mom was right: you gotta earn your media

Jun 11, 2009 | Tech News

Burger king subservient chicken

Okay, I might have the saying confused with “You gotta eat your veggies” or “You gotta wash your hands”. But like a lot of Mom’s sayings, they are all great advice.

“Earned Media” is fast becoming The Meme of the marketing world. And I think it is spreading fast because of its validity.

Let’s start by defining the opposite ofEarned Media, the Paid Media. The bulk of Paid Media is basically what Madison Avenue does: Advertising, whether it’s on TV, Radio, Newspaper, Magazines, Outdoor signage or the Web. They are placed on these locations because your company PAID for their placement on the medium. Pretty much everyone outside of a selected few living in the Borneo Jungle are familiar with advertising. What’s more, everyone is well aware that you are trying to sell them something via the ads, and have long developed a sense of skepticism and cynicism around the message you want the consumers to hear. Which is not to say they can’t deliver the brand message, but the well documented fact is that they are fast becoming less effective, particularly with the media savvy younger generations. “New and Improved” won’t do it anymore, now you’ve got to bring out something like the Subservient Chicken to shock people into listening to you.


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Diagram from David Armano, and along with his article on Earned Media, are a must-read.


Earned Media, on the other hand, are organic and grass root. Your company still seeds the message, but you are working in concert with the media and consumers to develop awareness of the product or service that you want folks to adore. The resultant publicity and awareness is based on positive, non-sponsored coverage of your brand. The classic example of Earned Media is Public Relations, where PR professionals work to get your brand and product into the hands of the media and journalists, who then can do news coverage or product reviews. The PR folks help convey the message you want out there, but ultimately the messages are told via the journalists or news personalities. Whereas a poorly designed product can still be touted with fanfare on a Clear Channel billboard if you buy the space, a crappy product that offers nothing new or worthwhile will not see much coverage, no matter how many PR firms you hire.

The most exciting space for Earned Media, however, is social media. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and many other web properties are fertile ground for organic, user-driven messaging. One only needs to look on Twitter’s public stream to find frequent mentions of brands and products. Brands need to listen, engage, and participate in these mediums to make sure the desired brand attributes are what customers are experiencing and talking about.

As I feel that I have much to learn and much to think through about Earned Media, let me leave you with what I think is the best discussion of Earned Media I’ve come across: Fred Wilson, a VC partner at Union Square, recently gave a talk on Ad Age Digital Conference, and his slides are available for viewing here.

Article End
  1. Jun 11, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    mark nagurski says:

    There’s certainly an increasing trend towards ‘earned media’ as opposed to ‘paid media’. I’d also suggest however that there is an as yet untitled third way.

    Many organisations are investing in creating their own media – a trend that’s well documented on sites like, and – and can include everything from simple company blogs to YouTube channels to just about anything else you can think of content wise.

    I’d say this certainly falls within the ‘earned media’ camp, as while the content itself is paid, the audience must be earned.

    I’d be interested to hear where you see this kind of ‘created media’ slotting in.

  2. Jun 12, 2009 at 4:47 am

    william says:

    Mark: Thanks for the referral to those sites; I’ll definitely check them out.

    I wonder if the “untitled third way” to which you referred is in fact a hybrid between the establish paid media and the emergent earned media, and really a bit of a stepping stone from where we’ve been historically, to the new earned media world.

    Personally, I’m familiar with two examples of this third way: Channel 9 for Microsoft, and Starbucks’ presence on Twitter, Facebook, and On one hand, they are both super successful: Channel 9 has been tremendously successful to re-establish a human face to a corporate behemoth for those in the industry. The Channel 9 videos and blogs give industry folks and cognoscenti a way to peek behind the scenes, but still allows MS to retain control over what is revealed about future products and strategies. Now I don’t know if MS can censor comments on its blogs, etc., but it can certainly remind employees what should be said, and what isn’t. is a similar sort of approach: It’s a forum where consumers can participate in, via rules that Starbucks developed. it’s been pretty popular too judging from my perusal of the site.

