Ultimate Guide: What Is Earned Media and Paid Media?

earned media vs paid media

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How do earned and paid media boost brand authority?

Brand authority is something that every business dreams about. Those who achieve it become the standard in their industry. It’s not just any electric car; it’s a Tesla. It’s not just any diamond ring; it’s a Tiffany. It’s not just any running shoe; it’s a Nike. Businesses with brand authority have a high degree of influence in their industry. Other brands seek to be more like them, and their customers have a high degree of trust in their products and services. They come back to buy them again and again, bringing their friends with them.

So how do you get brand authority? Unfortunately, it is not something that a brand can proclaim or claim for itself. But there are steps that a business can take to earn it. Foremost among those steps is having a healthy, ongoing strategy for appearing in a positive light in earned media and paid media.


Why is earned and paid media important for brands that want to succeed?

The road to brand authority begins with achieving positive exposure for your brand. Marketing can be a part of this, but it will never be enough. Marketing falls short for a number of reasons.

First, businesses gain brand authority when they provide their industry with compelling content that informs, educates, and inspires. Marketing promotes a business and its products or services. But it is advertising that was paid for by the company and often shows up in a way that is bothersome, if not annoying, to the consumer (especially when it is online advertising). The type of content that is provided in earned and paid media is resourceful rather than promotional. It educates consumers, rather than simply courting them.

Second, marketing does not bring a brand into the relevant discussions that are happening in their industry. Earned and paid media places a brand in the article on trending technology in TechCrunch or the article on emerging business ideas in Entrepreneur. Marketing is found in the ads that appear next to the article (or in the pop ups that people block or ignore). Earned and paid media features a brand as a critical voice in the conversation. When a brand’s representative appears on a podcast or a TV report, they are an authority, not an advertiser.

Third, marketing is void of third party endorsement. Anyone can buy an ad in which they promote the benefits of choosing the products or services they offer. Will potential customers believe you? Some stats say 96 percent of customers don’t trust ads. When your company is the focus of earned or paid media in a reputable source, potential customers do not need to take your word for it; they now have a third party to validate your value.

Fourth, a big part of building brand authority is being active on social media. And being active does not mean running ads. Businesses that are pursuing brand authority must provide social content that is compelling, relevant, and, most of all, likely to be shared. A shared social post is the kind of media that a brand wants. When that post comes from a source other than your company as a result of earned or paid media, that is even better. A lot of great content will help you to achieve brand authority. A lot of ads will get you blocked.

earned media

What is earned media?

So what is earned media? It will be easy for you to understand the concept of earned media if you understand the way in which social media works. Let’s look at Facebook as an example. When a brand establishes a Facebook account, they have the ability to begin sharing media and building a following. For some brands, the following can become quite large. McDonald’s, for example, has more than 81 million followers on Facebook. It typically shares one post per week. Those posts can be helpful to build brand authority, but they are not earned media. Posts that a brand shares on Facebook (or any other social channel) are known as owned media. The brand developed the post, approved the post, and decided when and where to share it. In essence, they own the message, which earns it the title owned media.

Let’s stick with McDonald’s for a minute to look at another kind of media. McDonald’s gets a lot of engagement on its post. Shares typically number in the thousands. While that kind of activity can also help with brand authority, it is not earned media. Rather it is known as shared media. The original post is considered owned media, but once a third party, such as one of McDonald’s followers on Facebook, shares it with their followers, it becomes shared media.

Now imagine for a moment that a hungry person walks into a McDonald’s on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. He purchases a Deluxe Crispy Chicken Sandwich Combo Meal with a large fries and a large Fanta Orange, then heads to outside seating to enjoy the ocean air while having lunch. In no time, he has attracted a crowd of seagulls who are very interested in his french fries. He snaps a picture of the gulls, who are perching on the next table over, then shares it on Facebook with the caption, “I’m having lunch at McD’s and I’m happier than a seagull with a french fry.” He adds “#lovinit” before posting. That is an example of earned media.


What are examples of earned media?

Again, what is earned media? Earned media is media that you do not control. You did not create it. You did not pay for it. It involves someone saying something about your brand without your permission. Social media posts that highlight your brand (especially in a way that makes your brand look good) are a great example of paid media. Other examples include:

  • Press coverage – When companies send out press releases or respond to requests for expert opinions through platforms like Qwoted or HARO, they are hoping that it will result in some type of earned media. Journalists love to report on companies releasing a revolutionary new product, passing a significant milestone, or launching a charitable campaign. This can take the form of a print article, digital article, or report captures on video. Regularly putting out press releases about anything newsworthy with which your brand is involved is a great practice if you hope to connect with the press and capitalize on this type of earned media. You also might note that this type of earned media can prompt additional earned media if the news outlet highlights the story on their social media channels.

  • Online customer reviews – When a customer leaves an online review about your products or services, even if you encourage them to do it, that is earned media. (When reviews take the form of testimonials that people share with their social networks, they are often considered user-generated content, or UGC.) There are plenty of places that this type of media can show up, including Google My Business reviews, Amazon reviews, Yelp reviews, and Facebook reviews. Glowing reviews can be repurposed and shared on your website or media channels, making it a strange hybrid of earned media and owned media. (Maybe we should call it “Grabbed Media.” Or “Screenshot Media.”)

  • Trade publication features – Every industry has trade publications. Don’t believe me? There is Welding Journal for the welding industry, Acupuncture Today for the acupuncture industry, and BedTimes Magazine for the mattress and bedding industry. Whatever business your brand does, there is at least one publication that reports on it. If your brand is doing something that brings significant value to your industry, that publication would probably be excited about sharing it with its readers. It may not have the circulation or readership that you will find with Forbes or The Wall Street Journal, but those who do read it are most likely very active in the industry. If you offer them something that is useful to their business, it will definitely boost your brand authority.


