Pay to Play Is Here to Stay

Pay to Play Is Here to Stay

If you’re advertising your website online, you’re probably participating in some Facebook posts and Googling yourself on a daily basis to see whether or not your website pops up when you do a particular search. You might be feeling pretty good about your gradual organic growth over time, but there is still one unavoidable reality when you’re putting your name out there. The cold hard fact that Facebook and Google are businesses. They don’t care about your feelings or your success, they care about money (there’s a reason Facebook and Google experienced a 60% and 43% year-over-year growth, respectively, in 2016). In this latest post, we’ll dive into why “pay-to-play” is here to stay.


Facebook used to operate in a much more organic way in its infancy. Before, if you posted quality content that acquired engagements, your post would be more likely to be seen. Though this is still true, the amount of scale (the potential for someone to see your message) and potential reach (the number of unique people who could see your message) has been squashed by the pay-to-play model. For example, if you look at Advertiser X below, this advertiser posts organically and spends millions of dollars on Facebook ads each year. Even with a known brand and high engagement on fun creative, around 2% of total audience reach is acquired in the old organic way. Even if you’re a nationally recognized brand, your reach levels still barely break the tens of thousands in some cases, compared to paying to be seen.


Now let’s say you’re not spending millions of dollars each year and you don’t have a recognizable brand (yet!). Perhaps you’re putting time, effort, and maybe a little money into your organic posts. After you crunch the numbers, what are the eCPM amounts (effective cost per thousand people) you reach, and is it worth it? Let’s take a look at an example: Pete owns a gym bag company called Pete’s Bags and pays a company $200 a month to take pictures of his product in gyms and post two to three times per week. Pete has 5,000 users that like his Facebook page. When a post is made ~10% of these users will see the message each time there’s a post because Facebook’s algorithm favors paid postings. Over the course of a month this nets out to roughy 4,000-6,000 people seeing Pete’s messaging organically and these users aren’t always unique. This equates to a $50-$33 eCPM or the same amount to run a high impact ad on a top 10 website! Now let’s say Pete’s Bags uses these images and decides to pay-to-play (pay Facebook to advertise his posts). He’ll likely only spend a $3-$10 CPM (depending upon who he’s targeting) and he’ll reach more unique people (not just the same ones over-and-over). In this second example, Pete can reach nearly 17 times the number of people just by giving into Facebook’s business model.

Organic Posting


Paid Posting



Let’s say social advertising isn’t your cup of tea and you’re more focused on search engine optimization (SEO), how can a pay-to-play environment get in the way of your strategy here? Google (or any other major search engine) wants to balance user experience with their own business goals which leads to a blend of organic results (results deemed the best thing you’re searching for) and search ads (ads that appear at the top of a page because they’ve paid to appear at the top). No matter the amount of keyword research, link building, and SEO investment you’ve put into your site, you can always be outranked if you’re outbid. We’re not dismissing SEO strategy or best practices, but it is undeniable that paying in a search environment captures users who are looking for your product or service immediately.


If we take a look at Pete’s Bags once again, let’s say he’s typed in “Gym Bags” within a Google search. The first results are search ads from some of his largest competitors. And as he scrolls down the page, the first organic results are Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods. In this case, if Pete is competing in a paid fashion, he has has the ability to compete directly within the top results ads section, but he likely has a tough shot of completing with the largest etailer and brick-and-mortar sports good retailer in the country.

What this shows is that at the end of the day, it is good to keep your organic roots, follow website best practices, and be true to your brand. However, if you want to be seen by new customers (or even the majority of your page followers) in the most popular online environments, the unavoidable truth is you have to pay-to-play.


Previous Blog Entries:

Who do they Think you Are? (A User’s Guide to Understanding Online Data)

The State of In-house Programmatic

Reverse Engineering Digital Advertising Success

Understanding Ad Fraud

Balancing Quality with the Fallacy of Efficiency

Measuring Awareness Campaigns