While we discuss how earned media is an output of the combination of paid media and owned media, I think the simplification of the three terms has made a mess out of the expectations of clients everywhere.
Earned media isn't an easy acquisition metric like a click. You can't outbid a brand for earned media. It's a continuous, it's laborious, and it requires a large percentage of human engagement to be considered effective.
When you take earned media for granted, or treat it as if it were paid media, your results will almost always end in catastrophe.
Take, for example, a recent conversation with a friend of mine who works in the marketing department of a once-popular clothing company. After largely avoiding digital media for the past half a decade (for fear e-commerce would cannibalize brick-and-mortar locations), he finally gained enough in-house momentum to launch campaigns on Twitter and Facebook to help spark conversation and interest and ultimately drive sales.
While there was nothing wrong with his tactics, he never once followed the advice he read so diligently about. The concept of "after the flight" was impossible for key stakeholders in his organization to grasp. I could almost hear his CMO ask him, "So when does this social-media campaign end?"
After minimal engagement, my friend quickly realized that the tactics his brand implemented weren't delivering on the desired results originally sold in by his advertising agency and the words "pull the plug" were just around the corner.
So before he could point a finger, I asked him: When was the last time his brand went through a digital audit of relevance? This was bigger than an OTX or Dynamic Logic study (both excellent research companies in their own rights). It was even bigger than the Net Promoter Score. This was about using real-time human scoring as a means of understanding how relevant his brand was to his audience.
The blank stare back was enough for me to know he hadn't a clue as to what I was talking about. So I showed him the light version -- a few free online resources such as TweetDeck and Social Mention that he could use to gauge the level of value his brand carried online by following conversations where his brand was referenced, both positively and negatively.
Being relatively intuitive, he picked up quickly on the power of the online services I mentioned. While he was able to find his audience discussing fashion, his brand was never the centerpiece of conversation, referenced less than a handful of times in the past few months.
Later that night we met up. I found him sulking in a coffeehouse, depressed over his discovery. His wife had a different take on it: "At least you didn't find negative comments!"
"Right," he said, "but I'd rather have seen 1,000 negative posts than nothing at all. At least with the negative sentiment, I could conclude that I have an audience who cares enough to talk about us. I don't even think we're relevant."
Look, social media isn't going to be the sole driver of ROI. But what social media will do is act as an indicator of where your brand stands in the eyes of your audience, getting you closer to ROI. It's your gateway to a live focus group. But unlike a roundtable in some offshoot mirrored room outside the Forum Shops in Las Vegas, where moderators have to pull responses and people may fake warmth toward your product or service, social media is live and unfiltered.
Finding zero conversation specific to my friend's brand indicated a much more dire issue than the one he originally intended to research. In this instance, social media acted as the directional indicator of zero engagement between audience and product. That meant his paid media, both offline as well as online, was not effective.
While it's a requirement that, if your brand participates in social media, trust and honesty have to be key tenets, you also need to work exceedingly hard to identify and engage your audience with the proper incentives in order to spark relevant dialogue. Tracking meaningful conversations through social media will provide insights for all facets of your company, from your messaging to the products you may decide to feature.
The trick is to realize that it's never too late to get started. Even if the outlook seems discouraging, once you begin to seek, identify and engage your audience, you'll ultimately end up with a group of advocates willing to speak to you and with each other.
Maybe this earned media thing isn't as hard as I thought.