3 Dangerous Myths About Organic Growth Marketing — Debunked

John LeFevre
11 min readNov 28, 2020

Photo credit: Chang Qing

Marketing has a long history of dependency on advertising. When talking about marketing campaigns, most professionals would immediately think of ad budget, spending, and ROI or ROAS. It’s safe to say the prevailing belief about marketing is that it’s a pay-to-win game.

The same applies to growth marketing. While everyone knows data-driven performance optimization and experimentation are its core, most still tend to rely on ad spend as the first indicator of campaign effectiveness. This mindset is by no means wrong, yet it’s downplaying a critical element in the equation: Organic factors.

More importantly, their oversight often leads to the undervaluation, then under investigation, and, finally, misunderstanding of the topic. Eventually, mistakes will be made at expensive costs.

To prevent such mistakes, some serious acknowledgments about organic growth need to be made. Below are the three most critical myths on the topic, the truth about them, and how to use it to improve your strategies.

1. Organic doesn’t mean free, you still have to pay for it. Pay for ads for more impact

The number one mistake in addressing what organic growth stands for is holding on to its monetary implications. The reason why people make this mistake has a long history:

  • Organic growth is most often associated with “free marketing” (we’ll be discussing why this is missing the point);
  • Yet, in order to make it work, you’d still need to hire talents to strategize, manage and optimize it, using different tools and resources;
  • This ruins the “free” idea behind organic campaigns, thus betraying their purposes;
  • Many experts assume, because of such betrayals and because you have to spend anyway, ads would make more sense to spend on.

Organic or not, you have to spend the budget anyway — there’s no such thing as “free”. Or is there? (Image by The Next Scoop)

Two things are wrong with this logic:

First, the difference between ads and organic campaigns isn’t in the money spent. It’s about the different patterns in brand and product or service discovery. Eventually, their long-term growth patterns differ.

To dig deeper, we know that ads are intrusive with the ability to show anywhere to anybody. When intruded, those who aren’t interested, as they’re doing or seeking something else, won’t respond well. Imagine watching a TV show to the point of an epic finale and it stops to show an ad. What would you care about more? Getting on with the show to see the climax or examining how good the advertised product or service is? In fact, there’s a very accurate meme to sum this up:

Image by SmokyDoggg (Imgur)

On the contrary, organic campaigns operate at the destination the audience is going to. Unlike ads, invading their “spaces” isn’t an option, thus there won’t be friction. Additionally, the main target audience of organic campaigns is those who intentionally seek out the brands, products or services behind them. This means the interest levels are naturally high. What comes as a matter, of course, is usually positive responses.

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Second, paid and organic campaigns are different in the ways they acquire media for promotion. For the same costs of human resources, infrastructure, and other overheads, paid campaigns require extra budgets to buy media, whereas organic campaigns are naturally self-sufficient. In shorts, organic growth is free of ad budget, it’s NOT free of everything.

Think about growing vegetables in your garden, organically. What would that mean? You’d still have to invest in the time, the human resources (either yourself or a gardener, etc.), the water, the earth, and so on. It isn’t “free”. The same way organic tomatoes, coffee beans and tea leaves aren’t free. It’s only free of agricultural chemicals, the substances that manipulate growth.

Is “organic” only about the money and resources? (Image by NeONBRAND/Unsplash)

What does this imply for your strategy?

The most important thing you may need to do upon realizing organic growth isn’t about “free” but rather about “non-manipulative” marketing is to start analyzing purchase intent. If your marketing operations align well with a customer’s intent, e.g. don’t try to sell them what they’re not looking for, they aren’t manipulating the media to bother them. If they aren’t bothered, the friction is low. The lower the friction, the better the mood, and the better the response from customers.

For organic campaigns, the friction is almost zero because you simply can’t “get in the way” of customers. For ads, which are prone to creating friction, it’s important to make sure only super relevant content that’s in line with their intent is shown. The closer it is to what they’re looking for, the easier it becomes to prevent them from running away from, blocking, or boycotting your brand. Ad targeting, market research, AB testing, among other methods, are very helpful in pointing out what is or isn’t in line with what.

2. Organic only helps when you don’t have the budget. When you do, ads are more effective

Most people I know treat organic marketing campaigns like a short-term rescue package that sustains them long enough until the “cavalry” of ad budget arrives. Then, they “no longer have to rely on cheap or free marketing solutions”. For them, organic growth is an option when you can’t afford ads. When you can, they’d say rather focus on ads because they get the job done better than organic campaigns.

If ads are a pay-to-win game in marketing, all you need to do is buy time with organic until the money comes. Or is it? (Image by Vision Advertising)

Here’s what they’re missing:

Ads are more effective in acquiring traffic, but they aren’t efficient. By nature, they are meant to showcase your brand to an audience, not convince them to take meaningful actions. Without those actions, revenue won’t be generated. No revenue means no growth. If you spend more money for no growth, it’s nothing more than a waste.

In order to convince, you need good conversion triggers. Those triggers can only be found on your landing page after all the ads are shown and clicked on. What’s more, they’re 100% organic. They have to be. Otherwise, you’d be advertising for other brands — which makes no sense unless your whole business is…selling ads.

In short, organic growth is the gatekeeper that keeps your entire strategy efficient.

