Getting started with paid social media feels like a big leap for most businesses.

That’s because we’ve become so used to social being totally free.

The reality, though? A staggering three-fourths of all marketers run paid social campaigns. Even for small and solo businesses, social ads have largely become a matter of “when” and not “if.”

From raising brand awareness to driving traffic and leads, a well-crafted campaign can produce immediate results for your business.

Consider this your guide to paid social 101 to cut through the noise and break down exactly how.

Why paid social media is “worth it”

Just like email or SEO, social media represents a marketing channel. As is the case with most channels, “free” will only take you so far.

It’s important for businesses to understand that paid and organic social media isn’t a matter of either-or. In fact, paid campaigns can support your organic social media efforts in the long-run.

How so? Whether you’re skeptical yourself or you need buy-in from your coworkers, consider the following benefits of investing in paid social media.

Paid social gives your business guaranteed reach

This is the big one.

Today’s social media algorithms are tricky. If you ever feel like some of your posts blow up while others get buried, you’re definitely not alone. No matter how much you optimize your posts, reach isn’t guaranteed.

On the flip side, paid social media ensures that your campaigns get seen. You’re essentially paying for your audience’s undivided attention.

Consider that 28% of consumers discover new products directly through social media, with that number skewing higher for millennials and Gen Z. If nothing else, ads are a surefire way to introduce your brand to new customers and grab the attention of former ones without being restricted by an algorithm.

Paid social allows you to target your most relevant customers

Piggybacking on the last point, social ads today have seriously smart targeting.

For example, you can set up campaigns to only serve followers of a specific income level or people living in a particular area. You can likewise create campaigns that only target followers, previous customers or people who’ve bounced from your website.

Since you get to set the parameters of your ad targeting, you also benefit from making sure your ads are served to folks that are most likely to click on them. In short, you’re in control (see an example from Facebook’s ad targeting options below).

facebook ad targeting options

The widespread use of paid social has also pushed networks to make the process of targeting less complicated. For example, Facebook’s automated ads are designed to do the heavy lifting for businesses in terms of who to target and when to run.

Paid social teaches you a ton about your target audience

Most native social analytics leave a lot to be desired.

However, the insights from paid social go seriously in-depth. Ad campaigns can provide you firsthand insights on the social media metrics that matter most for your business. You can also learn:

  • Which types of promotions result in the most engagement
  • What your social media audience looks like demographic-wise (see the example below from Facebook)
  • How your social ads perform versus your organic social
Facebook dashboard for paid ads

The takeaway? Testing the waters with paid social also means stepping up your social media reporting, and can teach you more about your target audience. Even if you run a few one-off campaigns and don’t invest in paid social regularly, you can use these insights to inform your organic social strategy moving forward.

When is the right time to start with paid social media?

Fair question! Although there is no correct answer here, there are a few points to consider before diving into a paid campaign.

Before you start: Make sure you have an established following and understanding of the network you’re looking to run ads on.

This might be obvious, but it can raise suspicion when a brand runs ads but has a totally silent organic page. Having an established presence signals that you’re a legitimate business. Plus, the opportunity to serve ads to existing followers is a nice added bonus since people that already know you are more likely to engage.

After you’ve laid the groundwork for your organic presence, allocate an appropriate budget to your campaigns to ensure the best results.

We get it: creating a budget for social media can be a challenge. How much your ads end up costing depends on a ton of variables, including your industry, CPC (cost-per-click), necessary creatives, and how long you’re looking to run a campaign.

As a business, you should be ready to commit to your paid campaign with the right amount of cash to spend. If you’re running “value” campaigns that don’t actually reach your target audience, you aren’t going to see much of an ROI. You need to be able to commit to your goals and take full advantage of the targeting and visibility paid social provides.

You should also tie your social ad campaigns to bigger-picture business initiatives. Whether that’s a product launch, time-sensitive promotion or holiday special depends on your business. The takeaway is that you should never run ads “just because.”

If you can stick to these principles, you’ll overcome many of the most common challenges related to paid social media.

Paid social 101: 5 keys to running a successful first campaign

Let’s say you’re itching to get started with ads. Great! Below is a basic breakdown of the five must-dos when running a first-time paid campaign.

1. Pick the social platform(s) you’re going to prioritize

According to the Sprout Social Index™, Edition XV: Empower & Elevate, the potential reach of a platform is the most important factor in determining whether to invest in it. The same rings true for ads.

Sprout data: how marketers prioritize which platform to invest in

As noted earlier, you should invest in social platforms that you’re familiar with and have an established audience on. We recommend sticking with a single platform initially, ideally where you’re scoring the most direct customer interactions.

The takeaway here is not to cross-publish your ad campaigns or try to do too much at once. Different networks involve different goals, not to mention creatives and ad specs. The exception to this is Facebook and Instagram (which share the same ad platform), but even then you’ll likely want to feel things out before trying to juggle two paid campaigns.

2. Establish goals and desired outcomes for your paid campaigns

Simply put, you need to figure out what you want to get out of your social ads prior to running them.

Looking to build brand awareness? Drive sign-ups and sales? The choice is yours.

Modern ad platforms make it a cinch to pick a particular goal and build a campaign around it (see Instagram’s goal options below).

instagram ad objectives

Your goal will ultimately inspire your campaign and its creatives. Goal-setting also ensures that you’re tracking the right metrics and KPIs associated with your campaigns.

3. Look for inspiration from successful campaigns

Chances are you’ve seen some stellar social ads. You’ve probably seen some stinkers, too.

Researching competing ads is a crucial piece of paid social 101. Specifically, make a point to research ads from smaller competitors and not just big box brands and corporations. Comparing ads that a local business or cafe runs versus, say, Sephora or Starbucks, is apples and oranges.

You can look up businesses directly via the Facebook Ad Library or spend some time browsing social to get served ads yourself. Take note of what sort of creatives you like and how “good” ads talk to customers.

facebook ad library

4. Research appropriate creatives, copy and targeting

There’s a lot of work that goes on behind-the-scenes of any given paid social campaign.

Thankfully, ad platforms today are pretty good about walking first-timers through the process step-by-step. As a refresher, take the time to familiarize yourself with:

Expect to have to do a bit of fine-tuning with your first ads, particularly when it comes to targeting. As you go through the initial stages of any given campaign, you can make appropriate tweaks. Doing so speaks to the need to not only do your homework but also to have a proper budget available for these adjustments.

5. Track your paid efforts with analytics

Determining whether or not your campaigns were a success really boils down to your analytics.

Between your ad analytics and platforms like Sprout, you can take a deep-dive into your campaign’s performance. Beyond engagement metrics and clicks, analytics can help you understand:

  • How your organic social media performs versus paid social media
  • Whether you saw an ROI for your paid campaign(s)
  • Opportunities to optimize future campaigns
sprout social paid reporting

Having these answers and reports available does double-duty of improving your campaigns while also reporting your results to colleagues.

If you’re satisfied with your performance, you can refine your targeting and budget accordingly in the future. If not, you can uncover opportunities to make changes or put more energy into organic social media (or vice-versa).

organic vs paid impressions in sprout social

And with that, we wrap up our guide to paid social 101!

Looking to go beyond paid social 101? No problem

Now that you have an understanding of the basics of paid social media, you can work toward your first campaign with a much-needed sense of confidence.

And sure, there’s a lot to cover. That said, the wealth of paid social ads and success stories today speak for themselves.

Need help with buy-in from your coworkers when it comes to social ads? We’ve got you covered. Make sure to check out our guide breaking down how to make a business case for social media.