Comparing organic success on Facebook with paid success

Could you imagine the following situation?

You run a city-based tabloid. You publish a fantastic human interest story and it goes ‘places’. If you only have a print edition (and no online edition), the best total audience for your story is your city.

To increase your total audience, you could pay and advertise your story in a national newspaper and gain more readers/eyeballs. Would you do it? Depending on the cost of advertisement, I assume.

Now, let us look at an online equivalent.

I read the social media strategy reviews on Social Samosa keenly. They use Simplfy360 and Unmetric to do the number crunching. But one part of this report continues to bother me a LOT. It is about paid promotion on Facebook.

A related digression, before that: A new Facebook page cropped up recently. It was a sub-brand from a popular brand and had reasonably engaging content. But, within 15 odd days, it had about 80,000 fans and 77,000+ were listed as ‘People Talking About It’. In 15 days!

If that is not a result of paid advertising – to gain likes, or individual post promotion – I don’t think the content is THAT good to go viral like this in 15 days – it was standard, functional content.

Also noted – most posts had 5-10K likes and 1-2K shares, but barely 1-2 comments. There also were posts with 100-300 likes and negligible shares and comments, making it clear that paid promotion gives you reach… and also likes and shares if the content is even half good. Example of half-good content – an image of an actor with a caption that vaguely connects him/her to the brand and an explicit call to action like, ‘Hit like if you think XYZ is blah, blah and blah’.

Now, there absolutely nothing wrong with this at all. The trouble is when, at a tool level, or as a manual research, we compare this with a page that has not used media spends to promote either the page or posts.

End of digression.

Now, here are excerpts from 3 recent social media strategy reviews from SocialSamosa – one of them use Simplfy360 and the other two use Unmetric.








My question – is it fair (or right) to compare 2 brands’ engagement on Facebook without getting into the details of paid promotion?

Take the Panasonic example. Has any effort been taken to know if Panasonic used post-promotion option on Facebook? If yes, should it not be considered with another brand in the industry that also does post promotion, instead of all brands that do or do not do promotion?

How about Aviva Vs. Max Life? Did either of them use media spends to promote their posts or pages on Facebook? If not, the comparison makes perfect sense since it clearly talks about quality of content as decided by followers/community. If media spends were involved, it needs to consider two parameters – quality of content as judged by community AND as judged by a set of audience who would not have seen that (those) post (posts) since they were side-loaded as a result of paid promotion.

I have asked this question to Unmetric many times, but they are yet to consider this factor in their tool and have honestly said that it may be in the pipeline but there’s no timeline on when it may be added. I’m not sure if Simplify360 has been asked this question yet.

Brands using tools to track performance of Facebook pages or using more laborious manual research methods may need to remember that there is a big difference between organic flight of content and inorganic, paid push for content. The former, when it goes places, is on 2 factors – the strength of the content and the kind/influence of people who pushed it.

In case of the latter, a 3rd factor is added – money. Money… which gets the piece of content new audiences… one which may not have seen it but for the paid push that put it in front of them.

As I mentioned earlier, this post is not about the fact that brands use money to push content ahead. It is only about inadequate systems to tell the difference between successful content or community that was built organically vs. inorganically. Earlier, you earned an audience in Facebook. Now, thanks to Facebook, you can also buy an audience on Facebook. You could argue that bought audiences won’t stick, but the beauty of Facebook is that you can keep buying the attention again and again, for every single post!



16 thoughts on “Comparing organic success on Facebook with paid success

  1. Very important question and one that is relevant to every social media analytic tool out there!

    In this case, even if the providers are able to factor in the % of paid v/s organic i wonder how they will be able to determine the media spend (which brand spent more, ran the campaign for a longer time, paid a higher CTR etc.). My understanding is that getting access to that data is not feasible for a third party analytics provider.

    However, considering that most big brands do invest in paid advertising the comparison to a certain extent is not overtly biased

    1. Good point. The starting point would obviously be to state – in BOLD TEXT – that the tool and the resulting analysis DOES NOT differentiate between paid push and organic content success.

      That should indicate to any reader (or user of tools) that this is apples vs. oranges comparison and should be taken with a pinch of sugar (since we’re on fruits, here 🙂 ).

      Next comes the practicality of knowing if there has been paid push for a piece of content or a community or not. I don’t think Facebook currently differentiates this at a user level, but sure does, at an admin level. That hardly helps, when it comes to comparison and decisions made on the basis of comparison.

      Imagine – a brand team could be seeing another brand’s FB page so-called success and taking a decision… (1) to get better creatives for the page and more interesting content OR (2) average content + a more aggressive media budget. As I said, nothing wrong with either approach, but the latter may (‘may’, not ‘would’) mean that there is more cocky confidence on reach than it would be had there been no paid option to get content in front of a LOT of people.

      1. Agreed, a disclaimer would help that it is not entirely an apple v/s apple but potentially a combination of organic, inorganic apples (i tried to stay on fruits 🙂 )

        Yes, the key insight here comes when viewed from a competitive strategy lens. If competitors are making such decisions and I am sure they do, it could be misleading. At the end of it though, I presume Facebook benefits with increasing spends which makes me wonder if Facebook will ever consider providing this paid/organic data nugget

  2. Karthik, you have raised a very valid question. We have been asked by several clients to add the paid advertising effect but we have other thoughts:

    1. A company can promote in 3 ways – spend money on FB ads, spend good money on creative folks or outsourced to agency, or take a technology route of building amazing apps that goes well beyond the simple campaign apps but try to define a different standard.

