Marketers have long assumed content shared by friends or other influencers carries more weight than paid placements. Now GE has some proof.
Working with social-media site Buzzfeed, the company commissioned digital-advertising measurement firm Vizu to test a campaign last fall in which the marketer distributed "The GE Show" video through Buzzfeed both in paid display placements and sharing, then tested how attitudes changed among people exposed each way.
People exposed via sharing had a significantly bigger lift in positive attitudes toward GE -- associating the brand with such things as creativity and innovation -- than people exposed via paid placements.
Overall, the "brand lift," which measured the extent to which consumers said they saw GE as "creative," was 138% higher for consumers exposed to via sharing through Buzzfeed than those who didn't see it at all. Specifically, 17% of people found GE creative after viewing the content via sharing vs. only 7% of people who made that connection without having seen the advertising at all.
Consumers exposed via sharing were also 83% more likely to rate GE "creative" than those exposed to the content via paid advertising on Buzzfeed.
The brand lift was calculated based on short online survey responses to the question: "What comes to mind when you think of General Electric (GE)?"
In all, thousands of people responded to short online surveys as part of the study, which broke them into groups exposed via paid media, exposed via sharing or not exposed at all to the content, said Jeff Smith, chief marketing officer of Vizu. While his firm has done numerous studies on brand lifts from paid digital ads and social media, it hasn't previously compared the two for the same content.
Overall, 42% of the responses about GE from people in the control group that didn't see the content were positive, compared to 55% of responses from people exposed via paid advertising and 77% for those exposed via sharing.
Obviously shared media has the advantage of being "free inventory," said Paul Marcum, director of global digital marketing and programming at GE. But he was also interested in knowing whether it actually has more impact on consumers than paid media.
"We all would intrinsically think that if you see something your friend has shared or a community you're part of has shared, you're more likely to value it differently" than paid placement, he said. "But no one we could find had actually tried to quantify the difference."
Though the study found earned media packs more punch than paid, Mr. Marcum acknowledged it's still hard to get one without the other. Marketers, he said, still "need to dial up the paid and hope the earned goes with it."
But for GE, the study was a lesson on "the value of advocacy, and that absolutely will inform marketing decisions," Mr. Marcum said.
Platforms GE has tried recently, including Buzzfeed and Instragram, "just have so much passion around them," he said, which should help stoke social sharing.
The value of earned media suggested by the study, of course, gives digital platforms that can demonstrate higher rates of sharing more value than those with lower rates. ShareThis late last year launched a program with Starcom MediaVest Group to rate online media based on the extent to which their content is shared through the sharing platform.
"A study like this where you can actually measure the perception lift from social sharing," Mr. Marcum added, is a "step in the direction" of determining the financial return on the media investment, but he acknowledged GE needs more research to determine the full ROI implications of sharing.