Any comprehensive marketing strategy should include a smart integration of owned, paid and earned media. In today’s online world, just about anyone can publish content, and businesses should take full advantage of this opportunity.

By creating excellent content and using paid promotion to spread the word, you already have the building blocks for a successful campaign. Earned media is an equally important component but is often overlooked or considered an afterthought, largely because marketers believe it to be difficult to control.

Defining Earned Media

Let’s start by defining what earned media is and how it fits into the overall marketing picture, as the term has become relatively ambiguous and overused in recent years. While there are lots of sound definitions in circulation, John Lusk, founder of Rivet & Sway, perhaps does the best job of explaining earned media’s place in marketing.

“It’s essentially word-of-mouth,” he writes. “Most marketers resort to paying for earned media via big investments in PR. I suggest spending more time and energy on delivering such an amazing customer experience that your customers are actually serving as giant mouthpieces for your company.”

If you want an honest look at the state of earned media – that’s it. When most companies refer to earned media, they’re actually talking about paid media. After all, they spend thousands of dollars on developing relationships with publications and members of the press. Earned media – in its truest sense – involves natural relationships in which customers, peers and members of the media recognize you for simply doing what you do best.

While paid and owned media are certainly important components of a marketing strategy, they can’t be the only things you focus on. There’s lots of overlap and you need to dedicate time and resources to earned media.

Coca-Cola: A Case Study in Earned Media

Before we look into some of the reasons you need to focus on earned media within your own company, let’s briefly examine how Coca-Cola, an Atlanta-based company, successfully used earned media leading up to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Despite the fact that some are saying earned media – and social media in particular – doesn’t generate tangible sales lift, Wendy Clark, senior VP-integrated marketing communications and capabilities at Coca-Cola, stands firmly behind her investment in earned media, saying “today’s progressive marketers know better.”

In Clark’s experiences, social plays a “crucial role at the heart of our activations.” Coca-Cola’s “global toolkit” for the London games involved more than 60 different types of content across 110 countries.

From a 60-minute documentary that was broken up into shareable segments, to the unique Beat Maker app which allowed users to create and share their own beats, Coca Cola focused on earned media as much as they did on paid and owned media during the 2012 Olympics. And it would be hard to argue that their plan wasn’t effective.

3 Reasons to Seek Earned Media

As you can see, earned media – when approached in the proper way – can be incredibly effective. Here are a few specific reasons to start focusing on this all-important element of marketing:

  • Most trusted. While many marketers don’t like earned media because they can’t control it, the reality is that it’s the most reputable source of content (in the consumer’s eyes). According to one study, 85 percent of consumers regularly seek out trusted expert content when considering a purchase. If you’re not investing in earned media, your brand probably isn’t a part of this “trusted expert content.”
  • Humanizes your brand. Earned media is so powerful because it humanizes your brand. Whereas paid media – and even owned media – lacks a certain level of objectivity, earned media is seen by consumers as genuine. This honesty is something you cannot pay for, or value highly enough.
  • SEO value. Practically speaking, earned media is an effective SEO-builder. It allows you to garner valuable backlinks that further elevate your web pages and brand name in the search engines. Again, this is something you can’t directly pay for. Instead of focusing all your time and money on trying to develop shortcuts to SEO success, just invest that time into developing earned media relationships. It’ll be much more meaningful in the long run.

In the end, a sound marketing plan must consist of earned, paid and owned media. However, don’t forget the former in favor of the two latter elements. While it takes more time and energy to develop earned media, the payoffs are huge.

As Clark mentions, integrating so many different moving parts is challenging, but necessary. “These are new skills and capabilities, and we don’t always get it right. But we’re trying, we’re learning and we’re unquestionably committed to continuing the journey of executing wholly integrated campaigns, with social [and earned media] at the heart, to fuel better outcomes and impact for our company.”