Unlock the power of paid social media marketing: audiences, strategies, and benefits explained.

Here, you’ll find:

  • A breakdown of the main paid social platforms 
  • Which platforms typically work best for different businesses
  • Best practices for audience targeting
  • Steps to create a successful paid social ad campaign

Whether you’re a constant Instagram scroller or barely remember to check your LinkedIn messages, social media’s influence on current culture can’t be denied. 

Pew Research Center found that 72% of U.S. adults use at least one social media network.

As a society, we’re more connected than ever through the internet, and these connections are influencing where we spend our money.

So it’s no surprise that when marketers want to expand the reach of their campaigns and increase return on investment (ROI), they turn to a paid social strategy.

What is paid social media marketing?

Paid social media marketing is when you pay for ads or sponsored content on social networking platforms like Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok. The goal of these ads is to target specific demographics, behaviors, and interests.

HawkSEM - Paid Social 101: What You Need to Know

There’s no one-size-fits-all trick that’ll apply to ads across all social platforms. There are, however, best practices that do. (Image: Unsplash)

Paid social is a type of digital advertising that comes under the umbrella of social media marketing. In simple terms, you pay for ad space on social media platforms. 

This type of ad is useful for every step of the funnel, but can be particularly useful for winning new audiences without previous knowledge of your brand.

What does that mean for advertisers? “Paid social reaches audiences at scale.” That’s according to Magnolia Deuell, a seasoned HawkSEM lead strategist.

Not only that, but it offers brands a means to create brand awareness. “Paid social serves to bring people into a brand’s consumer funnel vs. reaching people already in that funnel,” explains Deuell.

HawkSEM: Paid Social 101: What You Need to Know

A paid social ad on Twitter (Image: Twitter)

What is a paid social media strategy?

A paid social media advertising strategy is a plan that outlines how you’ll use paid social to achieve your marketing goals. 

Whether your goal is brand awareness, lead generation, or sales, a paid social strategy can help you reach your target audience and achieve your objectives.

Examples of paid social strategy

Social media marketing sounds impressive — but can it really deliver all of those results?

Let’s take a look at a real-world example of how paid social media can benefit your business. 

Say you want to acquire more qualified leads that would translate to paying customers like Peninsula General Insurance did when they came to HawkSEM

A paid social strategy could involve creating a social media campaign targeting users interested in similar products. By using eye-catching images or videos and incorporating a call-to-action, you can encourage people to visit your website to learn more or make a purchase. 

Another example of a paid social strategy is Proof’s campaign using testimonials to entice their audience to give them a try. Their winning strategy is to convince people with their large client numbers and large pool of reviews.

HawkSEM - Paid Social 101: What You Need to Know

After you’ve determined the social media platform you’ll leverage for your campaign, you can start the work of actually building it. (Image: Unsplash)

You can also use a strategy like Drift’s by turning a pain point into a great reason for signing up for a demo. In Drift’s case, they’re showcasing how a codeless chatbot can increase site engagement and conversions.

What pain point does your product or service address, and how can you use that as an undeniable reason for a demo, signup, or purchase?

There is a balance when it comes to getting your target audience’s interest. Our paid social media manager, Nicole Goodnough tells us, “Whenever you’re designing ad creative, you really have to find that balance of standing out while also hanging with native content on the platform so the creative doesn’t scream, ‘I’m an ad!’ because then users will scroll right by it.”

With strategic audience targeting, you can reach more potential customers and generate interest in your product for less ad spend, just like we were able to do for Peninsula General Insurance. By improving their paid social strategy, we were able to reduce their cost per lead by 66%. 

The benefits of paid social

HawkSEM - Paid Social 101: What You Need to Know

LinkedIn’s ads let you target different funnel stages as well as demographics. (Image: LinkedIn)

Beyond generating leads at a low cost, as explained in the example above, using paid social as part of your marketing strategy can have many other benefits.

First and foremost, paid social allows you to target specific audiences based on demographics, interests, and behaviors, ensuring that your ads are seen by the right people. 

It also allows you to track and measure your results, giving you insights into what’s working and what’s not. 

Pro tip: While most platforms have campaign tracking capabilities, it’s a good idea to independently track performance as well (you can use your host site’s tracking or a program like Google Tag Manager). This ensures your tracking is accurate and offers a true set of data once your program is fully ramped up.

Additionally, paid social can help you reach new audiences and expand your reach beyond your organic following.

