Should you pay for traffic or work for traffic?

Traffic, often known as visitors or sessions, has been one of the central KPIs in digital marketing since the Internet began. Across many digital marketing performance platforms, traffic is usually at the forefront of data that is analysed. Sessions are one of the first pieces of data encountered on Google Analytics and clicks are a central metric in AdWords.

Oliver Wood

Let your business objectives guide you

Traffic, often known as visitors or sessions, has been one of the central KPIs in digital marketing since the Internet began. Across many digital marketing performance platforms, traffic is usually at the forefront of data that is analysed. Sessions are one of the first pieces of data encountered on Google Analytics and clicks are a central metric in AdWords.

While conversions are usually the main money making KPI, the amount of conversions a business can produce is often directly dependent on how much traffic they can muster over a given period. Traffic, therefore, has a big impact on online profits and frequently on offline profits as well, since many people research products and services online before committing to buying offline.

When it comes to generating that traffic, companies have many avenues to explore but all of these can be broken down into two main paths: paid traffic and organic traffic. Many marketers and businesses are faced with the dilemma of whether they should pay for traffic or work for traffic.

Some businesses will be able to invest in both paid traffic and working for organic traffic, yet, depending on your marketing objective, one could be far more advantageous and cost effective than the other. A combination of working for traffic and paying for traffic is common but businesses need to understand which method works best for their various goals, so they can attribute the right financial assets to the right strategies.

For some smaller businesses, investing in both paid traffic and working for traffic at the same time may not be financially viable and so a choice must be made.

The correct decision is very much dependant on your marketing objectives.

Identify your marketing objective

It may sound obvious but many companies make the mistake of not having a clear view of their marketing objective. If you are unsure, you can easily make the wrong investment choice when it comes to paying or working for traffic.

ROI (Return on investment) - This objective signifies making a profit and this is essentially the main objective of every company, hidden behind all other campaign objectives.

This is the end game, to make sure more money is made and that the profits gained far outweigh the spend to generate those sales.

To achieve this objective enough traffic must be created to push conversions, without spending more than the value of those conversions. If investment exceeds return a company would make a loss.

However, although this is the end goal of every for-profit company, many marketing campaigns will be focused on a sub-objective. Marketers may run a series of campaigns focused on different goals all with ROI in mind at the end.

This is because humans are complex and getting someone to make a purchase is rarely straightforward. This is where the conversion funnel comes in. While a minority of users will go straight from discovery to purchase in one encounter, many others will not and need some persuading and continued marketing efforts upon.

Conversions – This is the obvious marketing objective that is required to feed your ultimate goal of ROI. Without conversions, you can’t make money. Conversions are naturally the end of that much longer conversion funnel. Marketing campaigns will often focus on one or multiple stages of pushing users down the funnel from first awareness of your brand to purchase. Each of those stages requires traffic.

Nurturing leads / customers – This is a marketing objective that many businesses completely forget about. It is rarely remembered as an important step in creating conversions. Remember, if ROI and continued profit is the end game, then ideally, you don’t just want a lead, you want that lead to become a sale. With conversions, you would like repeat customers. Campaigns that focus on nurturing are often very beneficial, as they support your end game goal better than just conversion or lead generation focused campaigns. Micro-conversions and engagement can be goals to aid the objective initially and followed up with email marketing, content marketing and social marketing to continually nurture leads or nurture more conversions.

Engagement – Engagement may seem like a similar objective to lead and conversion nurturing but it occurs higher up the funnel. The goal is to generate conversation and intrigue, partially to transform this traffic into hot leads, or first-time convertors, or to create a conversation to attract even more traffic. To enable engagement, traffic is required on your site or other platforms.

Brand Awareness – There must be knowledge and awareness around your service or product for people to desire it and to search for your company in the future. To push users down the conversion funnel, initial contact must first be established by making users aware of your existence. A hard sell straight from awareness to purchase in one swoop can be hard to achieve and that is why campaigns simply for brand awareness can be invaluable in starting the soft sell process. Sometimes campaigns will aim to generate traffic primarily so users can discover your brand.

Traffic is essential to all the other marketing objectives. If an individual marketing campaign is focused primarily on traffic generation, you must still consider it in the context of your wider objectives to choose the right strategy.

Where will traffic come from?

Once you have a firm idea of your marketing objective and how it fits into your wider plan to produce ROI, you can start to think about the channels through which you gain traffic.

There are three main ways traffic reaches your brand: paid media, owned media and earned media. Each of these traffic sources also lend themselves to paid traffic or working for traffic to differing degrees.