Take a recent TVC from the foodpanda app, for example, where the quality is decent and the views count is healthy. Does it mean the ad is effective enough to “buy” customers? It won’t be to anyone in their right mind because, as seen below, the landing page is outdated, the rating is less than excellent, and the first few reviews are complaints. All of them are organic, and all of them are the conversion triggers required for persuasion. Every penny spent on the TVC to acquire viewers, who eventually turn away as the product itself isn’t well-presented, is another penny wasted.

Even great ads can’t compensate the lack of proof of reliability & quality (Source: Google Play)

How could this impact your strategy?

The answer is simple: Without organic campaigns, you won’t be able to efficiently optimize for conversion. In other words, organic growth dictates most of your conversion rate optimization (CRO) success. Here’s what you need to remember about CRO:

  • High ad spend with low conversion rate means low ROAS and high cost per acquistion (CPA). You need to start with CRO first — that is, with organic first — then ads. It’s like choosing between patching a holed bucket when it’s full of water & already leaking, and patching it before the water is poured in — only the water is your cash.
  • Marketing funnels are two-way roads. Understand customer journeys from the top of the funnels to the bottom, but optimize them from the bottoms up. This way, you can anticipate their behaviors and take the lead. Otherwise, customers will take the lead and, most likely, outpace your strategy. They’re humans afterall, and humans are complex.
  • Finally, how do you make CRO work? Remember to test. There’s no optimization without experimentation. You have to test to make it work. Make sure your tests are carried out correctly as well.

CRO helps transform traffic into revenue more efficiently, and it all depends on the (organic) landing page (for mobile marketing, it’s the app store — example by Storemaven)

3. Organic strategies aren’t scalable. Ads are, because budget can be expanded

Growth is very much linked to scalability. Growth marketing is no exception. Whatever helps you scale marketing operations should be a strategic priority. What’s often debatable, however, is how to scale them correctly.

To start with, 7 out of 10 digital marketers I know believe scaling marketing through ads is the key. This makes sense, at first glance, because ads get brands widely seen and heard, and because marketers most often worry about not having enough budget. With enough money, they might be able to scale their strategies to infinity. It’d feel to them like (digital) world domination is at hand. It will never be.

Here’s one thing many tend to overlook: Scaling growth marketing is rarely ever about the budget. The budget can only promise the reach or coverage on the media (the Internet for digital marketing). This means, at best, focusing on ad campaigns will allow you to scale the traffic, not sale. As explained above, this kind of behavior is extremely inefficient. When you trigger inefficiency at scale, you’ll eventually get disasters at scale.

Running ads with big budgets and low conversion rates are like shooting lots of arrows and missing most of them: Input may scale, output still flops (Image by Marketing Land)

This is where organic comes in

As explained earlier, organic growth directly influences conversion from incoming traffic into customer actions and, eventually, revenue. Since revenue is a critical requirement of business success, scaling marketing operations at a higher conversion rate will directly lead to higher scalability of the business itself. That’s what being scalable really is.

What’s more, as mentioned above, organic growth strategies focus on the destination, not the path of product or brand discovery.

Customers who discover what you have to offer organically do so on their own interests, not by interference from ads.

As a result, their purchase intent is generally higher, and their interactions with your brand are usually intrinsically motivated.

This means while ads are known for frequently bringing low-quality customers, organic campaigns guarantee the acquired customers are less expensive to retain and less difficult to monetize. You’ll basically invest less for more in return. Isn’t that a vital requirement for scalability?

Marketing and business at large can only be scaled from a strong foundation — otherwise, they will crumble (Image by Huntsville Hub)

How would this affect your strategy?

If you understand the dynamics of marketing scalability, you’d rethink the prioritization of different campaign types. You’ll always need both paid and organic campaigns to scale — it’s never an either-or, exclusive relationship. The key is to set them up to work well together.

Rule number one in such a setup is to prioritize quality over quantity. From the quality of your product or service, its packaging or presentation, its ability to build trust and convince people to buy, among other organic factors, comes the quality of incoming traffic and customers. It makes sure traffic won’t be wasted, efforts won’t be in vain, budgets will have higher returns on investment, and growth targets will be reached faster and at lower costs. Then, it’s ready to scale — by multiplying everything that’s high quality about your marketing strategy.

Final thoughts

Ads are necessary — let’s get that right. In good hands and managed properly, they could be good as well. But they alone aren’t enough.

Business is war. Marketing is a series of battlefields to gain strategic advantages.

With strong competence in ads, you can be confident in the offense side of the battles. Unfortunately, you can’t win the war without an equally capable defense system. That system is the organic side of marketing.

Organic growth is never simple and straightforward. You can’t pay to win, so it takes real talents, efforts, and knowledge to succeed. However, sometimes even experienced professionals have their efforts fall flat due to the confusion that many myths about the topic have caused. Among them, there are three myths that may pose a particular threat to your strategy’s effectiveness:

  • “Organic doesn’t mean free”. The truth is: It isn’t about free-of-charge marketing. It’s about growth patterns and sustainability.
  • “Organic only matters when you’re low on cash”. The truth is: It’s your best bet in preventing budget leaks. Without it, even campaigns backed by a million bucks will flop.
  • “Organic doesn’t support scalability”. The truth is: It only doesn’t let you scale the traffic. Ads do better in this regard when more cash pours in. What it does let you scale, however, is the conversion of that traffic into more cash.

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