Frederik Van Lierde

Social Media for Startups: Engagement or Advertising?

The key to a startup's social media triumph lies in harmonizing organic engagement with paid advertising. The challenge is to leverage both for their unique advantages while mitigating their downsides. For startups to thrive, it's not just about choosing one over the other; it's about integrating both to create a cohesive, dynamic social media presence.Continue exploring these insights and learn how to master the art of social media Social Media for Startups: Engagement or Advertising?
Starting a new business is an adventure, and social media is the map that guides entrepreneurs through the terrain of marketing and brand building. But at the crossroads stand two signposts: Organic Engagement and Paid Advertising. In this article, we will explore the advantages and drawbacks of each, helping startup founders and entrepreneurs find their path to social media success.

Organic Engagement: Building Genuine Connections


When it comes to engaging with audiences on social media, startups often favor organic strategies for their cost-effectiveness. Unlike paid advertising, organic engagement doesn't require a large budget. It's all about crafting content that strikes a chord with your audience, encouraging them to like, comment, and share.

This approach is not just about saving money, it's about smartly investing time and creativity to yield a high return on investment. By focusing on what resonates with their audience, startups can organically grow their online presence without draining their financial resources. Create content that resonates with your audience, prompting them to interact and share.

Trust Building
Building trust is another cornerstone of organic social media engagement. In a world where consumers are bombarded with advertisements, a genuine interaction with a brand can be a breath of fresh air.

When startups engage directly with their audience—be it through responding to comments or sharing behind-the-scenes stories—they lay the foundation for a relationship based on trust.

This approach doesn't just attract followers; it cultivates a community that believes in the brand's values and message, which is invaluable for long-term success. Users are more likely to trust and build a relationship with a brand that engages with them directly.

Sustainable Growth
Organic growth on social media might be a slow burn, but it's often more sustainable. Startups that take the time to grow their social media presence organically tend to garner followers who are more engaged and loyal.

These followers don't just passively consume content; they become brand advocates. The connection isn't superficial; it's rooted in a shared ethos and sustained by ongoing interaction. This kind of growth is more likely to endure because it's based on real connections rather than fleeting ad impressions. Followers gained through organic reach are often more loyal.

A real-world example of organic social media success is the rise of the budget-friendly travel platform, Skyscanner. Initially, the company focused on providing value through their blog posts and social media content, offering travel tips, and insights that resonated deeply with their audience.

They didn't just promote their services; they built a community around the love for travel. By engaging with travelers' content, sharing user-generated stories, and being responsive, Skyscanner cultivated a loyal following.

This organic approach helped them establish a trustworthy brand that travelers turn to, not just for booking flights but for inspiration and a sense of connection to the wider traveling community.


Playing the organic social media engagement is a game that demands time, a scarce resource for many startups. Crafting posts that resonate, sparking conversations, and nurturing a community is a full-time job in itself.

While the financial overhead might be low, the investment in terms of hours and effort is significant. For small teams already stretched thin, maintaining a consistent, engaging presence can be challenging.

This time drain can sometimes detract from other crucial business operations, making it a double-edged sword for those trying to balance all facets of running a startup. Engaging with your audience, creating content, and building community takes effort.

Slow Build
The pace at which organic engagement converts to business growth can test the patience of any entrepreneur. For startups hungry for rapid expansion, the slow and steady nature of building a following organically might seem like a hindrance.

Without the jet fuel of paid advertising, reaching a large audience typically takes a considerable amount of time. This gradual process might not align well with the fast-paced growth targets of startups, especially those with investors eager for quick results.

This slow build can sometimes lead to missed opportunities in a market where timing can be everything. Growth can be slow. Without the boost of paid promotion, it may take longer to reach your desired audience size.

Algorithm Limitations
Moreover, the whims of social media algorithms add an unpredictable challenge to organic growth. These algorithms often prioritize content with high engagement or from users' close networks, meaning that a startup's content might not always reach its intended audience.

This limitation can stifle visibility, requiring even more effort to break through the noise. For startups, this unpredictability can be a major roadblock, as it makes it difficult to ensure their message is heard consistently.

Even with excellent content, they may find themselves at the mercy of ever-changing algorithmic tides. Social media algorithms can limit the reach of your content, making it harder to get noticed.

Bread & Butter
A case in point is the struggle faced by a artisan bakery, Bread & Butter, which initially relied solely on organic social media growth. Despite posting appetizing photos and engaging content, they found their growth stunted by the limited reach algorithms afforded them.

Their content was often overshadowed by larger brands with more engagement, and without the algorithmic push, their growth plateaued. This real-world struggle highlights the tangible impact of the cons of organic engagement on startups and the importance of understanding and navigating these challenges for long-term social media success.


Costs Add Up
Venturing into paid advertising brings with it the stark reality of mounting costs. For startups, especially those with limited budgets, the expense of maintaining a competitive edge in the ad space can quickly become a financial strain.

