Modern digital marketing can be divided into three results: owned, earned and paid traffic. And while they seem distinct, and you’ll measure them using different metrics, in truth they can overlap wonderfully – if you know how to play them right.

Let’s start by defining the terms, in case you’re unfamiliar with the distinctions.

  • Paid traffic is traffic you paid for with traditional outbound marketing efforts: creating pay-per-click ad campaigns, hiring an influencer to write about your product, paying for sponsored content on a media website, and so forth. All these marketing techniques require you to pay a company or person to achieve a certain audience reach. It’s a pretty standard cash-for-value transaction.
  • Earned traffic defines people who found your site or product through word of mouth. The most common way is via social shares (because your content is so darn shareable), but other ways include customer referral programs, forwarded newsletter campaigns or authentic inbound links you didn’t pay for. This is an extremely valuable asset, because it requires an often impartial outsider to vouch for your product and sell it for you.
  • Owned traffic refers to direct results from your inbound marketing campaigns. It’s essentially content marketing – when audiences search for a keyword and find your blog, or when you post on Facebook or Twitter and your followers click on your link to your site, that’s content you own.

Now that the definitions are clear, it’s important to note that these are not mutually exclusive exercises. In fact, they rely on one another, and you can create campaigns that integrate all three elements to promote your brand. But when taken in isolation, they each present clear pros and cons.

Paid Traffic

The Benefits: By far, the most obvious benefit is how much control you have over the campaign. With PPC campaigns, you can choose your budget; sometimes with influencers or sponsored posts you can negotiate for a lower price tag. If we’re talking about Google PPC or display ads, you write the copy and create the banners. It’s easy to split test your campaigns and track them to find the most statistically efficient combination, then invest more money behind that to scale up. And there’s no question about the results: the data cannot lie.

In addition, Paid Traffic usually sources bottom-of-the-funnel buyers. That is, these leads are actively searching for a solution. With paid traffic, you see ROI faster than other channels.

The Pitfalls: Once your budget is gone, traffic is gone. You have to pay every month for a sustainable traffic stream. Plus, since you have no control over these platforms, you never know when you may need to shift your strategy. For instance, Facebook could suddenly decide to pull the plug on advertisers. A new search engine could make Google obsolete. While these extreme scenarios are unlikely, you do need to prepare to pivot in the face of change.

Earned Traffic

When we recommended our favorite business apps, we weren’t making money off that – and it was great earned media for those companies.

The Benefits: The clearest benefit to earned traffic is its authenticity. Nothing can replace a friend vouching for a product. This is especially true if the person endorsing you has any kind of influential position – it can drive not just traffic and leads, but real sales, because the kind of people interested in that product are more likely to be searching for that kind of product than idly window-shopping. If it’s a digital endorsement online, like an authentic link from a popular blog, your site will also benefit long-term from the SEO juice.

The Pitfalls: Here’s a situation that’s the exact opposite of paid media: you have zero control over earned media. Will people share your post? Will people link to your website? Will your content go viral? Who knows! And moreover, even if all that stuff does happen, you have no way of measuring your true audience reach – you can only see the fraction of people who acted on the recommendation and clicked through to your site. You can’t scale up, and you can’t control the message if it turns negative.

Owned Traffic

The Benefits: Owned traffic should be your bedrock. It’s like building a tower brick by brick: you may not see results quickly, but the product will stay there as long as you maintain it. You’re building an empire, which gives you control over it and allows you to analyze your traffic in full with software like Google Analytics. You can also understand your audience and inform your future developments, maintain full control over your site and pages’ customization, keep things cost-effective and see long-term benefits if you keep at it.

The Pitfalls: Well, for starters, those long-term benefits could take a while. What’s more, while it’s cost-effective in terms of money, it’s certainly the most time-consuming of the three channels. It could be a year or longer before your site sees any organic search engine traffic, and your social channels may idle for a while until you find your voice. You’ll also struggle with the eternal uphill battle of creating that authentic voice – people naturally distrust brands more than they do other human beings.

Which is best? Try a combination of all three

Sure, there will be campaigns – like content marketing or straight-up Adwords buys – that isolate those three traffic channels. But it doesn’t have to always be that way.

Consider the process of promoting a Facebook post. You spend two hours writing the post, creating a piece of owned media that will remain yours as long as your site is online; then you post it on Facebook, where your friends and followers can share it, creating a network of earned traffic. If that post is successful, you can “boost” it with a small spend to ensure an even greater reach – and analyze the results as a paid campaign.

There are limitless ways to use drip campaigns, subscriber coupons, contests, blogging, social media images, influencers and free products to cross-promote between these channels. By the end, your marketing efforts can be so robust that you’ll glean the benefits of all three while avoiding their pitfalls.