When Choosing Marketing Channels, Visualize the Curve

Business Owner: “We’re launching a new company/website/campaign and want to buy ads that can get us some customers. Once that’s working, we’ll invest in content and SEO.”

Marketer: “So, no one’s heard of your brand, and you don’t have any existing digital marketing, but you’d like to start with ads, then invest in content and SEO?”

Business Owner: “Yup! That’s the idea.”

Marketer: “I’ve got some bad news…”

There’s a dangerous myth running around the entrepreneurial, small business, and marketing worlds perpetuating the idea that you can take a small/new brand and profitably, reliably acquire customers through either content+SEO or ads alone. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not impossible. Some outliers achieve success with these channels. But it’s far more likely that if a poorly-known brand throws money at Facebook and Google ads, they’ll see negative ROI. And if they invest in content+SEO without any existing coverage, traction, brand awareness, or audience, the odds of getting visitors to see that content, or Google to rank it, are vanishingly small.

When businesses invest in marketing, channel and tactic choices are often biased by the availability heuristic bias (i.e. popularity). The business’s owner has heard of Google and Facebook ads, so they assume that’s the place to start. They’ve maybe heard of content marketing and SEO, so they assume those are good tactics, too. Maybe they’re aware of brand building or email marketing or PR, but these aren’t top of mind, so they lose out to channels that are.

That’s a mistake.

Marketing functions best when it’s a cohesive, strategic, thought-through process. If you pick a tactic because you heard it worked for another business, rather than analyzing whether it’s the best possible fit for your goals, resources, and situation, you’re gonna have a bad time.

This brings us to a visual analogy I’ve been using the last few months to help explain channel selection options: the curve.

The curve is a simple concept that can help determine which channel(s) and tactic(s) might best apply to a given organization’s situation. If you’re an early-stage company, an individual creator, or a small business without much of an online brand presence or pre-existing audience, tactics like social, display, and search ads are likely to be expensive, low-ROI investments. Content and SEO can certainly work, but the return per hour invested will be much smaller at the outset. As you build up a marketing engine, earn traction, grow your brand, and build audiences that know you, like you, and prefer you when they see your ads/content/website/name, both ads and content tend to work better. That’s because the major platforms reward brands that earn higher-than-average engagement (in organic results and ads) with higher rankings, lower costs-per-click, and more visibility.

These illustrations might better convey that concept than any wall of text.

Above: Facebook and Google ads are incentivized to minimize your return, and maximize the percent of margin they get. Over time, ads have become more expensive on both platforms as the number of advertisers and amount they’re willing to pay have gone up. That’s the duopoly doing their jobs: maximizing the gains for their shareholders and minimizing the profit you can earn off their ads.

It could be the case that you’re an outlier: a brand with a product so compelling, a customer lifetime value so high, or ad copy so ingenious that even without substantial brand awareness and preference, you can make a go of it.

But chances are, you’ll need to build your brand first, then slowly dip your toes into advertising, likely starting with re-targeting audiences that have already visited your site via organic channels or given you their email.

Above: Content marketing and SEO are powerful channels that can build impressive marketing flywheels over time. But if you start investing when your site has very little traffic or authority, you’re in for a long ride. That can work OK so long as you don’t expect instant results. Building a content practice over months and years, then benefiting from your experience, your back catalog, and the habit of creation is a beautiful thing.

The problem is that many (perhaps even “most”) organizations invest in content expecting quick ROI (sometimes as little as 60-90 days!). That *can* happen if you’ve got an established brand, a substantive audience to whom you’re promoting your content, and some traction with Google’s consideration of your site (i.e. domain authority / EAT / whatever SEO terminology you like for this concept). In that case, much of the content you produce has a real chance of visibility in the search results. But most of the time with new ventures, local businesses, and small organizations, neither the ranking authority nor the audience are present yet. Thus, content and SEO become long-term, slow-investment channels (and, tragically, most give up on them long before they start paying dividends).

