Paid Media: Definition, Channels, and Tactics (+ Examples)

Paid Media: Definition, Channels, and Tactics (+ Examples)

How do you speed up the process of building brand awareness, converting customers, and driving website traffic?

Paid media amplifies marketing campaigns and accelerates results—so you can reach marketing goals faster.

It’s a key element of any digital strategy. Yet it’s also a broad category with a long list of channels, formats, and tactics.

To succeed with paid media, you need to know where to focus your efforts, how to maximize value, and how to balance it with owned and earned media. Get an overview below, and then level up your skills with PPC training.

What is paid media?

Paid media is marketing you pay to promote on websites, search engines, social media, and other channels. Think text, image, and video ads.

Paid media campaigns work throughout the funnel. They can:

  • Reach new customers
  • Attract website traffic
  • Find qualified leads
  • Generate revenue

Paid media vs. Owned media vs. Earned media: What’s the difference?

Paid media is just one avenue for promoting your business. Many marketers use a mix of paid, earned, and owned media.

Owned media

Owned media is marketing content that your business produces and publishes. Your team controls the entire process.

Examples of owned media include:

Owned media isn’t free. These marketing assets can easily cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to produce.

The difference is you don’t pay for owned media placements. You can publish it on your website or social accounts at no cost. 

Why include owned media in your digital strategy? It gives you a way to attract customers organically—by creating valuable content that responds to their needs and goals.

Earned media

Earned media is marketing content that external sources produce for your business. You can’t control the process.

Examples of earned media include:

  • Customer reviews
  • Articles about your business
  • Mentions of your business on social media or websites

Technically, earned media is completely free. But getting these mentions often takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work.

You can position your business to earn media mentions via tactics like:

  • Content marketing and SEO, which can earn backlinks
  • Responding to journalist requests, which can result in quotes in articles
  • Building relationships with customers, which can lead to reviews and social media shares

Why include earned media in your digital strategy? Since it comes from third parties, earned media doubles as social proof. That means it can convert new customers who don’t want to miss out.

Paid media

Owned and earned media are inbound methods. But paid media is a type of outbound marketing that relies on advertising networks.

Why include paid media in your digital strategy? It’s a way to expand your customer base and get your business in front of specific types of prospects.

Depending on the ad network and type of media, you can target audience segments by:

  • Search keywords
  • Demographic data
  • Interest categories
  • History of interactions with your website

Plus, paid media can generate results (clicks or conversions) almost instantly. And you can scale your efforts to meet marketing goals at any time.

Types of paid media

So, what’s the best way to promote your business? Start with these five types of paid advertising.

Search ads display on search engine results pages (SERPs). You bid on keywords relevant to your business. Then these ads trigger when people enter related search terms.

They’re responsive ads that can include any combination of text, images, links, and callouts. Here’s an example of a Google search ad:

On average, Google search ads cost $2.69 per click, according to Wordstream.

Paid social

Paid social media appears on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, X, and other social media networks. Unlike search ads, social ads don’t use keywords. Instead, they target users based on behaviors, interests, or demographics.

Social media advertising centers on images and videos, making them more visual than search ads. Here’s an example of a sponsored Facebook post:

The cost of these ads depends on the social media channel and the campaign objective. Average advertising costs include:

Display ads

Display ads are image-based ads that show on websites and in apps. Like social ads, display ads let you define audience segments based on parameters that matter to your business. They can also retarget engaged prospects.

Here’s an example of an ad running on a website in the Google Display Network:

On average, display ads cost $0.63 per click, according to Wordstream.

Native ads

Native ads appear on websites and look a little like display ads. The main difference is they tend to blend in with organic content to create a more natural discovery experience.

Most native ads have a “Sponsored” or “Partner Content” disclaimer. Here’s an example of a native ad:

On average, native ads cost anywhere between $0.001 and $0.50 per click, according to Brax.

YouTube ads

YouTube ads are video ads that appear on (you guessed it) YouTube. They display before, during, or after organic video content. Because YouTube is part of the Google Ads network, these ads share PPC targeting options with search ads.

Here’s an example of a YouTube ad:

On average, YouTube ads cost between $0.11 and $0.50 per view or click, according to Web FX.

Tips to optimize paid media results

Do your paid ads tend to cost more than average? Use these tips to improve your approach and get better results from paid media.

Identify your ideal channel(s)

When you focus on channels that don’t align with your targeting needs or acquisition tactics, you can’t expect the optimal advertising ROI.

So, which channels are best for your business? In short:

  • Google ads are best for finding prospects who are actively searching for solutions you offer.
  • Facebook ads are best for retargeting prospects based on interactions with your business.
  • LinkedIn ads are best for targeting B2B prospects with lead generation and thought leadership tools.

Remember, if you only test one solution, you’ll never know if the others will work for your marketing goals. Try testing smaller budgets on secondary channels. If you get a good cost per result, consider reallocating some of your budget.

Find your target audience

Your ability to reach the right audience has a major impact on campaign results. No matter which paid media channel you use, you’ll need to strike a balance between automated targeting and custom segments.

Use these guidelines to build your target audiences:

  • For top-of-funnel campaigns, use broader targeting. Consider AI-powered options like Facebook’s Advantage+ Audiences or Google’s optimized targeting.
  • For bottom-of-funnel campaigns, use your own first-party data. Consider retargeting engaged audience segments or leads who are already on your customer list.

Watch out for settings that automatically expand your targeting or place your ads on partner networks.

