Search engine marketing and paid social have their place in your marketing strategy — but it can be tough to know how and when to leverage each.

Here you’ll learn:

  • Key differences and similarities between SEM and SMM
  • When to use search engine marketing
  • Common social media marketing goals
  • Best practices for both marketing types

Digital marketing is all about connecting with people by going to where they spend time online via their computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Two of the most popular online spaces? No surprise here: Search engines and social media.

That’s why both social media marketing (SMM) and search engine marketing (SEM) are integral to most modern-day advertising strategies. 

They allow you to reach as many people as possible while collecting valuable information for further lead generation, conversion, and retention efforts.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences and similarities between SEM and SMM.

man looking at smartphone

Your website is your digital first impression and online HQ. (Image: Unsplash)

What’s the difference between SEM and SMM?

Search engine marketing generally encompasses paid search or PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns. Some people also include search engine optimization tactics like content marketing as well, since search engine optimization (SEO) is also all about search engines.

Social media marketing can refer to both organic (free) and paid social efforts, such as promoted posts or social media ads.

While different tactics, search engine marketing and social media marketing have plenty in common. Their key similarities include:

  • Versatility  Both provide options for paid and organic marketing (paid search ads + SEO in SEM, paid social ads + social media optimization in SMM)
  • Reach – They give you an opportunity to reach a wide target audience (4.3 billion people use Google worldwide, while 3.6 billion people use social media)
  • Budget – While social media marketing doesn’t necessarily need to cost money, if you want them to reach maximum success, it requires some budget
  • Efforts  Both can bring about seriously impressive ROI if leveraged properly

On the other hand, a few important differences between SMM and SEM include:

  • Personalization – Social media marketing provides more opportunities to interact directly with the audience, which can help foster loyalty and trust
  • Costs – Social ads usually cost less than paid search ads (though ROI still depends on the quality of your strategy)
  • Goals – social media is more often about awareness building, while paid search is generally aimed at traffic and conversions
  • Choices Different audience segments have different social media app preferences, while most people leverage Google or Bing as their search engine (though there are others, of course).

When to use SEM

Your website is your digital first impression and online HQ. 

It’s where you want people to land, regardless of how they found you. So it’s imperative to keep it in tip-top shape, regardless of the marketing techniques you use. 


Paid ads and SEO go hand in hand. The latter helps get you more visibility in organic results, helps more people find you, and adds legitimacy to your online persona.

The higher your website ranks, the more credibility you achieve, both from your audience and in the eyes of the search engine.

SEO takes time to build, and it alone may not be able to get you to the top of page 1 search results, but it’s a necessary part of a well-rounded digital marketing plan.


PPC can not only help you shoot to the top of the search engine results page (SERP), but it allows you to target specific audiences to boot.

When you want to achieve quick results and bring more traffic to your website, PPC works best.

Paid search metrics are often very straightforward and easy to analyze. Plus, PPC tools can help you plan your budget, see what works and what doesn’t within minutes, and change your strategy in real-time

Overall, SEM best practices include:

  • Create high-quality content based on your audience’s pain points.
  • Target keywords depending on your budget (small budget = keywords with buying intent, larger budget = keywords for all stages of the buyer’s journey).
  • Choose the type of paid ads offered by search engines wisely since the CPC depends on it.
  • Build detailed buyer personas to base both SEO and PPC strategies on.

Bottom line: Use SEM when you need to drive traffic, increase exposure, gain credibility, and leverage specific targeting.

person looking at paid social on a tablet

PPC and SEO go together like peanut butter and jelly. The same can be said for SEM and SMM. (Image: Pexels)

When to leverage SMM

While it’s possible to achieve results without social media marketing, these popular apps can help you reach a wider audience without blowing your budget.

Unlike a search engine, social media ads usually reach people who aren’t seeking something out. Rather, they’re probably just scrolling through their feeds.

That’s why social media ads are perfect for companies looking to build their brand, grow their following, and increase awareness.

Another reason to use SMM is to get to know your audience. Creating business profiles gets you access to metrics and helpful info about your posts and followers. In turn, this data can improve your understanding of your buyer persona.

What’s more, social media ads provide stellar targeting options. Since platform users share information about themselves willingly, they’re much easier to segment. 

The best practices for SMM include:

  • Choose the best platform for your efforts (aka the ones your audience is most active on)
  • Prioritize the visual element, whether it’s an image or video
  • Ensure your profiles are fully filled out, accurate, and consistent
  • Post content regularly
  • Conduct A/B tests with your social ads

Bottom line: Social media marketing is a great tactic for building brand awareness, refining your buyer personas, and letting your brand’s personality shine.

The takeaway

We’ve talked before about how PPC and SEO go together like peanut butter and jelly. The same can be said for SEM and SMM.

To beat the competition, it’s wise to take advantage of all the resources and methods at your disposal — that includes search engines and social media marketing.

Struggling to get your digital marketing plan in shape? We can help.