PPC versus SEO: which is better for an early stage startup?

Getting your SaaS business off the ground is filled with challenges. You’re building at rocket pace and often need to learn as you go. Marketing to and acquiring prospective users is no different.
Ryan McMillan

Questions like “Which channels should we start with?” and “What’s best to build early traction?” are regular conversations we have with early stage startups.

As a general rule of thumb, always remember that to gain early traction across marketing channels, you need to make a number of small bets, and scale what’s working. Try to avoid going all in on a channel, without having benchmarks across other channels to compare against.

As much as it might surprise you to hear it from the owner of a software marketing agency, that’s especially true for paid channels like Google Ads and Facebook Ads, which can require high upfront investment.

What’s most important is that you ring fence tests and get clear on KPIs, and then follow through and see what the results are. Calling something too early is probably worse than not doing it in the first place!

And, yes, as much as I hate to say it, there are a couple of other acronyms to remember for the reading of this article. 

Here they are:
PPC: Pay per click. Think paid traffic from Facebook, LinkedIn or Google. 

SEO: Search engine optimisation. Think organic traffic from Google’s search engines.

Pros of Pay Per Click for your customer acquisition

I’m a big fan of pay per click channels. They’re quick (e.g. depending on budgets and audience size the data flow can happen overnight), they have clear attribution (yes, you should be looking at SaaS unit economics), and most importantly, they work.

Almost all of the SaaS companies that I’ve worked with are able to generate a bunch of close won opportunities using paid search and paid social ads. 

But you will need to take into account your cash burn and the opportunity costs of using that money elsewhere. This will show whether it is the right time to use PPC channels.

If anything, I think that it's always worthwhile trialling PPC channels. To do so carefully and in a budget conscious way, focus on high intent or ‘surer bets’ first. This is more likely to get you good results than wide, expansive PPC campaigns.

Here are a bunch of advantages for early-stage startups using PPC channels:


#1 You can start acquiring users right away

Channels like Google Ads and Facebook Ads let you instantly drive high intent traffic to your landing page. Other channels (like SEO) can take time to gain traction and drive new users. 

#2 Get a measurable ROI for your activity

Understanding how your marketing activity is contributing to your unit economics is super valuable.Especially when you’re looking for channels to scale.

Most paid ad platforms will allow you to see breakdowns to the lead, MQL, opportunity and closed won stages.


#1 Can be expensive

If you don’t set the scope of your paid ads activity properly, you may end up casting ‘too wide a net’. s This can result with poorly allocated ad spend and few leads.

#2 You might start with a high CAC payback period 

This is especially true if you’re still trying to get the right product market fit. 

As a result, the numbers might not stack up in the beginning (e.g. CAC > 12)

#3 High opportunity cost

Resources for an early-stage company are limited. As a result, choosing to invest in costly paid ad campaigns may mean you need to forgo other marketing activities. 

#4 Low brand awareness will result in lower CTR and conversion rates

When your business is new in the market, I’ve found that you may experience lower CTRs and conversion rates. It takes time for your potential customers to become familiar with you and to move through to purchase.

#5 Can be harder for category creation

In particular for search, you need ‘high intent searches’ to generate conversions. If there isn’t a category, you’re often trying to ‘cross-pollinate’ with keyword targeting. This often isn’t successful with paid ads.

My recommendations for a successful PPC campaign for an early stage startup.

  • Focus on a small number of high intent keywords or audiences.
  • Run low daily budgets.
  • Don’t introduce too many variants.Be clear on what you’re trying to test.
  • Test ‘with a broad brush’ e.g. test wide variants likely to drive big outcomes, not button colours.
  • Always run retargeting.

Search Engine Optimisation

Search Engine Optimisation is fantastic. But, just like PPC channels, there are pros and cons to using SEO to launch activity for an early stage start-up. 

It’s well-known that SEO is a long-term game. You won’t see immediate results, especially with a website that hasn’t been around for long.

I like to think of SEO as an investment into an asset (your website) that will pay you dividends over time (free traffic). It’s definitely well worth the wait.

At the end of the day, SEO traffic comes in different forms. The main thing that you should focus on is driving the right qualified audience to your website. Regardless of the stage that they’re at.

Here are some of the  advantages for early stage startups running SEO campaigns:


#1 Create multiple touchpoints with different content

Users typically require more than interaction with your brand before they’ll buy it. SEO can work at different stages of the marketing funnel, helping to build trust and valuable interactions. This leads to conversions once they’re ready to sign-up.

#2 Free to create (money vs time)
There’s going to be a natural tension in a growing company between investing money into advertising (e.g. Google Ads campaigns) vs. investing time into marketing. 

Generally speaking, investing time is using resources such as an in-house content writer. I believe that leveraging your in-house resources as you grow your customer base is a wise use of time. You can keep the output and use it repeatedly over time.

#3 You can rank for high intent keywords

That’s right, rather than paying money to appear for keywords, you can show up in Google search results for free.

This does take time however, and won’t be without its challenges.

In saying that, the CAC payback period on organically generated traffic is a lot lower because you don’t have the ad cost inbetween.


#1 It takes a while to work

Time needed to see results may not be something that you have at an early-stage company. Consider what type of content you’re creating (e.g. low in the funnel vs high in the funnel). 