    2. It would be best to separate the 3 and have different sets of comparisons. But sadly, there is limitation on what data can be availed from Facebook and what information can be seek from participating companies.

    3. The other point is – Analytics tools give insights and it can show the status of the companies or brands on Facebook (or other platforms). It can be an input to the business leaders and marketing strategists. The creative side of the campaign and the journey needs a manual intervention; best judged by Social Media Marketers and Media experts. Analytics provides an avenue for serious research.

    4. Analytics has always been showing the status at various points. It has hardly achieved any success in reading the human psychology and intention or activity. Social Media Analytics is no different. The value that such analytics still have is that they show the success or failure, upwards or downward trends, commitment or no-commitment.

    I had actually talked about some of the ROIs on Social Media, and ways to measure effectiveness of Social Media campaigns in our eBook — Kick Ass Marketer (available for download at Simplify360 Resources). It seems to be a maze, which requires all parties – Agencies, Platform companies and Entreprises – to solve it.

    Meantime, we are working on next generation Analytics and will certainly have a deep dive here once again.

    Thank you so much for highlighting this fact.

    Bhupendra, CEO – Simplify360

    1. With you on point 3 – wish there was a way (from Facebook) to differentiate, so that the comparison is more balanced.

      On point 1: however creative a piece of content is, it needs to be seen by relevant people to attain some success (which can be judged by either reach or a call-to-action). Great content without reach would be, like the old joke, a beautiful girl in a dark room.

      Facebook paid promotion helps illuminate the room, while the girl also has to be pretty (to extend the joke’s analogy). So, it may be unfair to compare a dimly lit room with few people admiring her beauty against a brightly lit room where a lot more people are admiring her beauty 🙂

      As I was telling Ankit, it may not be in Facebook’s interest to offer this split since that may reduce the intent to pay Facebook to promote if they know that organic would only go so far while inorganic can go places – could open two lines of thinking:
      (1) Why bother creating great content are great cost – just average content would do, let’s promote it aggressively to reach people – brings down quality on FB

      (2) Everything on FB is a money game. Let’s use bare minimum presence for some purpose (service, engagement etc.) and stay out of the numbers game – brings down income to FB

  3. Interesting point of view Karthik. One simple question as a Marketer on this debate is the business outcome. Does paid advertising build reach and thus build brand salience? Assuming the path to purchase is not online. Or plain content which often may not be related to the core brand ethos get shared because it is simply interesting. Also FB edgerank algorithm limits each post to be seen by 10-12% of the fans, so one is compelled to spend.

    At the end of the day, all things considered, if paid helps the business case then so be it

    1. Bingo!! That’s the bottomline, ultimately. If the brand decides on a call-to-action (it could be anything from likes, to shares, to purchase – whatever) and it is achieved better with spends (bigger reach)… AND if the TG performing the call-to-action is appropriate for the brand, that’s it, in terms of ROI!

  4. Hello, again, Karthik. Good to connect here as well. Nice post, and let me say, right off the bat that I wholly agree. Like you’ve noted in the comments, Facebook being a walled garden makes it virtually impossible (at this time) to unquestionably discern between paid and promoted content. And like you added, its probably not in their interest or list of priorities to provide such info (as we’ve gathered from our conversations with them too).

    In our ‘labs’, we are able to, based on mathematical modeling of growth rates, and other behavior discern between paid and promoted posts – however not with a degree of accuracy (yet) that would allow for it to be flagged as such in our platform. So, at this time, let me just say it’s WIP.

    In the interim, I do believe a disclaimer would be the right thing to do, as you’ve noted in response to one of the comments. Look out for this soon in Unmetric. Happy to answer any other Qs you may have.


    Lakshmanan (Lux) Narayan
    CEO & co founder, Unmetric

      1. Sure Karthik. Interesting update, the upcoming FB Insights, but won’t impact public info (that we use) in the pages API, I’d imagine. For obvious reasons, the depth of disclosure will be a lot higher with own page insights. Someday, someway…

  5. Interesting points Karthik.

    I guess, in absence of any guidelines, paid promotions will still rule the roost and end of the day when brands are looking for numbers – Likes, Followers or PTAT scores, the inorganic way of growing numbers will always work. When looking for short term gains, brands often forget that the essence of ‘Social Media’ is being ‘Social’.

    My points on paid social media promotion might be of your interest here

    And if we think that Facebook or for that matter any other platform will want to reveal numbers about paid promotion, we would be living in a perfect world.

  6. Am not surprised nobody here (comments) has mentioned the role of content. In India, there is no such thing as content – digital agencies, and brands of course too – don’t understand what content is. Hence the bs discussions (mostly) on analytics and so on. Guys, wake up and smell the coffee.

    1. I agree, Shubho. Just that the discussion here (as a result of the post above) is slightly different – it is not about how content is helping create Facebook success, but the next step – assuming content is taken care of, how are we measuring success on Facebook.

      As for quality of content, the kind of content Indian brands are producing, how bad/good it is, waking up, smelling the coffee etc., that would be a different post altogether, if you had cared to read what the post above is (which is content too, btw) and not brush away the discussion here as bs, with a sweeping stroke.


      1. I did read the article:) But your points are valid… keep up the good work. I follow this blog regularly, you should write more.

        1. And I fully agree on the lack of focus on content… and more focus on the bean-counter level interest in amassing numbers. Just couldn’t find an appropriate trigger to rant about it yet 🙂

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