Paid or organic? A debate as old as Google.

Mar 14, 2023

Is organic worth it? Or is paid your Golden Goose?

To know which should be the focus for YOU, you need to diagnose your resources and have a concrete understanding of how to prioritize both your budget and your team’s time. In this article, I’ll focus on paid search vs organic search.

Before we get into this, let’s agree on three facts:

  1. It’s NEVER just one lever that drives the whole strategy.
  2. High tides raise all ships.
  3. You need data to be able to pivot in the right direction.

When looking at “what works” in your marketing channels, we need to look at the whole picture and establish clear outcomes — especially what metrics are important vs which are vanity metrics. 

Start by checking out this blog on metrics worth measuring:
Chasing vanity or measuring the right metrics? You decide.

Now we’re reading from the same hymn sheet on metrics worth measuring, let’s weigh up real results from organic and paid to decide is organic worth it. 

Results comparison: paid search vs organic search

We all know that organic has the highest conversion rate. Or at least, it should. It’s what the “gurus” preach. 

On the flip side, we all know that paid can produce the most leads.

And sales is the wild card ready to pounce on leads from both. How do you figure out which one to focus on if you’re at a time when your company needs to be conversion-focused?

Here’s an example with rounded simple numbers: 

  • ACV is $200 MRR or $2,400 ARR (yes, we’re going SMB with this!)

Next, let’s look at what most markets report on first, MQLs and conversion: 

  • Organic: 100 SaaS MQLs at a 30% conversion rate.
    That equals 30 Customers or $6,000 in MRR.

  • Paid: 400 SaaS MQLs at a 10% conversion rate.
    That leads to 40 customers and $8,000 in MRR.

Before you jump to saying, “We only need to focus on organic content, because it converts 3x more than paid! No more paid search vs organic search debates, we just need more - more - more content!” Hold on a sec… 

We’re forgetting a massive part of this whole equation, which is COST. 

Most people think “organic” means free (for real… I hear it all the time) and “paid” is the only form of marketing that actually costs money. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, doesn’t designing, writing, and managing that “organic” content cost your business money? Even if you use the cheapest contractor available for this, it’s a cost.

Bear trap: Not measuring indirect costs when tallying up acquisition costs

Content, design, website management, thought leadership, and press relations, (even those podcast appearances!) are all indirect costs, called wages. We make the same mistake when including sales in the whole CAC equation, by the way. 

So, let's add in channel spend to the equation now:

  • Your writing and content team costs you $10,000 a month.
  • Your paid spend is $3,000.

I’ll do the math for you!

  • It takes $10,000 to get you 30 customers from organic, which comes out to $333 per customer.
  • With paid, it costs you $3,000 to get 40 Customers, which comes out to $75.

Even if these are fictitious numbers, and your content and design team are contributing to creating killer paid ads for you that drive conversions, the difference in cost of output from paid search vs organic search output is enormous.

Stay with me, I’m not anti-organic growth! Let's dig deeper.

Effort is a factor that needs measuring

Based on a consumer report from Statista, Hubspot, and a plethora of other sources, it takes an average of 4 hours to write the average blog post. Your content team produced 12 blogs that resulted in those 30 customers we talked about above. That comes out to roughly 48 hours of just writing, not including the management of the content itself. 

So, with your “free” content strategy, it took you 48 hours to produce $6,000, which comes out to about $125 ROAS (Return On Ad Spend). 

Now for paid, the average time it takes to manage a monthly paid acquisition budget of $3,000 is maybe 10 hours the whole month, if that. With most of the graft being done early on. Simple math shows us that would equate to $300 ROAS. 

Remember that 3x number we assigned to organic? It's now flipped. Paid is actually 3x more productive when we look at net return with these numbers. 

But, wait. There’s more.

Remember the facts we agreed on at the beginning? 

When it comes to product-led growth, high tides raise all ships

Now for the fun to start: let’s talk DATA within product-led sales teams.

When running paid media, those campaigns push people to other channels as a result. Your organic and direct channels increase as well. 

By how much? No clue. I've seen increases of 20% with some companies, while others may have seen a bump of 5%. 

Using paid as a lever to boost organic is an indicator that your attribution might be off and you need to fix your tracking. The bigger the difference, the bigger the problem you have in your tracking. 

Lastly, here’s the kicker: you can’t control organic. You’re at the mercy of what's trending in whatever platform's algorithm you’re using. You can have an impact on your positioning with SEO and a rounded content strategy, but it’s next to impossible to control. 

So ask yourself: How much do you want to be in control of your revenue?

To an extent, you can control your paid channel. You can cut out keywords, decrease budget, change imagery, landing page links, and so on, it's rapidly customizable, and therefore, controllable. 

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being zero control and 10 being puppet-style control:
SEO is like a 3 and paid is like a 9. Perfect for planning your Go to Market (GTM) strategy.

The moral of the story is that you can’t make decisions in your GTM strategy while only looking at half the data. 

You will always be able to find reports that make you feel good, that justify marketing or creative efforts (*cough*, native reports in HubSpot) but you have to read them IN CONTEXT.

Always look at the 2 types of costs: Direct and indirect — the actual dollars it takes to use the channel and then the time it takes to run the channel. 

Top takeaway: Don’t be a sheep

The main insight I’d like you to take away is to be extremely critical of the data and clearly define what metrics drive success for you. No cookie-cutter strategies exist and no 2 businesses are alike.

Last but not least, it's not about a single strategy or channel, it's about how to get them to work together and accurately track the data through the whole funnel. 

Found this useful? Check out Scott Stouffer’s take on why we have such a large gap between GTM data and frontline reality.

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