The first thing I suggest when taking over an existing account is to make sure that LinkedIn Audience Expansion is off and that the LinkedIn Audience Network is not turned on for any of the campaigns. These two options are absolute poison for account performance.

AJ Wilcox, Founder and CEO of B2Linked.

Set smarter bids

Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn all push automated bidding. These options may be faster and easier to use, especially for marketers new to paid media. But they won’t always lead to the best results.

Instead, experiment with:

  • Google’s manual cost-per-click (CPC) bidding
  • Facebook’s bid caps
  • LinkedIn’s manual bidding

As AJ Wilcox explains:

Most advertisers see LinkedIn’s default bidding method and they assume since it’s the default, it’s the best for their performance. The truth is, their ads need to perform 2.5x to 3x the average click-through rate (CTR) before that bidding method is in their favor.

The option for manual CPC bidding is hidden because LinkedIn doesn’t want you to use it. But it’s the cheapest way to pay for your traffic 90% of the time.

When you do select it, LinkedIn will give you crazy recommendations like you should be bidding $20 to $80 per click. Ignore those and start by bidding significantly lower. You only need to bid high enough to spend your daily budget by the end of the day. A low bid does not equate to low-quality traffic, regardless of what your LinkedIn rep claims.

Develop creative iterations

Want to see even better performance? Improving your creative can drive better results and address ad fatigue.

Yet testing creatives is an art and a science. First, you need to know if creative iteration is the right approach.

Want to see even better performance? Improving your creative can drive better results and address ad fatigue.

Yet testing creatives is an art and a science. First, you need to know if creative iteration is the right approach.

Zach Murray, Founder of Foreplay.co, recommends:

The delta between your advertising results and your target. If everything is hitting the target, I focus more effort on finding new winning angles. If you are shy of your ROAS targets, iteration might yield better results.

Next, you need to know how much to spend and how to allocate your budget. Zach advises:

You want to ensure you’re spending enough on each new creative test to yield statistically significant results when compared to the rest of your ad account. Generally, I would refrain from testing more than three to five variations at a single time.

Not sure which ad formats to focus on? See what’s working — or rather what’s not working — for your competitors. Zach explains:

What most people get wrong when conducting competitor research is only hypothesizing what is working for their competitors. There is just as much, if not more, to learn from what did not work for them. Tracking their tested ad creatives and angles that fail can save you a lot of time and money.

Run A/B tests

Creatives are just one element to test. Most ad networks also support A/B tests for audiences, placements, and formats.

So, how do you know which elements to test — and in what order?

My process for testing is to pick one audience that has a high chance of working, for example a 1% lookalike based on previous customers. I’ll then focus on A/B testing the ad creative, starting with the most important aspect — the image or videos.

Once I’ve discovered the best image or video, I’ll test headlines. Then I’ll do a final round of testing for the primary ad text. I recently did this for an executive coaching client and reduced the cost per lead from $10 to $2, so an 80% reduction in costs.

Paul Fairbrother, Founder of The Fairbrother Agency

This testing process sets the stage for further optimization. Paul explains:

When you have some high-performing ads, you then have the confidence to switch to larger — and therefore weaker — broad audiences. However, because you’re using ad creative that has been ‘battle tested’ the cost per conversion should still be reasonable.

Once the learning phase ends and delivery is optimized, the cost per conversion should drop further and stabilize. Then you have a chance to scale ad spend and really ramp up results with a large audience.

Focus on your optimal ad format(s)

As you collect data from testing and iteration, you can zero in on the ad formats that drive the highest ROI. Then, you can double down on what works best for your audience.

Sure, it may make sense to experiment with new ad formats and features as they roll out. But you should always use data to make informed decisions — not the advice of ad account reps who have something to sell you.

Growth marketing consultant Nick Lafferty, shares:

Seasoned PPC professionals know that their Google reps, as nice as they are, are really sales reps. Their goal is to get you to spend more money, and they wrap that goal in helpful suggestions, insights, and reports. Right now, in March 2024, every Google rep is pushing a campaign type called Performance Max (aka P-Max).

I’m managing six different Google Ads accounts for SaaS companies right now. And in every account where I’ve tested P-Max, it’s been an absolute disaster. P-Max works by abstracting away all the controls most advertisers are used to having, like:

  • What networks your ads run on (Search, Display, YouTube). P-Max runs on all of them. 
  • What devices your ads run on (desktop, tablet, mobile). P-Max runs on all of them.

Design a robust reporting system

Clear and actionable reporting is the key to optimizing paid media campaigns. But most ad networks’ built-in reporting options leave a lot to be desired. Nick explains:

Google’s default campaign reporting is terrible for both PPC professionals and their clients who are trying to understand the results of their campaigns. Reporting for my clients either looks like:

  • A Google Sheets dashboard I build for them using tools like Supermetrics.
  • Their internal reporting in something like Mode, Tableau, or Looker.

The more robust my client’s internal reporting systems are, the better we can optimize their ad campaigns. Nothing like a report that says exactly how leads from Google are moving through the sales funnel and turning into opportunity dollars.

Final thoughts on paid media

With the right paid media channels, formats, and strategy, you can reliably reach goals at every stage of the funnel. But this overview is just the beginning of what you need to master paid media.

Sign up for CXL’s PPC Training to learn advanced tactics for Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn ads. You’ll get everything you need to succeed with digital advertising — including a certification to prove it.

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Paid Media: Definition, Channels, and Tactics (+ Examples)