Free Social Media or Advertising: Where Should You Spend Your Time?

You could be mistaken for thinking all of the best things in life are free. We’ve heard this line countless times, and in fact, most of the time it’s true — family, friends, love…air.

All the best things are free
Social media is free, but there’s some good paid stuff too (not that!)

But when it comes to promoting your business, the line becomes very blurry — we’ve become accustomed to free social media for a long time now, yet they also charge for advertising and bang on about the benefits of reaching more people.

So, both options have appeal, along with strong strengths and weaknesses.

Here we’ll go through all of those strengths and weaknesses to help you decide which you should go with.

Free social media

Free is a powerful word, so let’s see what it gets us.


#1 It’s free

Social media is free
Social media is only free financially

For those on a very tight or non-existant budget, this can be a life-saver — being able to reach potential customers while not having to spend anything at all.

However, that ‘free’ you’re so lusting after is only financial, and if you’re to do it properly, it’ll use up all of your available time and way more.

What is this “properly” I’m talking about? Well, if you’ve ever tried to post anything on social media and only received a handful of likes — if that — then you’ll know what I mean. It’s hardly setting the world on fire. And at that rate, you’ll still be doing it when you retire.

A “proper” effort is:

  • Research with Ahrefs’ Content Explorer to enter a keyword and see what kind of content is being shared the most;
  • Putting the effort in to write that content on your blog with a meaningful free photo from Pexels;
  • Posting it with a thoughtful piece of writing to entice people to click through to find out more.

#2 Directly engage with customers

Social media engagement

For those who purchase something, social media is great for getting through to customer services when a phone call could take 10mins+ before you speak to anyone.

Obviously, with a small business it’ll be a lot shorter than that, but it’s still much more convenient to complain on social media, so that’s what they’ll do.

Seeing as you can’t stop that from happening, it’s important to embrace it and turn it to your advantage by looking like you care, being professional, and also timely.

If you do all of those a few times a day then you’ll be head and shoulders above those small businesses who haven’t figured it out yet (and may not for a very long time).

Alongside using social media to provide excellent customer service, it’s important to post photos, updates about your business, and much more. It’s out of the scope of this article to explain them in detail, but they could be something like this:

  • Share company-wide announcements
  • Show your product or service in action
  • Behind the scenes
  • A day in the life
  • How-tos and tutorials
  • Host Q&As with live video
  • Talk about experiences of specific fans/followers/customers/clients
  • Share personal stories
  • Ask for specific feedback
  • Start thoughtful or playful conversations related to your industry or product/service
  • Ask which services or products people would like to see
  • Share industry news
  • Link to blog posts on your website
  • Schedule posts that ask to see their purchases of your products and how they’re using them
  • Check FB pages and other social sites for questions in comments and make them blog posts

#3 Builds a strong brand identity

To really stand out among competitors, you need a strong identity.

Taco Bell consistently show their great sense of humour to stand out from the crowd. Not to mention it encourages people to share their Tweets when they find it funny for an extra boost.

Choose how you want to your target audience to see you and adopt that behaviour across all of your social media accounts — whether you’re opting to show your sense of humour, great advice, or any other qualities. Nail it and stick to it.


#1 Time-consuming

Responding to every comment and churning out great content is a huge time black hole. Social media job titles exist for a reason — it really is a full-time job if you’re going to do it properly.

If you can afford to, definitely hire someone, even if it’s only part-time. You can strategise with them, but then step away to do what you’re good at.

If you can’t afford to hire, then choose one platform to double down on instead of spreading your time even more thinly across multiple social networks. Choose one of these depending on what your strengths are and how well you already know them:


Twitter: Text-heavy, short snippets of information with the odd photo and video thrown in.

Facebook logo

Facebook: Text-only doesn’t really get noticed so you’ll need lots of images and videos here. Videos work particularly well, but what’s nice is that there’s no text limit like Twitter, so you can write something meaningful for extra Likes. However, you’ll probably see less traction with Facebook, so only choose this one if you really don’t want to use the others.

Instagram logo

Instagram: Very image and video heavy. You’ll need to constantly be creative about what you can capture and record. The rewards are arguably higher with more chance of engagement when using the right Hashtags though.

YouTube logo

YouTube: More of a video search engine these days, but if you have the opportunity to record lots of video — even on your phone — then this is definitely the place to be.

TikTok logo

Tiktok: If you target a young audience then it’s perfect for some creative ideas for video. Be warned though, there have been many, many articles written about how they aren’t ethical in their data privacy on BBC News and Google News.

Snapchat logo

Snapchat: Again, mainly for a younger audience, and still heavily based on video.

Pinterest logo

Pinterest: Image-heavy database where people save collections of photos for inspiration. A large percentage of users are women. Ideal for homewares, food, fashion, and interior design, but many different eye-candy industries will benefit here.

#2 The rules are volatile and confusing

Posts on all social media are ordered by popularity more than they are by date. Meaning, the more likes and comments you receive, the more people will see it.

