The Holy Grail of Earned Media

Ask the average media creative type to explain the difference between paid, owned and earned media and you might be surprised how many make a complete hash of it or confess their ignorance.  Added to which, the three distinctions don’t live in their own hermetically sealed bubbles but overlap like one of those venn diagrams that inspire terror in maths students. Yet – what client or agency doesn’t want to discover the Holy Grail of Earned Media – the ability to convince others to sell your story free of charge.

Before embarking on the quest for the grail, let’s recap what paid, owned and earned actually mean. Admit it, some of you out there would struggle to define them if the requisite gun was put to your head. But it’s simple when you know. Paid is what it says – paid for advertising on banners, in cinemas, on TV, direct mail and in-store media. Most of it would be recognisable to the cast of Mad Men.

Owned is promotion through channels that you own. That can include brochures, company websites, microsites, apps, Facebook fan pages and so on. Then earned is essentially all the social media that you don’t own and that can encompass Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, etc.  Earned can also include good old fashioned word-of-mouth and so long as human interaction continues, that will still count for something.

Owned media tends to be focused on your existing customers while earned is about building a fan base.  Every marketing agency now claims it can grow earned media via social media marketing but as Business Insider recent reported, there are still of wrong-headed approaches out there that will ensure the Holy Grail remains out of reach. Depressingly, social media marketing is still tacked on to the end of paid media campaigns “as if its only purpose was to squeeze out a few hundred thousand ‘free’ impressions”.  Without a life of its own, the earned media campaign can be contrived and cynical and for those of us who live and breathe social media, we know that’s not going to fly. Bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook updaters can smell a rat at fifty paces.

An underlying concern that can stymie earned media via social media campaigns is that corporates baulk at the underlying cost of this activity.  Basically, you still need a strategy and people to implement it – and this doesn’t come free of charge. For some companies, a social media marketing campaign may cost as much as a conventional paid for campaign. However, you have to ask yourself what is having the greater impact on your business and where are your customers interacting? As people find it easier to screen out paid for advertising on TV and put greater value on the views of their peer group on social media, the quest for the grail is not an option.

Over half of brands recognise that they need the Holy Grail of earned media badly.  The resistance tends to come from those who fear that social media is like a mischievous genie.  Once you let it out of the bottle, it may stop obeying you.  Next thing, your social media campaign with its lovely positive messages will blow back in your face as a user generated typhoon of negative snarking. That risk is unfortunately inherent but that means getting your messaging and allied content bang on the nail.

A recent Econsultancy and Adobe survey found that 90% of businesses believed earned through social would be significant to them by 2015 – so whatever the misgivings, the quest for the Holy Grail is on!



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