Paid media is how brands gain paid traffic. These will be mainly ads, such as display, search or remarketing ads in search engines or across other sites using third party resources like AdWords or Bing. Paid media can also be ads or even PR directly purchased from publishers. Basically, any method where your business gains traffic from paying a third party is paid media.

Paid media is an effective way to push traffic quickly and it is practically guaranteed to create traffic but only so long as you keep paying. While it is the most reliable choice for traffic, if the ultimate goal is profit then it is not always necessarily the best option.

Owned media is anything your brand owns online, hence content on your own blog is owned media. Your social media channels and the posts on them are also owned media, as are any microsites or videos your brand creates.

Paid media may seem somewhat synonymous with paid traffic but traffic brought in by owned media can be produced, encouraged or supported by either paid ads or by working for the traffic.

Earned media is traffic generated by your audience, fans or other brands and publishers for free. Traffic sent to you from shares, mentions, freely given links, reviews, reposts and discussions are all earned media. When a piece of owned media goes viral, much of the traffic will be from earned media as others voluntarily share and discuss or recommend the content.

Once again earned media could be brought to light with your audience by working for the attention of others or paying for it. Once a conversation and recommendations start developing on their own, it becomes earned media because the traffic was earned by the value of your content or services which others felt compelled to recommend of their own accord.

How can brands work for their traffic?

While paid traffic is a fast way to gain an audience and has many advantages, it can also be expensive. Ideally businesses want to make as much money as possible while limiting spend, hence, depending on your marketing objective, working for traffic could be a worthwhile option.

To work for traffic, marketers encourage visitors to their website and platforms without the assistance of paid ads. Owned media can be generated by organic traffic and marketers can also work to better facilitate the chance of earned media.

SEO – By properly optimising websites businesses can gain visibility in search engines without the use of ads. With fresh relevant content, meta data, link building and quality technical SEO health, websites can rank highly in search for their desired terms without having to bid. By being the most relevant site to a query, owned media can still be found when users search for your target keywords. SEO can push users to owned media and the visibility of ranking well in search gives great content a chance to gain earned media, if it resonates with your audience.

Content marketing – While great content can be pushed by paid media it does not have to be. Content marketing is a core element of organic traffic generation. It actively aids SEO, if relevant to a business’ products or services and if the content is good enough is can start producing earned media too.

Email marketing – This can support and be a part of content marketing to continually nurture leads with owned media and again encourage earned media.

Social marketing – Social media platforms can push owned media to your audience and when used to great effect, it can generate engagement and earned media.

Influencer marketing – Like social marketing and content marketing, there is a paid option for influencer marketing. Brands will often pay social influencers and bloggers to talk about their products (although if links are involved Google heavily frowns upon this). However, by building good relationships naturally and interacting with relevant industry influencers, companies can gain some high-quality organic earned media.

Which traffic generation method suits your objective

By now you should understand what objective you want to achieve with your digital marketing campaign, where your coveted traffic might come from, methods to obtain it via paid or organic traffic and hopefully where this fits into your goal of good ROI.

Knowing all this, it is now time to see whether paid or organic traffic is right for your specific objective.

Both working for traffic and paying for traffic have their benefits and disadvantages which make them more suited to different objectives and phases of the conversion funnel, so let’s analyse how suitable both methods are to your various goals:

Brand awareness sits at the top of your conversion funnel. Paid media like AdWords can get your brand and product in front of people for some fast traffic.

On the other hand, so can organic methods like SEO, social and content marketing. If earned media can be achieved, this will definitely spread your brand awareness further.

For brand awareness both methods are an option but which you choose will ultimately come down to your time scale and financial situation.

If you are launching a new product and require a lot of awareness quickly, then paid traffic is definitely the way to go. Paid media is fast and will drive traffic. You are paying for those clicks, so AdWords must deliver some.

However, paid traffic is a continual drain on your financial resources.

People are also forgetful and unless they hear about your brand often you will soon be pushed to the back of their minds. If your objective is to create continued brand awareness, rather than a quick burst, then paid traffic can become problem. Brand awareness campaigns are not primarily focused on driving conversions and so it is likely the ROI in the short term could be poor. If you factor in the financial loss of the paid ads on top of payroll costs for your marketers you could be losing more money than you make in the short term.

Although organic traffic is slow to develop, once you establish a good social media presence and a high-ranking position in organic search you can continue to create brand awareness with very little extra costs. This will always produce a better ROI.

