Content Marketing vs Paid Advertising for Early-Stage Startups

Content marketing is the growth hacker’s way of generating compounding awareness and traffic at a low cost. Paid ads, on the other hand, are a great way to test your ideas, kickstart your marketing efforts, and check for product-market fit.

That said, the two are often seen as different approaches for achieving similar goals. Marketers engage in a debate that delves into content marketing vs paid advertising, and the pros and cons of each option.

This article will list the opinion of 14 experts, to help you get a better idea of the way you should direct your marketing efforts. After reading this post, you should have more points to consider with regards to content marketing vs paid advertising.

Choosing to prioritize Paid Ads

Paid advertising is a great way to kickstart your website’s traffic. It is also an effective way to generate the first leads that may test your product. This is why several experts recommend them for early-stage startups.

1. Use paid ads for the first “push”

Paid advertising will definitely give the initial push an early-stage startup needs. That being said, I'm a big believer in building a good foundation of content that can rank organically. Start by creating a few good pieces focused on a relevant keyword and user intent, and then use paid advertising to drive users to those posts.

2. Paid ads lead to highly targeted leads

Paid social media advertising is currently the most popular. A fantastic way to get your product or service in front of people who may not be familiar with you. On Google, this means targeting a term or phrase and having your site/landing page appear above other organically appearing pages in the results. Paid ads on sites such as Instagram and Facebook can help you get your goods in front of a highly targeted audience. You can target the audience that is most likely to be interested in your product by targeting interests, locations they work, job titles, or location demographics, depending on what your product is.

3. Determine product-market fit early on

In my opinion, paid advertising is much more important than content marketing for early-stage startups. I feel this because it helps them determine the real demand for their product in a short period of time with minimal investment. On the other hand, since it takes a while to reach a reasonable audience size with content marketing, all their time, effort, and money is saved that they might have invested in it, only to later realize that there's not enough need of what they are trying to sell.

Also, apart from validating the demand for their product, paid advertising helps them create a better picture of their ideal customer. They are able to figure out the best-performing demographics, interest groups, and much more. In short, paid advertising helps them be better prepared to launch their content marketing campaigns.

4. Start with PPC, then build a long term strategy

I would advise startups to start using PPC marketing as quickly as possible to start generating leads and revenue to support a long-term strategy (i.e. content marketing). Then quickly hire a dedicated Content marketer who will build a steady, strong stream of content for your business. PPC marketing will bring quick success. But Content marketing is where your business will thrive.

5. Fast results are best for startups

I believe paid advertising is more important for early-stage startups. Content marketing is great, but it takes months or years to build, and early-stage startups don't have the luxury of time.

We used paid advertising when first starting out to increase brand awareness and lead generation; specifically, Facebook ads.

Paid advertising proved to be effective as it gives fast results. Leads come pouring, and we get our money's worth in terms of return on investment.

Paid advertising also helps us drive traffic to our site without much work and time investment in search engine optimization.

Choosing to prioritize Content Marketing

Content marketing, more commonly known as organic growth, deals with blog posts, landing pages, and articles that rank on Google without any paid assistance. While this method tends to build up the results slowly over time and requires knowledge in SEO, it is a much cheaper and sustainable way to generate clicks and leads. Let’s look at some of the benefits.

6. Cheaper cost per conversion

We prefer content marketing over paid advertising due to the cost factor. In practice, content marketing generates more return on investment compared to paid advertising. This doesn’t mean that content marketing is cheaper at the end of the day. The only cost difference comes in cost per conversion.

Content marketing works great if you’re looking for a long term marketing strategy, that will keep converting for as long as the content ranks. As a content marketer, producing valuable content is the most important craft of my trade. Valuable content will keep bringing you conversions for far much longer than paid advertising ever will.

Content marketing also brings in better leads compared to PPC. In my experience, most ready-to-convert customers would rather click on unsponsored content because it has the reputation of being more trustworthy. Organic search is our largest source of qualified leads. We haven’t had the same level of success with paid advertising.

7. Best for bootstrapped startups

Content marketing is the foundation for an early-stage startup, especially if you are bootstrapped or have limited funding. It can feel very frustrating at the start because content marketing may take months before it starts to pay off, so discipline and consistency are important. Just try to do a little bit of writing each week and keep positive momentum. If you are focused on a niche market, like I am, it takes on even bigger importance. My target keywords didn't have enough search volume to run effective Google Ad campaigns. I had to include irrelevant keywords to broaden my impressions just so Google would run my ads... but then I ended up with costly clicks that didn't convert, so it wasn't long before I pulled the plug on paid advertising. Instead, I doubled down on content, especially content targeted at long-tail keywords relevant to my niche, and I have not been disappointed. Content is king!