Why is earned media worth pursuing?

You have probably guessed by now that getting your brand mentioned in earned media is a challenge. Other varieties of media can be considerably easier to achieve. Publishing owned media can be as easy as launching a website or establishing a social media account. And when you are working with owned media, you can make it say what you want it to say, how you want it said, and when you want it said. Still, it does not carry the weight of owned media when it comes to building your brand authority.

Shared media comes close to earned media, but it is not quite the same thing. If a fan grabs the URL of the official video of her favorite band from YouTube and shares it on her social feed, that is shared media. But if she performs her own version of the song on her social feed, that is earned media. Which one do you think will get more likes, comments, and shares? I would guess the cover version, even if it is bad. (Actually, especially if it is bad.)

Overall, earned media will always carry more credibility with consumers than other types of media. By definition, earned media was not purchased. It will be assumed to be bias-free, therefore it is media that consumers will be much quicker to trust. It is the media most worth pursuing because it is media that gets the best results.


How do you get earned media?

If you are new to the idea of earned media, it may seem to be a daunting task. Take heart. It is not as difficult as it sounds. Public relations firms get earned media for their clients all day, every day. If you just don’t have the time (or you are lacking the courage), take advantage of the expertise that a PR firm can bring to your efforts. If, however, you are up to giving it a shot, here are some tools you can use to begin the process. 

  • Press Releases – Press releases are your way of letting the world know that you are making news. Do you have a new product coming out? Write a press release about it. Did you hire a new employee who brings some exciting skills to your company? Write a press release about it? Did you receive an industry-related award? Write a press release about it. It takes a little effort, but it can be the first step to scoring some exciting earned media. (Check out the Otter PR YouTube channel for helpful guidance on the basics of press releases, how to write a press release, and how to distribute a press release.)

  • Journalist Requests – You have probably noticed as you have read news articles or watched the news on TV or online that journalists often include quotes from subject matter experts in their reporting. Guess what? When it comes to your industry, you are the subject matter expert that they are looking for. Connecting with a journalist in need can be an easy way to score earned media. (Click here for another great article from the Otter Blog on how to look for and find journalist requests.)

  • Connecting with your community – In the social media realm, earned media will flow organically when you start showing up and sharing helpful content. There are plenty of online communities that are organized around topics that are related to your industry. Those are the spaces where your potential customers and clients spend their time. Drop in regularly and listen. If people have tech issues that you can fix, provide the solutions. Present yourself as a brand that cares about making things better, and you will surely make some fans. At that point, there is a good chance that those fans will endorse you to others who are looking for the products or services that you offer.

What is earned media? It’s a way to let people know, without paying for it, that you have a product that other people are behind, which communicates that you are a brand that can be trusted.


What is paid media?

Paid media, in essence, is media that you pay to have an outlet share on your behalf. The most common form of paid media is an advertisement. In the digital age, ads are everywhere. They pop up in your social feeds, in your messaging apps, on your streaming media platforms, and even in your search engine results. (I’m sure there are some other examples that are not coming to mind.)

Why is paid media everywhere? Because it is easy to obtain. As long as you have some money to spend, you can get your brand in paid media. So should your brand forget about earned media and just spend its time and money buying paid media? That might not be the best solution if you want to achieve any level of brand authority. Why? Because our culture has become what experts call “ad-averse.”

People don’t like ads, especially when they get in the way of something else we are pursuing. According to research done by HubSpot, 73 percent of people dislike online pop-ups ads, 71 percent of people dislike ads on their mobile phone, and 57 percent of people dislike the ads they are forced to watch before they can get to the content they chose.

That being the case, let me share with you another type of paid media that is more palatable to consumers than advertisements.


Is sponsored content a type of paid media?

What is paid media? It is media exposure that you pay for. Does it always need to be an ad? No. Or at least not exactly. Sponsored content is a type of ad that looks like earned media. You have probably seen it and not even realized that it was paid media.

You may have heard of BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed mixes in sponsored content, which is also sometimes known as native advertising, with the content that is prepared by its writing staff. The sponsored content was written by the brand that paid for it, rather than being written by the media outlet where it is found. It is typically identified as sponsored content by a phrase like “Paid post” or “Sponsored by” or “Powered by” that appears on the page where the article is printed or posted.

Why would a brand want to pay for sponsored content? From an advertising perspective, sponsored content can be considered a premium ad. It doesn’t feel like something that is trying to interrupt you while you look for helpful content. It looks helpful. And often it is helpful. It promotes a brand in a way that looks like news rather than an ad. It has an air of authority and it is easier to trust.

From a brand authority perspective, sponsored content is a step closer to earned media. It’s media coverage that you can promote on your website or social channels. It is an opportunity for a reader to learn about who you are and why you exist, rather than just what products you offer. And if you leverage sponsored content to show why your brand is newsworthy, it might just attract the attention of a reporter and result in earned media.


How do you get your brand featured in sponsored content?

If you believe getting featured in sponsored content is a good step for your brand, then you probably want to enlist the services of a public relations firm. PR firms have the expertise to help you craft the right kind of content, get it in the right kind of outlets, and make sure that it is leveraged in a way that moves you closer to achieving earned media.

Keep in mind that getting exposure for your products is an easy task. Building a strong reputation for your brand, however, is complicated. Rarely can it be achieved through paid media. More often, brands prove that they can be trusted by showing they are worthy of earned media.

Picture of Nik Korba

Nik Korba

Nik has been a screenwriter, ghostwriter, novel writer, song writer, and blog writer with a degree from the University of Miami. He has prepared communications for thousands online and on social platforms, as well as being involved in the production of more than 1,000 videos.
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