Paid advertising is infinitely scalable but at a cost that advertisers increasingly seek to defray by accruing earned media impressions or interactions.
Earned media is broadly defined as an exposure, view or interaction with a commercial message via an impression that was not purchased by the advertiser. Engagement with a paid impression is a reward for good creativity and targeting but is not earned in this context.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (comments from all are welcome) offer the opportunity to build communities around a brand and the notion of a “soft opt-in” of followers, friends or subscribers creating a level of permission in marketing. This seems both desirable and straightforward.
In Twitter's case the equation is simple to understand. If A follows B then all B's tweets find their way to the Twitter stream of A. There is no algorithmic filter.
An advertiser tweets, its followers see that tweet (or more accurately have the opportunity to see if they see that part of their stream), the exposure is earned. An advertiser promotes a tweet, the media is paid. If the recipient re-tweets, views of the re-tweet are earned.
This is not the case with Facebook. The Facebook news feed is algorithmically filtered for relevance. Facebook themselves say “as Facebook users make more connections, and those connections all share more content, each year there's more content available than anyone can reasonably consume. Newsfeed is the place where this sport plays out – and the goal of Facebook is to make newsfeed as useful a place as possible for its users”.
The effect of this is that the more frequently A interacts with B, the more often B's posts will appear in A's news feed. Infrequent interactions mean infrequent exposure and, in some cases no exposure. Simply put, the value of a friend on Facebook diminishes or increases in relation to the frequency of engagement. In Facebook's case, therefore, earned media is restricted to the organic posts that make it through the algorithmic filter, the subsequent shares of those posts and the shares of posts that arrive in the news feed as paid impressions. Facebook's reach is massive and that has undoubted value, it's just not free and the earned to paid ratio is less than some marketers had hoped for -- yet it remains worth pursuing.
YouTube is different again; any brand can post a video or create a channel on YouTube. On occasion a miracle may happen. The brand video, often fueled by the oxygen of a little paid media may go viral yielding a huge earned dividend on the paid investment. Inevitably this is the exception rather than the rule. As someone once said, “like self-immolation it's hard to do more than once.” More often the vast majority of the views to brand videos are paid, with a single digit percentage of earned views accruing to the advertiser via shares. As an aside “the brand video hit parades” that fill many a column inch around the world don't distinguish between paid and organic views. This is rather like a ranking of commercials by volume of GRPs and passing it off as a measure of popularity.
In all these cases the message to the advertiser is clear. Earned media is first and foremost a function of the assets you create and your willingness to promote them. The degree to which they are shared, used and engaged with is a helpful measure of their value and an important ingredient of the creative brief.
This is a truth that has dogged every advertiser and agency from the beginning of Internet time when we created web sites, celebrated our organic traffic and then turned resentfully to banner ads, Google and Yahoo to bring the eyeballs we craved as the next million web sites appeared. We learned that the more utility we created through commerce, service, high value information or entertainment the greater the organic return.
We did exactly the same with our first Facebook Fan Pages. At first they came by themselves or from a prompt on TV or a shopping bag; then we had to buy friends (we've all done it) and now we pay to reach the friends we have already bought, albeit at a discount to buying new friends and strangers. And so it goes on. Today the story is repeating itself in the world of app development in which we have learned quickly that organic discovery is often ineffective and that a combination of paid promotion and usefulness are necessary nutrients on the path from install to persistent use.
Paid, owned and earned is a well-worn (but not stupid) taxonomy of messaging but it is one that demands context. Unless you choose, with more or less justification, to place a massive multiple on the value of an organic like, view, interaction or share you will be faced with the crushing inevitably that while it may not be able to sing or dance; money talks.
Some brand owners will have great success with some programs some of the time but it remains true that dogs bite men with greater frequency than men bite dogs.
Rob Norman is Chief Digital Officer Global of GroupM. Rob’s principle tasks are developing the interaction organization within GroupM, developing positioning and thought leadership and leading the interaction contribution to business development. You can reach Rob at @robnorman or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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