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A paid social primer for SEMs

Published: December 9, 2016

Author: Keunrak Kang

SEM Account Manager Conor McElhaney contributed to this post.
Today’s paid social landscape is vastly different than what it was even two years ago. And five years ago, Social ads used to be pretty comparable to running banner ads. Now, social ads are no longer a billboard or a search box to funnel people. Social now has the power to develop and foster a community for a brand – as well as address all sorts of goals from awareness to direct-response.
In this post, we’ll cover relative strengths of paid social, misconceptions about the channel, and tips to keep in mind when gauging paid social performance.
Let’s start with…

Advertising channel strengths

Paid Social

  • Establish awareness
  • Develop intent
  • Drive flow from one funnel to a lower funnel
  • Stay top of mind


  • Drive intent and fill the funnel
  • Stay top of mind

Paid Search

  • Capture intent
  • Drive flow from intent to a conversion funnel
  • Upsell and drive awareness for other products and services

As you can see, the channels work differently and work to drive varying KPIs – which can present issues with marketers who don’t know which channels to align with which goals. We see it all the time where brands will start with Search and work towards Paid Social without understanding the inherit differences between the channels.

Misconceptions of paid social

There are a few persistent misconceptions we hear about paid social. These include:

  1. CPA for Social must be similar to Search CPA.

In reality, Paid Social CPA rarely lines up with Paid Search CPA. In most cases, search drives higher return for a lower cost. But whether it’s targeting, creative, community sentiment, seasonality, etc., there are plenty of levers in social to play with. And social opens up tons of audience targeting that search doesn’t; lookalike audiences alone can help you reach a much larger new audience than search. While search is better (at least for now) at converting users with intent, social can help you find new users and start their funnel journey.

  1. Discount sites like Groupon are getting amazing amount of conversions. We should get the same results on Social.

It is rare that Groupon-like sites will have same CPA as Social ads. In most cases, they should be bringing lower CPA. (If they aren’t, those sites aren’t doing an efficient job and should be cut.) Because there is already intent for users on those sites, they have a huge leg up compared to social.

  1. My display performance looks amazing! We should be getting the same results on Social.

In most cases, relevant display sites should be bringing in lower CPA than on social. If they aren’t, you should be looking at whether you need to shift tactics. Also, some display sites heavily rely on view-through conversions, which can skew performance results if you’re incorporating them into your metrics.

  1. My organic social performance isn’t that great; I don’t think I should test out on social because of it.

This is rarely true, since your organic presence relies on your fans and reaching friends of fans. It lives in a smaller bubble than what is available in the paid ecosystem. Sure, your strongest advocates may be your fans, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expand to a large pool of potential customers.

So how should you compare Paid Social to your other channels?

Think of Social as a consolidation of your brand’s initiatives for PR and DR. A few tips to keep in mind when looking at numbers.

  1. If DR is your objective, see what lifetime value (LTV) each channel is bringing. Social may have a higher LTV as it brings in a larger volume of new users.
  2. Sure, your CPA for Search is crushing it. But social doesn’t necessarily engage users who had intent to buy. Most likely, you are creating that intent with your social ads. On Search, you are leveraging that intent and pushing users to convert ASAP; social has a much taller DR task in creating intent and converting it in one shot. Now, using retargeting smartly on social (e.g. Facebook’s Custom Audiences) levels the playing field and can make social a very powerful DR option.
  3. Facebook and Instagram ads are reaching out to new users who may not have heard of the brand. It is important to be aware that this type of play can be expensive but effective for establishing a presence in the minds of new users.
  4. Seasonality has different effects for search, display, and social. For example, B2B companies may not experience CPC spikes in Q4 because their service isn’t seasonal – but they will on social since advertisers in all industries are fighting for the same advertising real estate.

Paid social has many benefits and, taken alone, has proven the ability to outperform other channels in certain KPIs. Like any advertising options, it’s most powerful used in combination with other channels and can be a constant ROI driver if done right.
Knowing the basics of paid social is key before you start spending money on the respective platforms. Whether it’s Facebook with DR or Twitter with very active engagement, choose the platform based on your initiative and data.
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Good luck and happy hunting in the paid social advertising space!

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