While the origins of social media technically trace back as far as 40 years ago, the channel as we know it today is really more of a teenager.

And like most teenagers, social’s been through a few phases–especially as a business tool.

The early days were all about interruption. To cut through the “clutter” of friends and family actually connecting with one another, brands shouted their messages using intrusive ads that brought little to no value to viewers.

Luckily social for business eventually entered into a new, more progressive phase: one of conversation. Instead of shouting at people, (most) brands are now talking with them–providing value through content and communication.

Some of the most savvy brands now seek even deeper insights simply by listening on social, in hopes of connecting on an unprecedented level.

It’s this maturation of strategy and behavior that has ushered in yet another era of social for business: the era of connection. At Sprout, we believe the strength of social is its ability to foster deep, meaningful relationships between people and the communities, organizations and brands that matter to them.

And while there are many strategies for building real connection through social, there’s one in particular that may surprise you, and that’s paid social. That’s right: social ads.

Past approaches to paid include the typical spray and pray method, where a brand pays to put its content in front of anyone who might possibly care with the lone goal of awareness. But now that smart brands are prioritizing relationships, paid has become a catalyst for connection–not just clicks.

Who doesn’t love a good metaphor?

Imagine you’re hosting a fundraising event.

You want to make sure as many people show up as possible, so you start by telling your friends–calling, texting, telling them in person.

But to really pack the place and raise a substantial amount of money, you’ll need to get the word out to new people too. So what do you do when you don’t have their phone numbers?

You hang up flyers.

And those flyers go up in the places the people you want at your event are most likely to see them.

If your flyers spark interest, they’ll show up. And if your event is a good time, everyone who came will want to come to the next one (and maybe even bring their friends).

Think of the fundraiser as your brand’s social presence. Your friends are the people who already love your brand and connect with you on social so those calls and texts are your organic content, and the flyers to reach a new audience are your paid ads.

If you only invited your friends (organic), your event would still be fun, but it wouldn’t raise as much money as you’d like.

And if you only invited new friends (paid), they’d show up to an empty event and leave. What’s worse is that they most likely won’t come if you invite them to another event, and may even go as far as to share their negative experience with others.

And while one of these scenarios is more problematic for your brand than the other, they both keep you from growing your event to its full potential.

This is why brands need both organic and paid strategies. When used together they maximize your opportunities to create real connection.

Three camps

I think it’s important to address that not everyone shares the same sentiment. It’s been my experience over the years that people typically fall into one of three camps when it comes to paid and organic social strategy.

The first camp consists of those who rely solely on paid promotion, putting little to no effort or resources toward organic content. These folks really believe they’re ahead of the curve, having recognized that the platforms themselves have been steadily de-prioritizing organic for years.

To this camp I say: You’re doing yourselves a disservice. Organic content is where you build your brand and strengthen relationships; without it, you’re inviting people to a party that no one’s at–not even you. Sure people might come, but you’ve given them no reason to stay.

Another potential issue here is that measurement in this camp is most often short-sighted. Brands are looking at clicks as a sign of engagement, but all they’re really doing is counting RSVPs to the party. To truly connect, they have to see who shows up and start a conversation.

The second camp are the so-called “purists” who see social as a channel for connection, but think the only way to achieve it authentically is to provide value through organic content. Instead of seeing paid as another vehicle for that connection, they see it as more of a sales mechanism–which feels counter-intuitive to their goal.

What this camp doesn’t understand is that the extended network available to brands via paid is really just their future/potential organic audience. And it might help them to think of paid more as a strategy to connect with new people vs. a sales tactic. The goal isn’t just to bring them in–it’s to bring them in and then make them part of your inner circle.

This camp also includes those who claim they don’t have the budget for paid. But a small budget doesn’t mean paid won’t work for you. Even if you’re only able to reach a few more people, any amount of more is better. You have to start somewhere.

Then there’s the third camp: those who–like me–see paid promotion as a catalyst for connection, and should function as an extension of your organic content. At its most basic function, paid promotion is simply amplification of your message. The more people who see that message, the more opportunities you have to create real connection.

In practice

While it might be easier to get on the same page about if the two should work together, the how can be slightly more complicated.

One early consideration would be the structure of your internal teams. At Sprout, paid promotion and organic social currently sit on two different teams within the Marketing department, but work closely together to maintain visibility and alignment. But we’ve definitely had conversations in the past about what it might look like to iterate and improve on that relationship. I’m not advocating for one structure over the other, but I do think the two tactics need to be part of one comprehensive strategy. So think what might be the easiest way to facilitate that in your organization.

Something else to consider is each strategy’s unique goals–where they differ, where they overlap, etc. Organic content is typically more value-based. It aims to educate, optimize blog content, drive brand authority or build your brand. Paid is used to drive more specific action, like attending a webinar, downloading a resource, watching a video or placing an order. But each effort can work to strengthen the other. If a piece of content has seen a high amount of organic engagement, then it might make sense to promote it, knowing it’s already proved value with your current audience. On the flip side, if you’re sponsoring a post that’s driving people to download a guide, you can build organic content to support the reader experience.

Then there’s measurement. What specific metrics are you holding each accountable to? Are you just looking for post-level engagement on your organic content? What about your paid posts? Do you want website click-throughs, email opt-ins, or new page “Likes?” Take the time to set these as part of your strategy. You want to make sure you have a mix of different metrics but you also need to identify any areas of overlap so you can make your content work harder for you.

Comments = connection

While paid ads can be a driver of connection on social, they can also be the destination. When Sprout released ad comment moderation within our Smart Inbox, we recognized how important it was for businesses to connect not just through the content of the ads, but in the context of them as well. And without that engagement, your audience may get turned off by a bunch of unanswered and unaddressed questions and comments.

When a new person sees your ad and comments on it, you should engage with them as soon as possible. To see that conversation happening on the ad itself shows everyone that the ad isn’t just a shallow sales tactic.

We were also intentional about bringing these ad comments into your Smart Inbox alongside all the comments from your organic posts. There’s no need for the two to exist in a silo since they’re both means to the same end–real connection.

Monitoring these comments is another opportunity to make sure the structure of your team is set up for connection. If your paid team created and launched the ad, who is monitoring the engagement on it? The worst case scenario would be that no one is, which we hope to put to an end with this feature. A slightly better scenario would be that your paid team monitors and manages the activity on their ads, but separately from your organic team. Connection is still possible in this case, but may feel disjointed from your typical community interactions.

The best case scenario would have your organic social team monitoring all comments. But if that’s not possible in your current structure, at the very least you need those two teams working together to form the deepest, most authentic relationships with your audience.

You’re invited

While Sprout has historically concentrated on social’s former conversation phase–providing businesses with the right tools for communication–it’s now the dawn of a new era. We see a clear future where social reigns supreme as the channel for connection, and in that future paid has a new role. It’s time you start making some flyers.