Earned Media May Be Efficient, but It's Far From Free

Maximizing It Requires Much More Than Just 'Embracing' Facebook and Twitter

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw

Fred Wilson kicked off Ad Age's recent Digital Conference urging us to focus on "earned" vs. paid media.

Bless him for making the point on such a high-influence stage. Fred has the credibility to make the point, and he's earned no shortage of well-deserved validation and "link love" around his own brand. He's also been thinking about this long before the word "social media" crept into our vocabulary (a fact I intimately appreciate, as he was among my first investors in PlanetFeedback.com, my 1999 start-up and a "way before its time" consumer-generated-media play).

Wilson suggests the media universe comes down to a blend of paid media and earned media, the latter of which is becoming increasingly important in this age of consumer expression and conversation.

"There are still a lot of marketers out there buying their media when they could earn it, and earn it a lot less expensively," he notes. To reinforce his point, he shared an excellent visual framework developed by former Critical Mass exec David Armano, juxtaposing paid vs. earned media inputs, and the related marketing activities that feed each.

Earned media could include the media brands cultivated via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, viral marketing campaigns and much more. And there's lots of it to go around, he suggests, a point I -- and everyone else in the media-measurement space -- intimately understands. Among the 150 million blogs, 200 million global Facebook accounts and tens of millions of daily tweets, there's more than a few Super Bowl ads worth of earned media sloshing around. And in a business where favorable media impressions build brands, that counts.

Then again, this isn't easy, and, at least in the short term, it may not necessarily be cheaper. It all depends on how we define scope. To really reap the benefits of earned media, we need paint its universe with the broadest possible brush. And we need to think about platforms like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter as "context" that enables earned media, not an end in and of itself.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000."

We also need to even push our comfort zone in terms of how we think about advertising. For instance, I have repeatedly argued that customer service is a form of advertising -- classic earned media, in fact -- but getting it right is far from easy and requires upfront investment and expertise that's well out of the scope of most media planners. Customer-service experiments on Twitter get you only so far.

Measurements are a critical and useful starting point in getting it right, Wilson notes. Indeed, if you audit the broad spectrum of online conversation, even look back 10 years to the present, certain truths emerge. For starters, the vast majority of earned media -- or what I started calling "consumer-generated media" back in 2003 -- comes from brand experiences independent of ad campaigns. Yes, there are exceptions such as the noteworthy Dove "Evolution" or Frito's Super Bowl contest, or even some of the examples Wilson cited in his talk, but what most drives the propensity to speak out, create a review, post a tweet, rate a product or publicly rant or complain, stems from how well that brand performed, measured against expectations and/or serviced an unmet need (e.g., customer service).

For certain sectors like travel or hospitality, the employee interaction is the No. 1 incubator of earned media. In wireless, call-center conversations around the highly emotional billing issue are one of the top sources of earned media (mostly negative). In the automotive sector, the topic of safety is a huge driver of earned media (both positive and negative) in the marketplace. Increasingly, just showing evidence that you care about what the consumer says incubates earned media.

This is important to internalize because maximizing earned media requires a much more fundamental shift than just "embracing social media." Setting up shop on Facebook is the easy part. Developing the brand business processes that increase odds of advocacy or favorable earned media is quite a different thing, but it's essential. If, in fact, the manner in which employees treat customers does more to drive online love (or venom) than your best advertising campaign, we have a fundamentally bigger challenge (and opportunity) on our hands.

This is why our entire marketing debate must shift to the tougher operational decisions we need to make to maximize earned media. And we also need to be brutally honest about the upfront investment and choices we need to get this right. Long term, we're likely to save a ton of money, but short term we may need to invest in pulling out the old wires.

The good news is that we can bridge our way to the harder choice, and the almost unstoppable and mind-boggling wave of social-media experimentation can certainly help by putting quick points on the table for skeptical managers. Models like GetSatisfaction.com or IdeaStorm can help prime the pump for a broader rethink.

Looking ahead, here are some of the critical questions we need to be asking ourselves as brand stakeholders as we attempt to cultivate and win with "earned media."

  • What is the primary source of earned media, advertising campaigns or brand experience (e.g., product meeting expectations, customer service fulfilling needs)?
  • What role does trust and authenticity play in the earned-media equation, and what steps must we take to keep the end product as credible and persuasive as possible?
  • What is the role of what we might call "spurned media," or earned media that goes negative? The nice thing about paid media is its predictability, but there are no guarantees with earned media that the buzz on, say, the Skittles launch will trend positive.
  • What specific brand issues or experiences have the highest likelihood of triggering earned media? Product performance? Customer service? Employees? (This will vary by category.)
  • How do we develop norms and benchmarks for appreciating the degree to which traditional (even offline) media feeds earned media? How much of an "earned-media multiplier" do we need to make a Super Bowl ad pay out?
  • How do we reframe the operational mind-set to nurture longer-term earned media? Should media- or marketing-mix planners invest as much time calculating how much budget goes to call centers or employee retention programs as to paid-media gross rating points?
  • How on earth do we organize marketing -- how do we reconcile our silos -- in an earned media landscape? Can a house divided long endure?

So, yes, Wilson is on to something, and we must continue this conversation -- for our own sake and for the consumer's sake.

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