simple. And good marketing means finding ways to reach your customers.

This is where paid social really comes into its own: targeting. Behind the nicely UX’d hipster-designed front end of any given social platform lies some serious data. User data. Not that you’ll get to see it, but paid social gives you access to it. And they’ll even walk you through the ad creation process.

Say you want to reach 25 year old Silicon Valley CFOs to tell them all about the savings your product could make to their bootstrapped business. Doable on all social platforms. But the way you go about it will differ. On LinkedIn, for example, you have the option of ads and sponsored posts. But its real value comes from being able to accurately profile your audience — by job, company, sector, and location.

Facebook offers scale — pure and simple — as well as the ability to serve both ads and posts to chosen demographics. Twitter operates in a similar way; there are seemingly stacks of different paid formats to choose from. Instagram’s opened its doors to all advertisers in recent times (seemingly since being acquired by Facebook) and its numbers keep growing. And Snapchat? Well, they’re so cool they’ve started making sunglasses. But advertising’s still their primary money spinner, so take a closer look.
At the end of the day, anyone can create a nicely crafted post, spend time getting the limited character count just right, and add all the lenses and visually engaging filters there are. But unless the right people see what you’re posting, you may as well be shouting into the void. Paid social helps you make sure it’s the right void; and increases your chances of a decent echo.