Highly contested markets drive the cost of advertising even higher, making it difficult for new businesses to afford the bids for prominent keywords and prime audience targeting. As these costs pile up, startups may find themselves allocating more funds to advertising than to product development or customer service, which can stunt their growth in other crucial areas. Paid advertising can be expensive, especially for competitive keywords and audiences.

Diminishing Returns
Initially, ads might grab attention and drive traffic, but over time, the same audience may grow weary of seeing the same messages repeatedly. This ad fatigue leads to lower engagement rates, making each subsequent ad less effective than the one before.

For startups, this means they must continually innovate and refresh their ad campaigns, incurring additional costs and effort, which may not always yield proportionate results. Users may experience ad fatigue, and the more you advertise, the less effective it may become over time.

Less Personal
Paid ads often miss the mark when it comes to personal touch and relationship building. Unlike organic interactions where a brand can engage with customers in conversations, paid advertisements can come across as cold and impersonal.

The push to drive sales or clicks can overshadow the opportunity to connect on a more human level, leaving potential customers feeling like just another target rather than a valued part of a community. This lack of personal engagement can make it difficult for startups to foster long-term loyalty and trust with their audience. Ads can feel impersonal and may not build the same level of trust as organic engagement.

GreenThumbs Garden
An example is the startup named GreenThumbs, which launched an ambitious paid ad campaign to promote its innovative gardening tools. While the ads initially drew in a significant number of clicks and generated buzz, the cost of continuously bidding for gardening-related keywords was substantial.

Over time, the effectiveness of the ads began to wane as the market became saturated with similar products, and the audience grew tired of the repetitive messaging. GreenThumbs learned the hard lesson that while paid advertising can offer a quick influx of visibility, sustaining that interest purely through ads is both challenging and costly, potentially undermining the authenticity of the brand's customer relationships.

Striking the Right Balance

Finding the right mix of organic engagement and paid advertising is crucial. Startups should consider their industry, target audience, and resources when deciding their strategy. Here are some tips:

Know Your Audience
Finding the sweet spot between organic engagement and paid advertising is a dynamic and ongoing process for startups. It requires a deep understanding of one's audience, which is the first crucial step. Startups need to research and recognize where their potential customers spend their time online and how they prefer to interact with content.

Are they passive consumers or active participants? Do they prefer visual content over text-based? Answering these questions can guide a startup's strategy, ensuring they're not just broadcasting messages, but fostering a conversation in the right digital spaces. Understand where your audience hangs out and how they like to engage.

Content is King
Content is indeed king in the realm of social media. High-quality, relevant content that resonates with an audience can be more impactful than the most expensive ad campaign. Startups should focus on creating content that provides real value, whether it's informative, entertaining, or inspiring.

This value-driven approach encourages sharing, which can amplify reach organically. It's not just about selling a product or service; it's about providing something that people want to associate with and pass along to others. Invest in creating high-quality content that provides value and encourages sharing.

Test and Learn
The adage "test and learn" is particularly apt for startups experimenting with paid advertising. It's wise to start with a small budget to test which platforms and types of ads yield the best results.

This iterative approach allows startups to fail fast and learn quickly, minimizing financial risk while finding the most effective strategies. It’s about analyzing which ads are converting viewers into customers and which messages are falling flat, allowing for a more intelligent allocation of advertising dollars. Use a small budget to test different advertising strategies and learn what works best for your startup.

Engage and Respond
Engagement is a two-way street. It's not enough for startups to just put content out into the world; they also need to be ready to engage with their audience. Responding to comments, answering questions, and participating in discussions can turn a simple post into a thriving community hub.

This level of interaction not only builds trust and loyalty but also signals to social media algorithms that the content is engaging, which can increase organic reach. Make sure to engage with your audience. Answer questions, respond to comments, and be present.

Analyze and Adjust
The ability to pivot and adapt is essential, and that’s where analyzing and adjusting come in. By keeping an eye on analytics, startups can see which posts are getting traction and which are not.

Are certain topics driving more engagement? Is a particular time of day more effective for posting? By continuously refining their strategy based on this data, startups can improve their reach and engagement, ensuring their efforts are not wasted. Regularly review your analytics to see what's working and adjust your strategy accordingly.

Buffer not only used its own tool to schedule and analyze its content but also engaged with their community by sharing valuable insights into social media strategies. They experimented with various content types and paid campaigns, learning what resonated with their audience.

By responding to users and adapting their strategy with the insights gained from analytics, Buffer grew into a trusted resource for social media management, showing that a balanced approach can lead to substantial organic growth complemented by strategic paid advertising.


Both organic engagement and paid advertising have their places in a startup's social media strategy. The key is to understand the strengths and limitations of each and to use them to complement each other.

With the right balance, startups can build a strong social media presence that supports their growth and success.