Earned Media: Paid In Interest

An early ad for sale of an Auroch?

“Content Marketing” is a buzzword you see a lot these days. It’s a relatively new term in the context of the history of marketing. You could say using content to market and sell a product or service goes back to prehistoric times, when cavemen drew pictures on walls to tell a story (or, maybe we could say … “sell” a story).

There are basically four categories of media types that can be fit under the broad content marketing umbrella. In this blog post, we’ll briefly define the four categories, and focus on one that can have possibly the most significant impact on building awareness, for the least amount of money. We’ll touch on this category’s benefits, and downsides.

The four categories we’ll review are Paid, Earned, Owned and Shared media.

Paid Media

Paid media is exactly as it sounds — media placement that you pay for. It is basically paying to place an ad that essentially is guaranteed to run (note we didn’t say guaranteed to be seen — that’s another topic). Paid media, essentially another name for advertising, can take many forms, including banner ads, print ads, billboards, PPC (Pay Per Click) to name a few. In the online world, paid media has traditionally been a very popular strategy because its ROI can be tracked relatively easily, and its value determined.

For example, if I pay for a banner placement promoting my new widget at the top of an influential B2B site that covers the widget market, metrics are captured each time someone clicks on the ad. Those clicks are recorded and compared with the placement cost to determine a CPC (Cost Per Click). The upside to Paid Media is that you are virtually guaranteed your message will appear. The downside is that fewer and fewer people these days pay attention to paid media/advertising, since it’s considered first party endorsement — the seller promoting his/her own goods or services. Read this Forbes article on the increasing lack of trust in advertising.

Earned Media

For the sake of this blog post, Earned Media is the polar opposite of Paid Media. Pure Earned Media is placement of content that occurs without exchanging money. It is generally the result of a journalist, blogger or other influencer writing about your product or service, oftentimes because a savvy PR professional pitched the story idea in a way that made it appear to be a good fit for the outlet’s readers.

Earned Media (also often known as PR) is essentially non-paid, third-party endorsement of your product or service because it’s coverage from another’s point of view, and, particularly when the coverage runs in a high profile outlet or one directly associated with a core interest (such as the widget B2B site), is worth its weight in gold.

We will talk about Earned Media a bit more after defining the other two content marketing categories. But it’s Earned Media we’re referring to in the title of this blog post, “Paid in Interest” because, while no money exchanges hands for placement, that doesn’t mean the placement doesn’t have a driving force behind it. Read this AdAge article on the value of Earned Media.

Owned Media

This category is often misunderstood, and, as a result, is particularly misused today. Owned Media refers to any content and content assets that a brand controls and publishes. Examples include a website, blog, newsletter, and brand-centric social media accounts (i.e. Facebook and Twitter). Owned Media has become much more popular, and prevalent, in today’s “brand as a publisher” marketing world because the cost is relatively low (even zero in some cases).

In other words, before the days of social media and blogs, a brand relied on its advertising team to pay for guaranteed coverage (Paid Media) or generate PR coverage (Earned Media). There were relatively few other ways for a brand to generate widespread awareness for its message. Once blogs and social media entered the picture, brands had their own publishing platforms that could essentially compete with Paid and Earned Media placements, and could use those publishing platforms to try and move the needle on sales and/or awareness. When not blatantly self-promoting — for example a blog post that is written like an advertisement and published — owned media can be a very effective marketing tool, and gauge of interested in a product or service because of the opportunities for engagement (which we’ll cover next).

Shared Media

The benefits of shared media have really come to light with the growth of engagement-based platforms like social media properties (i.e. a company Facebook page or Twitter account), or blogs. When there is engagement happening within a brand platform, such as comments to a blog post or “Likes” of a Facebook page, this is referred to as Shared Media. Essentially, the brand is opening up a pipeline for others to participate in their content marketing efforts by commenting on the relevant topic.

Shared Media is a double-edged sword, and can quickly backfire if proper controls are not in place. Brands always hope that a comment in a thread is on topic and, at best, positive and, at worst, neutral. Negative comments on a brand-published blog or Facebook site needs to be taken seriously and dealt with quickly before getting out of control (this is sometimes know as the public hijacking a shared media site or property). When properly managed, a blog post or social media site with high levels of engagement can be one of the most valuable assets a brand can have. This is because the amount of interactivity with the post or content shows that people are interested in the subject. As a side note, Google Search ranks sites with higher levels of engagement higher than those with little or no engagement.

Earned Media Revisited

Now to briefly shift back to the discussion of Earned Media, or PR coverage. We’re going to slightly modify a concept we presented early, but don’t worry, it doesn’t change the value of Earned Media. In fact, it enhances it.

We said earlier that Paid Media is exactly that — placement that is paid for in terms of currency exchange — money —  to run the ad or commercial. And that Earned Media is the polar opposite of Paid Media — non-paid placement, where money does not change hands for placement.

Now the slight modification — Earned Media placement does involve an exchange of currency, but it’s not a physical currency such as money. It’s emotional currency, built in the form of a journalist or blogger’s interest in your brand story.

Essentially, Earned Media placement results from savvy PR efforts, i.e. pitching a journalist or blogger on a brand story or feature, piquing the writer’s interest in the topic. That interest becomes the currency exchange by which the story gets written and placed by the journalist or blogger. An influencer’s interest is going to be piqued if he/she believes that the story has value or interest (there’s that word again) to readers. So, to follow up on the concept of Paid versus Earned, the story gets placed, not because the PR professional paid the influencer to place the story, but because he/she was able to convince the writer that the idea had value to readers.

How do PR professionals reach these influencers? Besides often having a personal relationship, media relations experts use tools like Cision to reach traditional journalists and influencers and InkyBee to reach influential bloggers.

Before we finish, we should mention a possible downside of Earned Media. What happens if the journalist’s interest is piqued, the story is researched and written, and the point of view on the story is not as positive or as on message as you would like?

That is a risk you take with an Earned Media approach. You can’t control the message, tone or slant of a story, particularly when you are not paying for the coverage. But in almost every case, and especially if the story is prepared and pitched correctly to a journalist or blogger, it is a risk worth taking.

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Bill Threlkeld is the president of Threlkeld Communications, a marketing communications and public relations firm that helps businesses develop the right marketing strategies to grow their businesses and meet financial goals. He can be reached at [email protected]

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