They don’t want old, boring content cluttering up everyone’s feed as no one would stay very long. Deciding which posts are seen by more people is largely down to how many engage with them (among other things).

This is what’s called an algorithm; the rules of social media. It will be slightly different on each social network, but they’re all based around engagement. They also update them from time to time, so if you finally do figure it all out, it’s not easy to keep up.

#3 Reaching people is difficult

Sure, you can reach people with hashtags on Instagram, and a few on Twitter, but mainly, social media needs people to ‘like’ and share your posts to reach enough of them. It can also be anyone — you can’t zero in on exactly the right kind of people that you know are right for your company.

This is completely the opposite to advertising, and we’ll go in to that right now…


Now, what can we get if we feel like paying for more?


#1 Target exactly the people you want

Advertising is a freeing experience where you have the ability to target exactly the people you want — down to the postcode/zipcode if you like.

Targeting will allow you to specify age, gender, location, and even what their interests are. Trying to get your Pug boots website off the ground? Target those who love dogs, puppies, Pugs, shoes, boots, even Pug boots.

#2 Flexible for all budgets

If you’re not hiring someone and you’re doing this yourself, it can be as cheap as £30/month. Results will happen at a glacial pace though, so you’ll really want to spend more than that. Trust me, it can be soul destroying.

Don’t max out your budget straight away though, as you’ll need to test different ads and get used to it all. If you do, you’re in danger of expecting too much and giving up too early, assuming it doesn’t work when all it needed was time.

That’s probably the biggest mistake business owners make — be patient, learn for free from YouTube, and test different ads and audiences.

What’s more, not only does it suit most budgets, but you only pay when someone clicks through to your site! So you know that you’ve been bringing extra visitors through when you pay the bill.

#3 Much faster results

Free social media will allow you to show your post to a certain audience using hashtags, but when they’re scrolling through all of the content for that hashtag, yours will vanish into the abyss.

Sure, some people will see it, but this will take a many, many attempts to rack up those likes, and especially followers. Sheesh, it really is difficult to get those followers.

However, paid ads will allow you to be very specific with the targeting and instead of the posts appearing in a list of other hopefuls, it’ll be in their face on the main feed when they open the app.

So, while they’re engaged and scrolling through posts from people they’re actually following, yours also appears — and in the case of Instagram, full size instead of a tiny square on the hashtag list.

This means they’ll pay more attention to it, and some social sites make it quite difficult to tell whether it’s an ad or from someone they follow, allowing you to garner even more attention.


#1 Deceptively difficult

It’s not for the faint-hearted — most people start it thinking they can make easy progress and quick results. The reality is that without initial research into what you need to do in order to be successful, you run the risk of falling flat on your face.

This is because most will spend a small budget and expect to put in minimal effort for maximum reward. Far too many will make this mistake.

This means that they’ll quit too soon and assume it doesn’t work.

In order to be successful, you’ll need to test different types of people with different ads to see what works. That takes time and money. Two things that the average Joe isn’t willing to spend.

If they did keep going, they’d see those results they’re after. This leads nicely on to the next point.

#2 It’s not for the impatient

These days, we have everything we need, when we need it — fancy watching all of that new series on Netflix? Done. Don’t want your message to arrive the next day via post but almost instantly via email or text? Done. Want to video call someone straight away instead of travelling to see them? Done.

Through innovation we’ve become petulant children. If we don’t get the results we want in the first month, we’ll be frustrated and spend our money elsewhere.

Really, not enough effort has been placed to actually achieve those results you wanted in the first month — it takes a lot of time and effort to run a business, so no one has enough left over to understand the best practices, let alone witness its full potential.

That leads nicely on to the final point.

#3 Time-consuming

It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going to resonate with your target audience, so you’ll always need to keep testing new ads.

You’ll need to also test different audiences to see which ones engage the most through a like, comment, or click. You can target those who you initially think will like the ads, but how do you know if it’s particularly successful if you don’t also test people with other interests or age groups etc.

Pair this with all of that initial learning you’ll need to do when setting up a new ad account, and you have yourself a long period of time before you see some decent results.


At the beginning of this article, I said it will help you to decide which you should go with.

That’s usually how people think about this topic, but hopefully, now you’ll see that both go hand-in-hand for pushing your business forward online, actually complimenting each other if you have both time and budget.

To help even further, I’ve added a few scenarios below:

No budget / lots of time: Posting to social media without paying for ads will be your saviour here. Make sure to do your research on how to get the most out of it, and you’ll be hitting those milestones for likes and followers in no time. Also, sign up for my free training videos.

No time / large budget (£200/m+): Definitely pay for ads if this is you. That budget will allow you to bring a lot of people through to your site. You’ll need to take a look at the ad account now and then to refine your ads and target audience though.

No time or budget: You won’t be able to promote your business online without one of them. Something has to give or you’ll stagnate.

A lot of time and a large budget: I think you can work this one out — clearly you need to do both. Also, you should target people on Google, with ads there as well. You can find out more about this on my Google Ads page.

Do you have any questions about what you’ve read? Still unsure about which direction to go in? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

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