However, brand awareness can be quite challenging by organic means. In search, organic traffic relies on the user to already be looking for your product/service and unpaid content and social marketing has minimal reach. There are few options for actively targeting the right users before they search.

Paid traffic on the other hand goes beyond search marketing. On both the display network and paid social, sophisticated user targeting is at your fingertips. You can reach users based on their behaviour, profile, location or demographic even when they are not searching.

Despite the financial cost, paid traffic is usually required to get content visible in such a competitive saturated market.

Engagement – It is quite hard to generate conversations, reviews and comments with a brand-new user. While paid traffic can be used to boost interesting content to start a conversation, it is usually short lived.

To continue that conversion, it will require manual stimulation through social media posts or onsite comments. Once again it seems organic work will definitely be required but paid traffic can be used in a minimal supportive capacity to kick off the process.

Nurturing leads and conversions – Surprisingly, paid media can be useful for nurturing leads and repeat conversions if remarketing is used, however nurturing someone to rebuy or move from lead to sale is usually helped by real conversation. Email marketing, your sales team engaging with leads and social media are a great way to keep the conversation going. Remarketing is a good reminder but the conversation is somewhat one-sided and less directly involved with nurturing a relationship.

Again, it comes down to time frame and available funds. These users are further down the conversion funnel or may be previous purchasers, so profit is more likely. Paid remarketing is a smart idea especially if you are looking to nurture people aggressively but to create a long-term dialogue with happy customers who identify with your brand, working for those revisits is a strong approach.

Conversions – Here is where the true battle between working for your traffic or paying for it really comes to the forefront.

Organic methods can be incredibly slow, especially if you are starting from scratch. However, organic traffic saves money and minimises spend risk, which is ideal if you are already achieving high traffic and conversions and are just concerned about maintaining those levels or growing them slowly.

If you need to grow your traffic and conversions rapidly, paid traffic will easily win the argument.

It might seem like paid traffic is the only choice for growth in the conversion objective but statistics show it may not be the best choice from a user perspective. According to the Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising, 92% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know and only 36% of consumers trust ads on social networks. This chart from Kikolani shows us which marketing methods are most persuasive to users.


This data would put the ball firmly in the court of earned media. When it comes to working for traffic, creating earned media is the most difficult. It is out of the business’ control and dependent on users’ reaction to your content. Creating great content is a big part of this but as many experienced marketers will know, this still does not always result in the desired earned media.

Despite the challenging, unpredictable nature of earned media even marketers agree that it is a powerful tool in pushing conversions. According to a recent poll by Search Engine Journal 50% of marketers believe earned media will deliver the best returns in 2017:


Owned media, without the assistance of ads, is also more popular with your audiences. Content marketing can be very effective because users trust it more than ads, as well as trusting recommendations from other people. The graph below reveals the positive feelings users have towards good content:


Industry influencer Neil Patel has collated data on content perception which reveals that 70% of people would prefer to learn about products through good content (as opposed to ads). If you have ever doubted whether owned media can really drive traffic, it may surprise you to learn that 68% of consumers report they spend time reading blog content and other content from a brand they’re interested in.

If you can build up the necessary ranking positions, social presence and other organic marketing techniques to support excellent content, then conversions can be encouraged more effectively while saving money. In an ideal world working for your traffic would produce the better ROI.

It is a simple idea but once organic efforts kick off they can accumulate more conversions without investing more money, whereas even the best PPC campaigns will hit a wall where they cannot reach a bigger audience without further funds:


On the surface, this would seem to make working for traffic the winner for conversion campaigns but looks can deceiving.

3 factors to bear in mind when choosing your conversion campaign approach

We can now see that, in the case of brand awareness, paid traffic has a big advantage because of its ability to target new users, who are the perfect audience, before they even search. Advertisers must remember to be careful and keep an eye on their ROI and how the campaign will work in the long-term strategy.

For engagement and nurturing, paid traffic can be used in a supportive way to speed up the process, if you have the funds, but working for this traffic will always be a big part of the process.

When it comes to conversions it seemed working for your traffic would yield the best results but there are several external factors to bear in mind:

  • Your time scale
  • Your budget and your industry
  • The LTV of your conversions
  • Your current organic presence

The time scale issue: While earned media and owned media are more trusted than ads it does not mean they can generate enough traffic to produce enough conversions in a time window. If your business needs to push a certain number of conversions in a relatively short time scale, organic methods can let you down. If you wish to experience immediate growth in conversions you will have to choose paid traffic as your method.

