Earned Media vs. Paid Media vs. Owned Media

They are different means of achieving a common goal.
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Royer's Flowers visits Fox 43 Morning News.

Royer’s Flowers visits Fox 43 Morning News.

I never used the term “earned media” when I was the one dispensing it as a daily newspaper reporter. I wrote stories, mostly related to business.

It was only when I left journalism for a career in public relations – and I began pitching stories to reporters and editors on behalf of my clients – that I started thinking about earned media.

So it’s not altogether surprising that clients sometimes struggle with the terms we throw around in PR. For instance, an opportunity to be interviewed for a story has, on occasion, been met with a client’s, “How much is it going to cost?”

Of course, in this case, it is confusion between earned media (namely, news coverage) on one hand, and “paid” media (advertising) on the other. What’s more, the digital age and the era of content marketing has brought us “owned” media.

News coverage, advertising and content marketing

Often, these media types overlap (converged media), as well they should in order that clients get the most bang for their bucks.

There are countless definitions of earned, paid and owned media. Particularly when it comes to owned media, a lot of terms get tossed around. I’m a journalist at heart, skeptical by nature and leery of jargon that often serves to complicate matters unnecessarily. If we’re in the communication business, we should be better communicators about what we do.

So let’s define these different media types in ways that we might explain them in casual conversation with a family member. And if your mother is like mine and speaks of getting “into” her computer, there’s a real need to talk in terms to which most people can relate.

Earned media: Why “earned”? Because you literally can’t purchase the credibility that comes with an independent news story; it must be earned. News coverage resonates because it carries a third-party endorsement.

The flip side is that the subject of the story can’t control what is written. But in most instances, the reward outweighs the risk, for a story from an objective source is far more credible than one that is not. In days of yore, earned media was said to be at least three times more valuable than paid media.

Earned media isn’t purchased, but there is an indirect cost associated with the time it takes to write news releases and/or pitch stories to reporters and editors. Costs vary for public relations firms, but good ones operate efficiently because they deal with media outlets on a regular basis.

To a lesser extent, earned media also has come to be associated with content that others create: for instance, a Facebook post or tweet in which a customer mentions a brand.

Paid media: News coverage remains the Holy Grail, but paid media can be a valuable complement. The advertiser can control precisely what its message is, where it appears and how often. Paid media can be pretty and colorful and a more precise way, compared with earned media, of promoting brand attributes.

Of course, it is less credible than earned media and costs a lot more. Consumers have gotten wiser to advertising, which has grown so ubiquitous (everything from a display ad in a newspaper to paid search online, from an event sponsorship to stadium naming rights) that it can get lost in the clutter. Heck, you can’t avoid it even in a public bathroom.

But there are times when paid media becomes news, such as all of the stories about the million-dollar ads that run during the Super Bowl.

Owned media: This is the content that a brand produces and controls, including a website, blog, newsletter, Facebook page, YouTube channel. There is great opportunity here, but there are a number of pitfalls, too.

Experts in content marketing argue that companies today should think of themselves as publishers. Not only is fresh, relevant content a great way for brands to connect with their customers, but it’s also integral to how high they rank on the major search engines.

More alike than not

But sometimes technology is too democratic. That is, giving people tools doesn’t necessarily make them qualified to use them. Desktop publishing has been a boon to office creativity – much of it terrible.

And just as not everyone is a talented graphic designer, neither are they always capable of writing coherent blog posts. So if you want to tap the expertise of your staff members, make sure that you have access to a talented editor who can polish the copy.

When you get right down to it, earned, paid and owned media are more alike than not. They are different means of achieving a common goal: telling a brand’s story.



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