Earned Media Value: 3 Reasons Why Earned Media Is Not Free

Owned, paid, and earned media – the trio of media options that are available to today’s brands – have been talked about at length for a number of years, and digital marketing professionals at all levels use these terms on a near-daily basis under the assumption that they’re speaking of the same thing. Unfortunately that’s not always the case, or else one wouldn’t keep hearing that “owned media has little reach”, “paid media has poor credibility”, and “earned media is free”.

In fact, of all the myths and misconceptions surrounding the types of media presence that brands can have, the most harmful habit is probably that of thinking about earned media and free media (or free advertising) as if they were one and the same. This is one of my pet peeves, and I’ll explain why.

1. Creating Earned Media Value Is Never the First Step
“Never” is perhaps a strong word and it should be used with caution. However, the vast majority of earned media that is tracked and measured (and quite often planned for!) as part of a brand’s digital strategy is the result of – or the reaction to – something that happened before and was never free to start with. Both owned and paid media have the power to generate the “free”, earned media that marketers seek out, but does this not come at a price?

When owned media leads to earned media, this is usually due to an announcement about a product or feature launch, a promotional or sales campaign, a new key hire, a partnership, etc. – and none of these things are entirely free. At the very least, even if you don’t take into account the cost of achieving something that will be talked about, the cost of the media you earn will be no less than the amount of work your marketing and PR teams have to put in to earn it.

When paid media leads to earned media the costs are even more transparent. Each digital advertising campaign, sponsorship, etc., always has a definite cost. The volume of earned media generated through such media presence can then be easily monitored and measured with the help of new technologies. Almost never does earned media occur entirely naturally on its own. Instead, it’s usually the result of an intentional communication pushed through paid and owned channels.

2. Earned Media Is Not Always Positive
The implicit connotation of earned media seems to be that someone has done something noteworthy and is rewarded with “free” media coverage: mentions in the news outlets, comments and conversations on online platforms, and so forth. The harsh reality is that not all earned media is always good and positive, though it’s almost always a valuable exercise in listening and communicating, honestly and openly, with a brand’s audience.

Whenever earned media takes an unwanted turn (for instance, by causing a negative review or a complaint) and even more when it leads to a disaster of epic proportions (think of all the Twitter hashtag campaigns that have gone terribly wrong) sizable resources are needed to contain the incident, respond adequately, and come up with effective damage control strategies.

The cost of negative earned media is sometimes difficult to quantify but it can ultimately include any of the following and more: manpower, costs of opportunity, loss of revenue, diminished customer base, diminished brand value, diminished brand credibility. Most of these negative outcomes would then require further spending in order to be improved.

3. Earned Media Is High (and Sometimes Costly) Maintenance
Earned media, in volumes that are actually meaningful to a brand, is almost never generated following a “put the message out and they will talk about us” approach.

Brands small and large are spending on dedicated staff and media monitoring solutions like never before, particularly because earned media, in both its positive and negative form, requires quick engagement, response, and resolution times. Some brands handle such communications in-house, other hire external consultants or agencies, others yet choose to ignore them. All of these approaches, even the latter, have an intrinsic cost.

What is your experience, does generating earned media value incur costs for you? Do you plan for an earned media dimension in all your digital campaigns or is it just a well-deserved bonus? Comments are welcome on LinkedIn.

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