Paid social gives brands the unique opportunity to engage with their audiences in authentic, unique ways to build a community of loyal followers,” says Deuell. “Because of this, social platforms have the capability to keep the brand top of mind throughout a user’s journey,” 

Social media can also work into your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. SEO specialists call this “off-page” or “off-site” SEO. Being active on social doesn’t just create awareness of your brand, it also improves your SEO.

But to reach a relevant audience, you need to be advertising on the right social media platform. Some types of audiences prefer one platform over another. So let’s take a look at who the major players in social media are and what audiences use them. 

The main players in paid social media marketing

The paid social platforms you choose to advertise on will depend on a few main factors: 

  • Your product or service
  • The type of ad you want to run
  • Your audience 

While the list isn’t stagnant or set in stone, the main players in this space include:

  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook (owned by Meta)
  • Instagram (owned by Meta)
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • YouTube (owned by Google)
  • TikTok

You may have an active account on one or all of these platforms. And the people you are targeting may as well.  

But, as with many other parts of digital marketing strategy, knowing your target audience can help you establish which of these platforms they spend the most time on.

If you don’t already have your ideal client persona mapped out, you can check out our guide for creating the ideal client persona, and develop 1-3 profiles to help you with your paid social strategy.

What audiences use which social media platforms?

Demographics for social media platforms vary a lot because they share or favor different kinds of content. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the demographics by age a gender for each of the major social media platforms


  • Largest age group: 25-34 (29.9%)
  • Gender: 44% female, 56% male 


  • Largest age group: 18-24 (30.8%)
  • Gender: 48.2% female, 51.8% male 


  • Largest age group: 18-24 (21%)
  • Gender: 54% female, 46% male


  • Largest age group: 18-29 (42%)
  • Gender: 34.1% female, 61.29% male 


  • Largest age group: 30-39 (31%)
  • Gender: 43% female, 57% male 


  • Largest age group: 25-34 (28.5%)
  • Gender: 76.2% female, 17% male, 6.6% unspecified


  • Largest age group: 18-24 (34%)
  • Gender: 51% female, 48% male 


  • Largest age group: 15-35 
  • Gender: 51.4% female, 48.6% male 

Your audience will probably overlap into multiple platforms. And it should go without saying that your audience needs to be further defined by simple demographics such as age and gender. 

HawkSEM - Paid Social 101: What You Need to Know

YouTube’s Find My Audience tool gives you a selection of categories to target by interest or industry. (Image: Google)

This only scratches the surface. Luckily, most of the major platforms complete yearly (or even more frequent) demographic reports where you can get into the nitty-gritty of who uses each platform, diving into data such as location, income, job title, marital status and more. 

What are paid social and paid search

A common question that marketers come across when building a paid strategy is what is paid social and paid search? They sound kind of the same and both involve paid advertising so what is the difference?

Paid social refers to advertising on social media platforms. Ad targeting on these audiences is done based on demographics and interests. 

Paid search, in contrast, refers to advertising on search engines (like Google). It’s also known as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Search ads involve bidding on keywords to display ads on search engine result pages, capturing users’ intent at the moment of search. 

Both channels help drive targeted traffic and maximize conversions by leveraging user data and precise targeting capabilities. But they work very differently and on different platforms to do it.

What is the difference between paid social and organic social?

HawkSEM - Paid Social 101: What You Need to Know

A sponsored post above an organic post on HawkSEM’s Twitter feed (Image: Twitter)A sponsored post above an organic post on HawkSEM’s Twitter feed (Image: Twitter)

Another common question about paid social is how does it differ from organic social? Both are marketing strategies that operate on social media and fall under the umbrella of ‘social media marketing.’

The key difference is that paid social involves paid advertising. You allocate a budget to promote content, reach a wider audience, and achieve specific marketing objectives. You don’t rely on hashtags and organic reach to get your messaging to potential customers. 

In contrast, organic posts are your unpaid or natural presence on social media. This refers to where your content is shared without any promotional spend. 

While paid social allows for precise targeting and immediate visibility, organic social relies on organic reach and engagement without a direct advertising investment.

Both are valuable marketing strategies, although, unfortunately, in recent years, the reach that brands get from their organic social media has been declining

What social ad format can I use?

Once you’re set on what platform you want to use and what your paid social goals will be, you then need to think about what format you will display your ads in. 

The ad types you can choose from vary from platform to platform. However, these are some of the most common social media ad:

  • Text ads
  • Video ads
  • Multi-image carousel ads
  • Animated GIFs
  • Image ads
  • Product ads
  • Collection ads
  • Interactive ads
  • Lead form ads

Different ad formats will help you achieve different business goals and will resonate more with some audiences than others. It’s always best to stay on top of the latest trends and conduct A/B testing to find the optimal ad format for your brand. 

