Unlike paid and owned media, earned media is built from organic social interactions relating to your brand. People generally put more trust in their contacts and in other customers than they put in brands, making earned media the most relied-upon source of information in modern marketing. Nielsen’s 2013 study on consumer trust in advertising showed that 68 percent of respondents are most receptive to the opinions that other consumers post online.

An earned media message also has the potential to go viral, which makes for cost-effective exposure if it falls in the right hands. So how can you optimize your network and use your connections to leverage the most valuable form of media?

Understand That You’re Only as Good as Your Network

One of the biggest advantages of earned media is that your audience is doing the grunt work. This also means that much of the media surrounding your brand is, unfortunately, out of your control. If you have built a strong network of loyal customers who love your products and services, you don’t need to worry too much about how your earned media is representing you or your business. However, there’s always a risk of people responding negatively to your message, taking it out of context, or ignoring it completely.

The key to building a solid network that will create positive buzz on your behalf is to incite enthusiasm through social interactions. Never let a positive or negative message from a customer go unanswered. Even neutral comments can be a chance to start a conversation. Growing a following is just one way you can use social media to build your business.

Use monitoring tools like Google Alerts and SocialMention to keep track of your brand. Sift through the conversation threads you find that are relevant to your company or industry, and look for appropriate opportunities to chime in without overtly advertising. Reach out to influencers in your network. If one of your customers gets plenty of their own earned media, tapping into one of their relevant conversations could turn into a ripple of free press.

Create a Message People Want to Share

Building up a strong network is all but useless if you don’t produce interesting content to share with your customers and prospects. Here are a few basic requirements that all of your owned and shared content should meet:

  • Relevant – Without being too sales-y, your content should relate to your services and your industry. Don’t latch onto a trending topic just to get a word in or try to make your brand relevant to a movement or event if it’s not. Create evergreen content that people will use for months or years to come, and inject your brand’s personality into it.
  • Easy to read – While every content piece should have intelligent ideas fueling it, you also want it to be an easy read that a wide number of people will identify with. This is especially true if you work in a technical industry. Make sure you use layman’s terms, or define jargon that your social audience might be unfamiliar with. As a rule of thumb, don’t use language that would prevent a junior high student from understanding your content.
  • Positive – Positive or optimistic content is more likely to be shared than negative or pessimistic content. For example, if you work in the cleaning products industry and you notice that your brand’s sales are going down, you can spin that either way. A negative headline, such as “ActualClean’s Sales Drop Despite Proven Product Success,” might generate some sympathy, but people will probably not pass along such a depressing story. Changing this to “Ways You Never Knew You Could Use ActualClean Around Your Home” makes people feel like they’re discovering a secret, and it will pique their curiosity to check out your products.
  • Classy – A graceful, positive response can thwart the damage of a negative customer comment or experience. Unless your brand uses acerbic wit consistently, never react rudely to a dissatisfied customer. Bad interactions will haunt you in your future social engagement, and that network you spent so much time building will no longer seem like an advantage.
  • Consistent – As mentioned in the point above, keep your voice consistent on every platform and in every post. Decide early what kind of persona you want to come through in your public interactions. Your company has a personality, and it may take you a little while to pinpoint this — but when you do, stick with it. Is your voice that of a relatably jaded college student who runs on caffeine, a sweet grandmother dispensing helpful advice, a down-home humorist who doesn’t beat around the bush, or someone else entirely? You want readers to be able to visualize what kind of person is behind all of those company tweets and blog posts.

Few companies can scrape by without a content marketing effort. Create high-quality, diverse content that proves you are a trusted source of information. Invest thought, time, and resources into your blog, since blog posts are one of the most valuable types of earned media.

Tailor Your Interactions to the Channel

Promote your content tastefully. In addition to being positive and avoiding advertorial language, this means knowing how to adapt your message to different social networks and groups.

Twitter is casual and witty, and the character limit requires you to pare your message into a quick blurb.When guest posting on a blog or interacting with a customer on Facebook, you have more freedom to expound.

Don’t overload yourself with social accounts to manage. Instead, choose only the channels that best suit your brand and its strengths. Treat your different channels as cogs of the same machine, with accurate information across all of them and the same regard for customers and prospects. Respond within a reasonable amount of time, and be transparent about your mistakes.

Many companies view earned media as an afterthought to paid and owned media, and fail to devote proper time and resources toward making it a focal point. However, it’s one of the best ways to connect with your customers and determine their interests and desires, so that you can create even more engaging content to share.