Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Myth of Earned Media

Added on by Tom Webster.

The Marketing, Advertising and PR industries are fond of grouping media into three buckets: Owned (stuff on channels you control), Paid (stuff you pay to place elsewhere) and Earned (stuff you don't pay to place elsewhere). It always sounds like such a value judgement to me ("oh, you paid to place that. You didn't earn it.") What I think is going to happen in content marketing is that as niches become flooded with content, marketers are really going to understand what earning it really means. 

Earning it means understanding your audience, and delighting them profitably. What we call Owned, Paid, and Earned Media, an audience calls Media. And regardless of where it is placed, or whether or not you paid to place it, you did pay for it somehow, and you will have to earn your audience. 

Let's examine The Sound of Music (no, really!) NBC's live broadcast of this legendary musical was seen by many as a tremendous risk, but I'm not sure it was as risky as people think. In my day job, we are working on a survey for the Country Music industry to help them understand their audience and set a direction for the future. In a tidbit we released early to the press, we found that the number one country artist with young Americans, and the number one artist period amongst younger country fans, is Carrie Underwood. And we fielded this study the week prior to NBC's broadcast.

You think NBC knew that? I do. I also think they had researched the popularity of the musical itself with their audience, and many other things. I think they knew exactly what they were doing, and they had done the audience development and research work to be sure. What kind of media, then, was The Sound of Music? Was it "owned" because NBC placed it on their own channel? They certainly "paid" enormous amounts to place it, both in promotion and in the opportunity cost of what else they could have shown, or promoted. Both are certainly true.

I would make the case, however, that ultimately The Sound of Music as we now know it was earned media. 22 million Americans watched the whole thing, but 44 million Americans saw at least some part of it, because, you know, we share content on social media and stuff. It was the top-rated show that week, and NBC's highest-rated non-sports show since the finale of ER in 2009. Yeah, NBC earned that one. They did the work to surprise and delight an audience by understanding their needs, wants, desires and preferences, and they gave them a piece of content that ultimately was shared almost as much as it was watched. 

Even on channels we own, all media is paid for. This blog post was paid for with the time I could have spent doing something else. And all audiences are earned. When someone chooses to watch your ad instead of fast-forwarding through it on their TiVo, you earned it. When someone chooses to read your "Birmingham--City Of Industry!" advertorial in their airline magazine because it actually has some interesting history, you earned it. When someone shares your paid media, you really earned it.

To an audience, all media is earned because attention is not free.