If you use the graphic to identify where your brand and website sit on the curve, you can make much smarter decisions about when, how, and whether to invest. Maybe you want to do some brand and influence building before you dive headfirst into content and SEO (unless you’ve got limitless budget, I’d certainly recommend it).

Above: Social media marketing follows a funny, somewhat less-consistent trajectory than the others I’ve visualized. If you nail the right platform, timing, niche, and content/interactions, you can get outsized reach and amplification. The challenge is that most networks and social audiences are strongly biased against promotional posts, replies, or accounts, so you need a spark of true creativity to stand out.

The social platforms’ algorithms optimize for engagement, which creates these sorts of “troughs” I’ve visualized above. Each new echelon of audience size and composition you want to reach requires getting over the “hump” of exposure, engagement, and action-taking, no easy feat.

It’s also true that each network and many of the individual tactics/approaches you might take to social marketing have different opportunities and efficacy. For example, Facebook pages…

Above: Yeah, Facebook’s organic reach is just miserable (0.09% via RivalIQ’s 2021 report). The curve in this case is so steep as to be nearly untenable, and most social marketers on Facebook have either embraced this laughably low-reach, or invested in alternatives (often moving much of their activity to Facebook Groups).

But, in social media, it all depends on your sector, your audience, the types of posts you’re publishing, and what you’re seeking to accomplish. Social’s still a great place to repurpose your content, to earn raw brand awareness, to make connections, and to build up fanbases (even if they’re hard to reach organically) you can later re-target through ads.

Above: “Influence Marketing,” is what I’m calling the process of finding sources of influence (blogs, websites, email newsletters, social accounts, podcasts, YouTube channels, events, webinars, etc) that already reach your target audience and pitching them for coverage, publishing opportunities, or sponsorship. There are those who argue this could be called “Digital PR” or even “Influencer Marketing” (with an “r”), but using either of those terms creates a lack of clarity and distinction, so I’m adopting new language.

Regardless of what you call it, this process of earning an audience’s awareness of your brand by getting featured in places they pay attention is a powerful, and deeply under-invested-in tactic. That’s part of what makes it so high-ROI. Competition isn’t nearly as prevalent, few businesses even know to try and pitch a podcast, sponsor an event, or publish a guest editorial in an industry newsletter, and thus, the brand-building and direct-response returns are superb. It’s how I’ve done most of the marketing for SparkToro itself!

The curve here is flatter and more consistent than most above, and influence marketing can serve as a terrific way to get early traction that later translates into the authority you need to rank content and the brand awareness you need to earn advertising ROI. The primary challenges are more about coming up with reasons for these sources of influence to cover/feature/talk-about you, and later, earning the right kinds of framing as your brand grows (just think of how most press sources, even in tech, cover WeWork, Uber, or Facebook these days).

Above: Last on my list of visuals for this post is email marketing, a tactic whose curve starts out with a sharp, steep rise, but becomes incredibly attractive if you can get over that hump. Building a marketing funnel that earns email opt-ins is undeniably difficult. But once you’ve got thousands of email addresses, provided by people who told you they specifically want to hear what you’ve got to say, ROI is phenomenal. Average open and clickthrough rates are hundreds of times higher than those of social platforms, and conversion rates are even higher than that.

Best of all, every email address is a long-term opportunity. Even more so than content (which often goes stale quickly, and tends to only perform when it’s relatively new), email addresses are a constant, ongoing source of opportunity if treated correctly.

These tactics and channels I’ve covered above are far from alone in the marketing world. Event marketing, sales-focused 1:1 outreach, outdoor advertising, TV, radio, print, influencer (with an “r”) marketing, and dozens more all have curves of their own, and times/places when they make sense (and don’t).

Hopefully, this process of estimating and illustrating a channel’s curve can prove valuable to you in your own prioritization efforts, and in presentations or pitches you might make to leadership/teams/clients. Even if you disagree entirely with the way I’ve visualized some of the curves above, you can make your own, use them, share them, and benefit. Maybe you can even save some business owners/execs from putting their efforts in the wrong place at the wrong time 🙂