    Starbucks has gone one step beyond “the hybrid” mode, and engage users very actively on Twitter and Facebook; I think they may have some of the biggest engagement for any brands in terms of follower-ship and fans on both platforms. On Twitter, they are more driving the conversation from @starbucks to twitter auidences, and I’m not sure how much “seeding” they are doing to get SBUX customers to talk to each other, relay their brand experience. On Facebook, their fan pages are probably closer to what David Armano calls “SEED”.

    I do strongly believe the next step for someone like SBUX, who has started experimenting with the earned media world, is to become more of a facilitator, rather than a driver of conversations. The ideal is for their customers to become what Adam and I called Brand Ambassadors, whose presence and engagement is truly grass roots and even more authentic. But letting your customers take control over your brand is pretty scary. First you would have to be pretty convinced that your brand attributes are well communicated and activated by your customers and fans, and I’m not sure how many brands can truly claim that level of achievement.

  3. Jun 12, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    mark nagurski says:

    I suppose I’d define ‘earned’ media as generating engagement via the real benefits it delivers – information, insight, a sense of ownership or community. Paid media seeks to generate engagement by interruption of someone else’s earned media – an ad in a magazine interrupts the media you chose to buy.

    I think Channel 9 is a good example of the idea – the key being that the content created by MS is of value in itself (something people want to engage with) and thereby earns its audience. If it was simply full of repurposed press releases and ‘advertorial’ there’d be no interest, no engagement and no point.

    Within that definition, I’m not sure how well most corporate PR fits into the earned media category. Is the article about Acme’s new widget there because it’s truly exciting or because Acme had the resources to send out a press release, hold a press junket or pay someone to pitch the story to journalists?

    I completely agree about the need to move towards facilitating conversations. Conversations are what social media is about – and smart brands should aim to make it easy for those conversations to happen, lose control and see what happens.

    But there must also be a place for conversations between consumers and brands (not just between consumers about brands) and that means brands creating content that’s worth talking about.

    Perhaps less stepping stone between paid and earned media and more a conversation starter between brands and consumers?

  4. Jun 29, 2009 at 1:12 am

    Arthur says:

    I am thinking about what the monetization potential of Earned Media there is for social media platforms such as FB, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

    Much of the buzz of Earned Media take place on these platforms, but how can they monetize it?

    Since earned media is decentralized and very much grass-root based, it is hard for the social media platforms to find an appropriate “toll point” such as Adwords/Adsense of Gooble. Based on its knowledge of user behavior and what the community and his/her trusted circle are buzzing about, it can attempt to make better and targeted “Suggestions” and “Sponsored Ads”, but so far the ads are exactly a raging success. Will it improve much with more accumulated data or better algorithm?

    The platforms, such as FB, could provide and charge businesses for the tools and facilities to seed, monitor, analyze and iterate their earned media effort. Since customer engagement has a large component that is human and time intensive, it is an open question how much value software tools/facilities provides. In any case, they would also compete against other companies who focus like a laser on only doing this.

    FB, Twitter, etc. have numerous high potential monetization possibilities, I am focusing on the questions that come to mind in the context of the emergence of Earned Media which happens to be heavy on time, actual human engagement and creativity, and less on computer automation.

  5. Jun 29, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Arthur says:

    It occurs to me that one of the most successful, if not the most successful company that uses Earned Media is Apple.

    Its secrecy about new products/versions generates an incredible amount of buzz that it does not have to pay for.

    For it to work, it needs super cool and highly innovative products. Otherwise, the buzz will quickly turn negative, and the company will be killed faster than any other one.

    As long as it can keep up the innovation, its earned media formula is repeatable. It really does not have come up with new and creative seeds. The formula of speculation about the whether, what and how of their new products can be repeated indefinitely for each (major) product cycles.

    I am still waiting for, and talking to most people I know (whether they want to hear about it or not) about the future iTablet (or will it be the MacTablet)!

  6. Jun 29, 2009 at 1:25 am

    Arthur says:

    Will movie companies produce V2, V3 of their movie trailers based on the buzz/reactions of V1?

    In other words, will businesses revise their seeds based on user reaction?

    Or are they doing that already?

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