Oftentimes, paid advertising appears to be the only way to drive up sales and hit your monthly targets. But for a small business or startup, paid advertising can also be a big commitment that really needs to offer a return on investment to be considered worthwhile. And advertising doesn’t come cheap.

Certainly, there are many modes of paid advertising in our internet age, but no two modes of advertising are equal.

Here, we’ll take a look at the major online players in advertising; Google AdWords, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to explain the pros and cons of each. Are they worth every penny?

This is the big one. The daddy. Or mummy. It’s basically the end of level boss that’s difficult to beat for online marketing.

Google AdWords first came to be some 18 years ago. October 23, 2000 to be exact. As the world’s largest search engine with around 74% of all searches worldwide being carried out through Google, advertising with AdWords seems to make a whole lot of sense.

Added to the vast marketing power of AdWords is its simple to understand marketing method. While advertising on the web can be a tricky business for those less tech-savvy, Google AdWords offers a straightforward pay-per-click, or PPC model, which charges a business only if their advert is clicked on, though you can also opt to pay per impression. Advertising can be given more focus for a specific niche or geographical area, so there’s room to maneuver.

One of the major benefits here is that this model is scalable, meaning that if your business if profiting from the advertising then you can invest more and should continue to see a parallel profit increase.

But for smaller businesses, with the increasing costs of Google AdWords, the easy to understand PPC model might not be all its made up to be. Certainly, you’re only paying when you know people have been interested in your service. But that often doesn’t amount to a sale. Anyone can browse a page and leave. If you see that the amount you’re having to pay – and the rates are much higher than a few years ago, now up to several dollars per click – then it’s time to look elsewhere.

Other problems can be that your content doesn’t rank well with Google. AdWords tries to offer the searcher the most relevant results based on the keywords they have used, and if your services don’t fall into the common keywords then you might struggle to be seen.

Google AdWords is certainly worth a punt but the current environment is difficult for smaller businesses when faced with the seemingly limitless funds of major companies. That’s particularly important to consider as money matters in Google’s auction process.

Facebook Paid Ads

We all know that Facebook collects our data. And thanks to recent, ahem, ‘events’, we’re aware of the ways that those with money can use that data to target individuals with the advertisements that they want to be seen.

Facebook’s advertising works on the same PPC platform as AdWords, where clients pay only for ads that are clicked on or seen.

While in 2016 1000 impressions cost around $6, the price has since crept up, though not with the same speed as AdWords.

Facebook is beneficial to business mainly due to the incredible level of specificity advertisers can leverage for their adverts. Because Facebook know so much about each user, they can direct adverts at those most likely to click, browse, and eventually buy. Microtargeting, they call it.

The ads are placed in six major areas including both desktop and mobile Facebook newsfeeds to maximize your adverts potential. Considering there are over 2 billion active monthly profiles on Facebook, your ads should certainly be seen.

But advertising with Facebook isn’t all roses. The platform’s popularity has led to many, many businesses using its advertising services, therefore giving companies more competition for each ad and adding to consumer fatigue. On top of this is the fact that Facebook is a platform most people use to socialize, not shop, so unlike Google AdWords, those seeing your adverts might not be in the mood to buy.

Once again, those clicks don’t necessarily mean sales.

Advertising through Instagram

Instagram is the undisputed king of photo sharing through social media. Six out of 10 adults who use the internet daily have Instagram accounts, with the age group most likely to be snapping pics those between 18 and 29.

For businesses aimed at young adults, Instagram might be the best platform for you.

An added extra for Instagram is that it has the highest engagement rate of the major social media platforms, meaning more users interact with posts – through likes or comments for example. This bodes well for businesses advertising to redirect traffic to their own website for some sweet return on investment.

However, unlike the other platforms mentioned in this article, Instagram has very little desktop traffic; almost all of its users access Instagram through their mobile phones. While this isn’t a total disaster given that more of us than ever are using our mobiles to access the web, it does mean that desktop users won’t be seeing your paid advertising.

Added to this was 2016’s algorithm change that saw the idea of “best posts go first” come into play. This essentially means that those willing to pay more are higher up the feed, while others sink to the bottom. For a small business, this is always going to be a struggle.

Twitter Ads

Users of Twitter appreciate its low-level advertising presence when using the platform. Unlike the other big three platforms, advertising doesn’t appear to play as large a part on Twitter.

This is likely down to its much smaller active user number, which currently sits at around 330 million.

Twitter advertises in three main ways: Promoted Tweets, Promoted Accounts, or Promoted Trends. Depending on what you’re after, you choose the way you want to go.

Promoted Tweets will cost around $1.50 per engagement, while Promoted Accounts cost around $4.00 per new follower. Promoted Trends, which can generate an incredible amount of exposure, can cost upwards of $100,000 per day… possibly not the best option for a small business. All of these methods can, however, be tweaked to suit your geographical location and specific audience.

While all of these options present real value, none guarantee sales nor ROI. Considering Twitters smaller audience, and the fact that the audience does not primarily use Twitter to look for products or services, startups might look elsewhere for better value for money.

All advertising can be of value to a small business or startup, but the question of which platform is best suited to you is a question only experience and your particular situation can answer.

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About Patrick Appleby

Patrick is a British journalist and content creator now based in Mexico City. When not searching for a scoop or trying to memorise Spanish verb conjugations, he enjoys cycling, reading, and wandering through the vast streets of the Distrito Federal.