What are the latest stats in 2023?

Social media is a fickle marketing channel and not one for the faint of heart. New platforms, trends, and algorithms rise and fall in the blink of an eye. 

So, you need to keep your eye on what is happening in the industry and ascertain what trends will stay for the long term and which will have passed before your ads are even up and running. 

You can learn more about the latest social media marketing statistics in our post, 17 Social Media Marketing Stats for 2023’s Savvy Marketer.

Should my company explore influencer marketing?

One final area of paid social to consider is influencer marketing. This is a different channel from social media advertising but comes under the umbrella of paid social as you are still paying for the promotion of your product.

Influencer marketing is when a company partners with an influential person or group (whose audience is highly relevant to the brand) for a campaign to endorse, advocate, or amplify the brand.

These days, nearly all industries have influencers in their space — even the ones you may not think of as influencer-heavy, such as healthcare.

If you’re not sure whether influencer marketing is right for you, conduct some research to see if you can find influencers in your niche. It’s also wise to see if your competitors have leveraged them in the past.

Influencer marketing success checklist

Once you’ve decided to test out influencer marketing, set yourself up for success by:

  • Mapping out your campaign plan and goals
  • Identifying a few potential influencers
  • Determining the level of influencer you want (it ranges from nano to A-list celeb and will depend on your budget, obviously)
  • Nailing down the type of influencer content you’re looking for
  • How to test paid social ads
  • Just like you (hopefully) would with any other digital marketing campaign, testing and iterating should be baked into your process. Consider testing out varieties of copy, visuals, and mediums, such as an image vs. a short video.

Planning on-point creatives

It’s worth noting that some industries may naturally perform better than others, and some platforms are harder than others to achieve success. But there are things you can do to set yourself up for maximum return on ad spend (ROAS). 

Let’s talk about visuals. You don’t have to blow through your budget on movie-quality vids, but you may have to get creative.

And, again, it’s about knowing the intent of each platform. LinkedIn may not be the place for a goofy video, and trying to get template or whitepaper downloads on Instagram might be a bust.

Lastly, if your business has a creative team in charge of ad design, make sure they have the proper specs for each platform you’re using. If you’re running a video ad, you should know how long it can be before it cuts off.

Budgeting and goal-setting for paid social ads

Remember what we said before about determining your goals?

You should have goals figured out before you create your paid social campaign. Having the goals you want — whether that’s a certain number of purchases per month, a certain ROAS percentage, or something else — makes the process go much smoother. 

Some platforms, such as Facebook, optimize your campaign to your goal. Awareness campaigns, for example, are more broad and thus harder to track, so knowing that from the beginning helps you create realistic goals.

Facebook’s ad objective breakdown for the Consideration stage

Facebook’s ad objective breakdown for the Consideration stage. (Image: Facebook)

The bigger the platform and audience, the more homed in on your goal you’ll want to be. You don’t need to worry about being as targeted on a comparatively smaller platform like LinkedIn ads as you do on a larger, more globally used platform like Facebook Ads.

Start small when it comes to goal setting (also called the campaign’s objective). We don’t suggest running a giant $2,000 a day campaign straight out of the gate.

You can also experiment with targeting different locations instead of trying to blanket the entire country — your budget will go much further this way.

Depending on your product or service, the platform may be able to guide you towards the ad type that’s best for your goal. Try out their recommendation, then you can better optimize from there as the data comes in.

When you’re building your campaign, most platforms have an “audience reached” metric on the back end that will tell you the approximate audience size for your chosen parameters and what you can reach with your chosen budget.

Paid social media marketing pricing

You can typically expect to spend around $2,500-$10,000 and up each month. However, prices will vary depending on a number of factors, including the platform you choose — for instance, Instagram ads will cost you significantly more than Twitter ads.

The takeaway

With the popularity of social networks growing exponentially by the year, it’s definitely worth exploring as part of any robust digital marketing program.

Those who find success with paid social advertising platforms do so by having a solid strategy laid out and an idea of the right platforms for their brand before they start building.

By recognizing that content is key, remembering each platform has different requirements, understanding your audience, targeting properly, and budgeting appropriately, you’ll find that social platforms can be a fun and creative way to connect with and grow your audience.

Goodnough reminds us that “paid social is shown alongside organic social and the world doesn’t stop just because you finally got that campaign launched.”

She adds that content continues to evolve, events happen, new memes pop up, a new platform picks up steam, and your audience shifts. As marketers, we need to remember the digital marketing environment, especially the social media environment, is constantly changing, so we can’t stay still.

This article has been updated and was originally published in February 2020.

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