It may be wiser to target lower intent, but less competitive traffic in the short-term as you’ll have more chance of ranking.

#2 Need to syndicate well to see an early payoff

Without an established audience it can be hard to get your content infront of users. You can use content syndication to help i, it’ll be hard to get users to find out that you’ve created the content, and therefore it won’t get much traction. 

Having some type of content syndication strategy will be worthwhile as you can access other audiences and generate interest in your blog.

#3 you won’t know if its working for a while

While SEO can take a while, frustratingly it can also take a while to see results! It may take up to 6 months or even longer to see meaningful outcomes from your activity.

However, you should start to see trends early on (e.g. keywords moving from 4th page to 2nd page etc.)

My recommendations for a successful SEO campaign for an early stage startup:

  • Focus on content that you can use across different platforms, e.g. e-books.
  • Focus on mid levels of intent, driving qualified audiences to your website.
  • Write quite a lot of content - I’m talking 8+ high quality blogs per month!

So, which should you choose?

The main consideration for marketing teams in early stage startups is to identify marketing channels that work. Then ook to scale those up.

To be able to do that, you need to test multiple channels. If you have the expertise, great. If not, it's worthwhile engaging experts to do it for you.

My advice: think in bets.

Create a hypothesis framework across many channels, set clear KPIs and then execute. Do a little bit of everything. Then reallocate resources (time and money) to those channels once you start seeing results.

If everything works, but there are no clear winners, don’t worry. You’ll need a strong marketing base to create multiple interactions with users anyway. So, set budgets that are appropriate based on the return. Continue running those activities if they make sense.

Lastly, set yourself up with successful nurturing campaigns. There is nothing more disheartening than generating high quality conversions that aren’t nurtured and closed!

What is PPC?

Pay per click, or PPC, is a form of advertising where you pay for each click that you receive.

Older advertising models were based on cost per impression, referred to as CPM (cost per mille/thousand). You could predict how many people would see your TV commercial, billboard or newspaper advert by tracking cars past a billboard, viewership or circulation. But tracking how many people took action was much harder. Now with digital advertising, we are better able to track who sees your ad (great for building brand awareness) and who clicks on it (great for when you want your audience to take action).

The PPC model is what services like Google, Facebook or LinkedIn use. With this, you only pay for the number of clicks you get. This means the advertisers are going to show it to the people who are more likely to take action. If you think of a billboard, it’s shown to hundreds of people who aren’t interested or are the wrong target market. Whereas Google is going to use the data it has to show it to people who it knows will be most likely to take action.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO, is a method of influencing search engine results to attract traffic to your website.

Search engines get millions of queries and questions a day. They search through the internet and their records to find and rank a list of web pages that are going to best answer each one. The optimisation part of SEO is ensuring your website is set up to best answer the questions of your current and potential customers. They could be searching for how to solve a problem or the cheapest version of your solution. They might search for your name or your product type. Whatever they’re looking for, you want the search engine to know that you have the answers.

A few of the ways to improve your SEO are:

  • Look at your loading speed. People have very short attention spans and won’t wait long to see what your website looks like.
  • Creating content on your site that your target customer is looking for. This could be blogs, web pages explaining what you do or FAQ pages.
  • Getting backlinks. This means other sites link to your site, showing search engines that others think your page has valuable information.

What are the differences between PPC and SEO?

Both of these methodologies have pros and cons. Depending on your business, budget and timeframe you might find that one works better than the other. Here are some of the things to consider when deciding where to invest first.

Free or Paid

The biggest difference between the two is that SEO traffic is free whereas PPC is paid. Note, we said the traffic is free. Both PPC and SEO requires either your own time and money to set up, or a professional to build an effective strategy.

Once your SEO is working well, you’ll then be pushing higher up the rankings of search engines. Each person that then clicks on your page is free. You’ll need to continue to invest to keep your rankings, but this will be less than the initial set-up. You also need to stay on top of new search terms, trends and additional content.

With a PPC strategy, you’ll need to keep paying for your advertising. As soon as you switch it off, the traffic will stop flowing to your website. 


While PPC can’t guarantee instant traffic, it is going to start bringing your traffic much faster than building up your SEO rankings. Your ads might take a short period of time to optimise. Or you might need to test various keywords and ad copy to find the most effective ones. But then you’ll begin getting traffic. If you need to start driving traffic to your site now, then you should be considering PPC.

SEO on the other hand takes time. It should be considered a long-term marketing and content planning strategy.  Once you’ve built up that ranking though, it’ll stick around longer. People will continue to search for the terms that you’ve built up a strong ranking for. You’ll continue to appear in search results.

Conversion Rates

The amount of traffic is one thing. But knowing who is actually going to purchase or sign-up is a more powerful predictor of success. Research shows that 70% of clicked search results are organic, not paid. However, your PPC visitors are 50% more likely to buy. Although you’re paying to get them to your site, it’s worth it if they’re going to convert into paying customers. Understanding your customers’ lifetime value (LTV) will help you understand what you should be willing to pay for each customer.

Which do you need?

Most likely, the answer is both. An immediate PPC strategy will start driving customers to your site. However, you shouldn’t forget about SEO to drive results over the long term. 

If you want to discuss which approach is right for your business, get in touch with the Atlas Digital team. We can talk you through your options and help create a growth strategy, tailored to your business.

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