8. Content marketing offers long-term value

Paid advertising can be a great, fast route to reaching new customers but, in my experience, content marketing offers more long-term value. Yes, it may take a little more research and work to put together a content marketing strategy - but it will pay off in the long run. Plus, there are no upfront costs if you already have a content writer on your team.

When done right, content marketing not only helps reach more customers by increasing your business’s visibility in the search engines. It can also help boost your brand’s reputation and brand loyalty. Creating genuine, relevant, high-quality content that’s designed to help your potential customers and answer their questions will in turn increase their trust in your business and establish you as experts in your field. With some cleverly crafted content and carefully placed CTAs and inquiry forms, it can even have a direct impact on lead generation too.

9. Best for products with lower CLV

Content Marketing offers sustainable growth for bootstrapped founders, especially for lower lifetime value software. Just doing simple math, with an annual subscription rate of only $35 and a conversation rate of below 5%, the breakeven cost per click is $1.75 – below the cost of relevant keywords, which start at $2. Therefore, paid advertising would only make sense for non-bootstrapped founders, targeting growth over profitability. Paid advertising will become more relevant once we developed a second product, which potentially increases the lifetime value and reduces the cost per click to break even.

Content marketing vs paid advertising - Using both together

If your budget allows it, using paid ads and organic growth strategies in conjunction can offer great results. Not only do the two support one another, but they also lead to faster results. We have written in more detail about the two options in our SaaS inbound marketing guide.

10. Juggling early traction with limited resources

Startups are in a tight spot because choosing paid media over content sacrifices your future for today, but choosing content overpaid media limits early traction. The best answer is to do both, scaling back in smart ways to make the most of your limited resources.

Paid advertising builds early awareness and gets initial customers in the door. We’ve found hyper-focused targeting can limit budgets, leaving resources for content. Try focusing on brand awareness for display/video with an emphasis on retargeting and narrow behavioral targeting. For paid search, bid only on high intent search terms. This early traffic gives you data to optimize your positioning.

Content marketing is the bedrock of long-term, positive marketing ROI. The problem is no matter when you start, it takes 6-18 months to produce results. We’ve found limiting publishing frequency while setting a high standard of quality allows startups to still produce results while reducing investment. Put the time in early to determine what resonates and can compete in search to make sure your limited resources go to the right pieces. Finally, start building your email database right away. This way you have an audience and content to grow into as resources allow.

11. Content marketing vs paid advertising depends on your goals

Comparing content marketing with paid ads is like comparing apples and oranges. While they’re both types of advertisements, they have extremely different goals. Paid ads are primarily used to promote a limited-time offer or increase website traffic, while content marketing is meant to build trust and an emotional connection with your target audience. For early-stage start-ups, content marketing may be more profitable because it creates long-term, repeat customers that will be your lifeline as you grow your business.

12. Paid ads are tactical; Content marketing is strategic

New business owners must prioritize content marketing. When combined with social media, it is a low-cost way to broaden your reach and make money in the long run. Paid advertising, on the other hand, helps you grow your business faster and see more results in a shorter period of time but it does cost money upfront.

For startups, content marketing should be a long-term strategy because increasing brand awareness and making money, whether through affiliate marketing or selling your products and services, take time.

However, if you want faster results, paid advertising can help you achieve success faster if done correctly. Furthermore, because you sell more products and services, you can recoup your advertising costs more quickly.

13. Test your market first, but play the long game

Both content marketing and paid advertising have their pros and cons. It's hard to say right from the beginning which one will be more profitable for your business, and really, they're both situation-specific.

What I'd suggest to you right from the beginning, before you even think which one's better, is to test out your content quality with paid advertising. Only high-quality content will help you with your conversions. Create different landing pages with different titles and copies and try out various strategies, before you decide on your angle.

PPC might be able to attract more quality leads by putting you on top of Google, but if your content is not convincing, no one will buy. So focus on good quality content for better conversions and a long-term game. After all, content marketing is much more cost-effective, and won't keep you hanging when fundings might run low in the future.

14. Using both methods in conjunction delivers the best results

Content marketing takes a lot of effort and time but once it starts building momentum, it’s unstoppable. It’s cost-effective and pays you better in the long run by boosting your search engine ranking, building your authority, and improving your brand’s image.

Contrarily, paid ads help in generating quick and quality leads by putting you on top of the SERPs and targeting the right consumer groups. PPC visitors are 50% more likely to purchase something than organic visitors.

However, your visibility disappears as soon as you stop paying.

Both methods have pros and cons, but you really can’t choose one over the other. When content marketing and paid advertising are used in conjunction, they can deliver amazing results.

For startups, paid marketing is necessary because they can’t wait three to six months to get sales. They can only get early traction and quick results with the help of paid marketing strategy. However, they should invest in content marketing on the side otherwise they won’t be able to sustain or grow their ROI over time.