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Earned Media vs. Paid Media: What You Need to Know

Back in the days of Don Draper’s “Mad Men,” if you wanted to get your product in front of your target market, you paid for an ad buy or filmed a TV commercial (Yes, filmed. On actual film!). Well, it’s definitely not Don Draper’s ad world any longer, and in today’s digital landscape, marketing has become a multi-strategy game, encompassing not just the aforementioned paid media, but also the use of earned and even owned media to spread the word. But do you really understand the difference between earned and paid? Do you know the benefits of using the different tactics involved, where they overlap, and how they can be integrated with your owned media resources?

It’s a question that I’m often asked so I thought it would be helpful to provide a quick refresher, starting with the basics: Definitions.

Paid Media

As the name suggests, this is all of the stuff you pay for — search, display advertising, social ads, PPC campaigns and the like. With paid media, a brand is paying to leverage a channel with the aim of driving traffic to their owned media (web sites, blogs), and landing new business. Paid media needs to be focused, well planned, and effectively executed, and include compelling calls-to-action in order to deliver exactly what your prospective customer is looking for.

Earned Media

By contrast, earned media puts the customer, client, or brand advocate in the driver’s seat (somewhat) when they Tweet, share, like, or maybe comment and/or write about brand content, or share their experiences with your organization, good and bad. Think of it as the social media equivalent of good old fashioned “word-of-mouth” marketing whereby trusted advocates influence prospects to take a deeper look at what a brand has to offer. Does it stand on its own? No it doesn’t, it feeds off well-crafted content (and expertly executed customer/client experiences) both of which can result in increased visibility and reach—buzz, if you will—amongst supporters. These influencers should preferably have a somewhat large following on social, but even more important an engaged following.

Owned Media

Owned media covers all of the properties that belong to the brand or business. That can be websites, blogs, social media channels (although, don’t forget, you never really “own” your social properties, which is why it’s so important to focus on building an excellent corporate website and blog as well), apps, and stores (online and offline). Both paid and earned media are designed to drive prospects to the owned media estate and its strength is critical to converting them into paying customers.

The Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Earned Media Tactics

The main attraction of earned media for many is that it is free, although often gained on the back of paid efforts. And, as with everything in life, nothing’s ever truly “free,” is it? In this case, you “pay” through having little to no control over the content and its placement, compared to paid media, and have reduced ability to accurately measure the success of a campaign, compared to paid media. Having said all that, there can undoubtedly be benefits to having earned media as a part of your marketing strategy. Here are just a few:

  • Increased exposure to the brand message.
  • Having your message placed in new and different media environments.
  • The endorsement and promotion of your brand message by authoritative and trusted sources.
  • And an increased level of communication with consumers and clients via their preferred social channels.

Benefits notwithstanding, the lack of control over earned media can mean negative as well as positive comment. And negative comments, though it sounds counterintuitive, can be a bonus, as much goodwill can be gained by handling complaints promptly and with sensitivity and goodwill. An effective monitoring and response system is vital to ensure that all of your earned content, not just the glowing reviews, gets “touched” and responded to in a timely manner.

Paid Media Opportunities

Paid media can cover traditional methods such as print and TV ads, but, let’s face it, digital and mobile are where it’s at today, and using online paid media efforts can bring a huge return on your initial investments. Here are a few paid digital media efforts you should be exploring.

Display ads. A cost effective method of reaching your target audience on contextually relevant websites, the display ad market is growing in leaps and bounds. According to a recent article, “In 2016, digital display ad spending will eclipse search ad spending in the U.S. for the first time. Combined, the categories of video, sponsorships, rich media and “banners and other” will account for the largest share of digital ad spending: 47.9%, worth $32.17 billion.”


Paid search. Paid search takes advantage of SEO and SEM, and generates traffic from relevant search results based on targeted key words and phrases. Particularly effective for local businesses targeting specific locations. Cost effective, easy to monitor and straightforward.

Social Media ads. Highly targeted towards social media users on Twitter, Facebook, and similar social platforms, based on specific criteria set by the advertiser. For B2B advertisers LinkedIn ads provide an excellent opportunity to target specific business sectors and buyers. My personal favorite is Facebook…for now.

Content Syndication. Content syndication is an effective way to place your content on popular websites by way of “Related Posts” or “More From Around the Web” links. Services such as Outbrain and Zemanta syndicate across a network of publishers, delivering content to targeted and relevant audiences. Analytics allow the effectiveness of the content to be monitored, so that the type of posts valued by the audience can be identified and replicated.

Paid media plays a critical role in any marketing strategy but it needn’t break the bank if the budget is limited. Take for example Larry Kim, who’s story (and success!) I shared recently in this post: Using PPC to Market and Amplify Your Blog Content. Larry, founder of WordStream, was able to generate over 100K unique visitors from a PPC campaign costing just $50. Pretty good bang for the buck, if you ask me.

Paid and Earned: Different Beasts, but Integration is Vital

There are clearly differences between paid and earned media. Tight control and targeting for paid, against little control over the nature and placement of earned, but with the potential for more organic spread; and that’s even without looking at the differentiators when it comes to cost.

However to be fully effective paid, earned, and indeed owned media must converge and be integrated as far as is possible within your marketing strategies. There are plenty of social intelligence platforms that can do the job for you, but even if you don’t have the marketing budget to use them, there is still much that can be done to construct an effective strategy.

In a recent Forbes article, my partner Daniel Newman summarized the approach that’s needed, whatever the size of the brand.

  • Create engaging, customer focused, problem-solving content with owned media.
  • Place that content strategically through well-targeted paid media.
  • Earn your audience’s trust and support to develop a strong network of brand advocates.

This graphic from Brandwatch illustrates the theory well:


Have you built a marketing ecosystem to tie together your owned, earned, and paid marketing efforts? Have you had success with your effort you could share? Tips and tricks? I would love to hear about your own experiences.

Additional Resources on this Topic:
Who’s Winning the Battle Between Paid and Earned Media?
Multi-touch Marketing and How Social Media Impacts the Customer Journey
Owned Media VS Earned Media: Which Yields Better Results

Eric Vidal
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