Content vs ads – the online battle for attention

The relentlessly helpful® blog by John Espirian

10 December 2018

Why creating content is the best long-term way to promote your business

It’s natural to assume that when you want to promote your business online, you should place an ad.

Do ads work online? When should you use them? And is there a better ongoing method for attracting new clients?


When I was growing up in the 1980s, I saw all the ads on TV, constantly repeating the same messages.

Even though I usually wasn’t interested in the subject matter, having that same message in my head all the time meant that I was naturally inclined to remember the product or service being promoted.

If people wanted cola, I’d always think of Coca Cola or Pepsi – they were the only two options. (Except they weren’t, but I didn’t know any better.)

Coke must be great because I've heard of it.
“Coke must be great because I’ve seen it on a TV ad.”
– me, aged 7

People trust the messages they keep hearing over and over.

These days, there’s a problem with ads. Yes, you can still promote your business with ads, but getting people to pay attention to those ads is much harder than it ever was before.

The world’s not the same as it was when there were only 4 TV channels and a few popular newspapers.

The captive audiences of the past are free of their shackles – and they don’t want to spend their time swallowing your promotional messages.

BitmoJohn being sick
“Please stop showing me ads. Wait, I’m going to …”
– me, aged 41

What’s stopping people from looking at your ads?

These days, people consume content in many different forms. And it’s getting harder to show them ads:

  • Ad-free subscription services such as Netflix are on the rise.
  • Savvy internet users have ad blockers installed on their web browsers and mobile devices.
  • A whole generation is growing up with the ‘skip ad’ mentality (dismissing ads as soon as a skip option is available, so they can watch the YouTube video they came for).

Consumers are harder to reach than ever. And when you do reach them, their tolerance for ads is as low as it’s ever been.

In short, people don’t want to be sold to and they know it.

BitomoJohn being smart
“You wanted me to watch that ad but I dodged it. Boom!”
– anyone smart

My experience with social media ads

In October 2017, I did a test with LinkedIn ads, using $300 of free credit to see how many people I could encourage to visit my website.

My LinkedIn ad was shown more than 693,000 times but resulted in only 68 people clicking through to my website. Perhaps it was just a terrible ad but I guess these figures would still have been pretty grim even if it were a lot better.

I also did a smaller experiment with Facebook ads, which resulted in a similarly poor outcome.

BitmoJohn failing
“Social media ads did nothing for me.”
– me (and lots of others)

No doubt that an ads expert could have helped me get a better result. But that would have meant paying for the ads and the time of the person doing the setup and management of the campaign.

Can ads get you traffic? Yes.

Can ads get you sales? Yes.

But is pumping money into ads the best long-term strategy for success? No.

Some people are convinced that Facebook ads are the path to glory.

I can only speak from my own experience here: I ignore all ads on social media. Perhaps a few of them have a subliminal effect on me but I doubt it.

So, when should you bother with ads?

When to use ads

I recommend ads in two circumstances:

  • your business has just started.
  • you have a time-limited campaign or offer.

Ads for new businesses

If you’re just starting out, ads will help you build early interest in your products and services. Why?

Because your website probably contains only a small number of pages and very little in-depth content.

This means your content footprint is small.

Compare this with a well-established site that has hundreds of pages and many in-depth articles and helpful resources. Such sites have a large content footprint.

Those big sites also have other benefits that will help them rank better on search engines, notably:

  • age of website domain: older domains are seen as more trustworthy.
  • backlinks: the number of links from other sites back to their site. These are hugely valuable for search engine optimisation (SEO).

Ads provide a great boost while your site has a small content footprint, so they’re ideal for new businesses.

Your aim should be to expand your content footprint so that you don’t need to be reliant on ads.

Ads for time-limited campaigns and offers

If you have a sale on or there’s some other campaign planned with a clear end date, you need quick access to lots of eyeballs.

Ads are useful for this sort of short-term promotion.

Who can help me with ad campaigns?

Check out a couple of my trusted colleagues. I suck at running ads: these two don’t.

Why not keep placing ads forever?

Ads can work if they’re well produced and well targeted.

But your web traffic will dry up the moment you stop your ads (unless you have another way to draw people in).

Content will keep working for you forever. But ads will kill your traffic as soon as you stop paying for them.

Now, you might say “oh, we just won’t stop our ads.”


This means you’re committing to running those ads for the lifetime of your business.

It means you pay for someone’s time and effort to keep managing those ads.

And it means that you have to pay the going rate for the ads themselves. What happens if your competitors decide to do the same? You might end up in a bidding war for your ads to get precedence over others.

We can’t quite be sure of how much ads will cost in the future. An ad budget that gets you good exposure now might be inadequate in a year’s time.

Here’s another consideration when placing ads.

What if someone sees your business via an ad and then wants to check out your website and content to learn more about you?

An ad may help people get to your online ‘front door’, but if the contents of your ‘house’ are rubbish, what chance is there of them sticking around?

Ads will get people to your online front door. But people won't stick around if the content is rubbish.

My advice is to use ads to build early interest in your products and services – but to move beyond ads in the long term.

Note that big businesses do keep paying for ads even well they’re well established.

Coca Cola has a 42.5% share of the soft drinks market in the US and yet it spent $3.96 billion on ads in 2017 (source).

But you’re not Coca Cola and your small business doesn’t need to lean on ads forever.

Use content as your long-term approach

Ads have their uses but the best long-term approach to building authority for you and your business is to create relevant, helpful content.

If you’re ready to give this a go in your business, I’ve got some content that should help.

My business blogging guide is a free step-by-step method for creating B2B content without resorting to ads.

At more than 35K words, the blogging guide is quite long (sorry!). But it should help you get some clarity on how to plan, produce and promote your content, so that you don’t need to be a slave to ads.

Business blogging: the definitive guide
Read my guide on how to create your own business content

This is the sort of content creation I do for B2B clients who are too busy to write their own material. If doing it all yourself sounds like too much hassle, drop me a line and let’s have a chat.

Let’s wrap up

In the battle between ads and content, content comes out as the long-term winner.

Relevant, helpful content has the potential to keep working for you for years, meaning your business gets found online even if you take a break from content creation.

In contrast, the benefit from ads stop the moment to stop paying for them. They’re best suited for new businesses that have small content footprints and for promoting short-term offers.


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John Espirian

I’m the relentlessly helpful®️ LinkedIn nerd and author of Content DNA

I teach business owners how to be noticed, remembered and preferred.

Espresso+ is a safe space to learn how to ethically promote your business online and get better results on LinkedIn.

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