As the 2020s begin, two marketing truths have become firmly established: First, digital ad spending is clearly the way of the future. As of 2017, the money spent on digital ads officially surpassed that spent on television ads, and the trend shows no signs of stopping.

Second, the number of ways to spend a marketing budget online has only continued to splinter into a complicated mess that can pose challenges even to the savviest of marketing minds.

The truth is, it’s really, really difficult to figure out how to spend an online marketing budget at this point, especially when you’re looking at two of the most expensive yet effective online marketing investments currently available: search engine marketing and social media marketing.

SEM vs. Social Media Marketing: Considerations

Search engine marketing (SEM) and social media marketing are two extremely popular ways to reach potential customers online. Both can factor heavily into a marketing budget, and both can soak up as much of your budget as you’ll give it.

There are clear benefits to both options, and both come at significant costs. Unfortunately, though, if you were hoping for a formulaic answer to the question of how to specifically divvy up your marketing budget between the two powerful strategies, you’re going to have to adjust your expectations a bit.

The specific way that these two marketing options should be incorporated into each company’s strategy should truly be done with care based on your own unique situation. With that said, here are the costs, benefits, and a few considerations for both marketing strategies.


In a nutshell, search engine marketing is the paid side of search marketing. In other words, one of the biggest factors to be aware of when it comes to SEM marketing is the difference between paid and organic searches.

Search engine optimization (SEO) focuses on creating organic and local content that naturally establishes your website as an authority in the eyes of a search engine. SEM, on the other hand, emphasizes paid advertisements that are promoted within search engine results regardless of your online presence.

To put it another way, SEO strategies revolve around establishing a long-term presence online. SEM strategies focus on getting paid ads in front of as many potential customers as possible.

Some costs of SEM:

  • Keyword research and strategy: Creating an SEM strategy requires researching what keywords your audience is using in order to direct your ads to the right search terms.
  • Tracking and analyzing data: If you can’t track your SEM results, you may waste money on terms that don’t convert into sales.
  • The ads themselves: Pay per click (PPC) ads cost you money each and every time they’re clicked on.
  • Time: Training, management, and simply putting in the grunt work all take paid time.

Primary benefits of SEM:

  • Quick results: SEM can push your online presence without waiting for longer SEO or social media strategies to take effect.
  • Control: SEM allows you to intimately control when and to whom your content is shown online.

Social Media Marketing

There is a slew of different reasons to have a social media marketing focus at this point. For instance, you can build your brand awareness, drive traffic to your website, gather valuable feedback from your audience, use paid ads, and provide quality customer service, all with a single social media channel. Of course, all of this comes at a cost.

Some costs of social media marketing

  • Content creation: This includes photos, graphics, copywriting, and videos.
  • Content management platforms: Sites like Hootsuite and Sprout help to organize your social media efforts — and often have fees.
  • Influencer marketing: Paying influencers (in cash or products) can eat up large quantities of your budget.
  • Paid ads: Much like SEM, you can create paid ads on most social media platforms, and every click will cost you.
  • Time: Again, like SEM, there are inherent training and management costs, along with the nearly endless amount of paid hours that can be poured into social media marketing efforts.

Primary benefits of social media marketing:

  • Building brand awareness: Social media is based on communication, which is an ideal way to spread awareness of your company.
  • Nurturing brand loyalty and trust: Interacting positively with brands on social media is an excellent way to develop a sense of loyalty and trust.
  • Access to influencers: Social media is the perfect place to find authoritative personalities within your niche to work with you and endorse your brand.

Creating an Online Marketing Strategy for 2020

As you size up your marketing budget and needs for the year ahead, consider how these two options can help you reach your goals. For instance, if you’re attempting to establish yourself online, you may want to lean on an SEM-heavy strategy to push your message in front of customers as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if you’re looking to build brand awareness and trust, social media can play a key role in your efforts.

Take the time to carefully consider how the strengths of both SEM and social media marketing can help you accomplish your goals, and then allocate your budget accordingly.

Noah Rue is a journalist and a digital nomad, fascinated with the intersection between global health, personal wellness, and modern technology. When he isn’t frantically updating his news feeds, Noah likes to shut off his devices, head to the beach and read detective novels from the 1930s.

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