Can your budget match your market? Your financial assets and the competitive state of your industry will always play a major role. If your company is based in a highly competitive industry for PPC, such as finance or telecoms, you could discover shockingly high bids. If CPC is so high and the amount of conversions generated not sufficient to provide positive ROI, then paid traffic should be avoided. It can be hard to foresee this prior to running a campaign, so we recommend you head over to our handy AdWords budget guide to check your projected campaign ROI against your current assets.

What is the LTV of your conversions? Marketers choosing between paying for traffic or working for traffic to produce conversions should also consider the LTV (life time value) of their customers. We know not all conversions are created equal. Some items are likely to be repurchased, others are once in a lifetime purchases and others provide ongoing profit if contract based.

Disruptive Advertising Cleverly point out that if we are analysing long term success for conversions, LTV is the deciding factor between paid or working for traffic. If your cost per conversion is lower than the life time value of that customer, then paid traffic is a good choice even in a long-term campaign, since you are producing a profit on each conversion and gaining conversions more quickly. However, if in PPC the cost per conversion is higher than the life time value, then you should work for traffic to push conversions instead. In businesses where the purchase value is low but you move product quickly, organic methods could be more profitable. You don’t want to make a loss on cost per conversion considering the limited life time customer value.

What is your organic presence? Even taking into account all other factors, if you are just starting out with digital marketing, working for traffic will take time to deliver results. It can be a slow process to gain decent ranking positions organically and build a following, so for businesses who need to start seeing some profit from the beginning, paid traffic will need to be part of the equation.

The integrated approach

Marketers should now know whether they want to use paid traffic or work for their traffic according to their objective. You probably will have noticed that the answer is not just dependant on your objective but also your exterior circumstances.

It is common to see working for traffic and paying for traffic as separate entities but really this is not the case. In fact, earned, owned and paid media are not even as separate as they seem. This is why most businesses take an integrated approach to traffic generation. Rather than choosing between paid traffic and working for traffic, they use both at different stages and often simultaneously to achieve the best results.

The problem with ideal scenarios is they are just that, ideal, not reality. We should all be able to recognise that earned media is powerful but no matter how good your content, it may not receive any earned media. This does not mean you are failing to produce good content. Amazing content can fail to reach users without support from PPC or even when it does, no earned media is produced. This is because digital marketing has become so competitive that the internet is filled with incredible content. People become used to great content and then individual pieces do not seem so special anymore.

Sadly, you can work as hard as you like to produce content for your audience but not every piece of content can be a unicorn. Remember the warning that if every piece of content is wonderful and special then that would be the norm for users.

Similar issues affect owned media and other organic traffic methods. SEO and content marketing produce more long-lasting results than paid media in theory. You can burn less financial assets and sit in higher positions in search longer. Unless of course you once again find yourself in a competitive market. In these cases, holding onto your ranking positions against big players can be a constant struggle. Organic results often fluctuate rapidly.

Considering these problems, we can see how valuable paid traffic really can be.

Paid traffic experts also know that PPC results are no more static than organic traffic. You can of course learn from your campaign and use strategic planning to reduce your CPC and increase your clicks, impressions or conversions for the next month.

Just because paid traffic and working for traffic can be viewed as standalone approaches, doesn’t mean they should be. The best scenario is to put more assets into paid traffic initially while also working hard for organic traffic. As you gain good rankings and earned media you can reduce your spend in paid traffic and increase it again when launches take place or rapid growth is required.

Often PPC data informs organic traffic strategies and it works the other way around.

Your organic work can easily reveal what search queries people used to find your site, which is helpful when planning an AdWords campaign:


AdWords in turn can show which terms performed best in paid, which could be an indication of where more optimisation efforts should lie organically:


Again, organic work reviewed in Google Analytics show which pages have been most popular, which can help choose landing pages and craft ad creatives:


Often results may surprise you as every business is different, so it helps to review the success of your paid results in comparison to all organic sources to see which has delivered the best results for you:



Ultimately paid traffic and working for traffic are complementary forces and so too are earned, owned and paid media.

While they are separate sources they work in a cycle rather than independently. In the diagram below you can clearly see the relationship between these traffic sources:


The video below demonstrates how paid and organic efforts can feed earned and owned media and how the process works together as a cohesive strategy:

Marketers may feel, with the decisions of investing in paid traffic or working for their traffic, that they are trapped in a juggling match between quality marketing, speed and price.

Which is why an integrated approach is nearly always the right answer for best profits.