Let’s say your company recently came out with a new product and it has fallen to you to inform all of the potential customers about the new offering and to spread the message as widely and efficiently as possible. What do you do? Well, one of your first steps is to identify the target market for the new product by compiling all of the relevant demographic and geographic data. While this is all well and good, it turns out that there is another important factor you should consider about your target audience aside from simply who they are and where they’re located if you want to create the most successful campaign possible: your potential customers’ social networks. Indeed, online social media platforms have not only made discovering your potential customers’ social networks easier, but have vastly multiplied the power of what is generally called “earned media.”
Defining Our Terms
First, some definitions. When companies seek to spread a message they generally utilize three different types of media: owned, paid, and earned. Owned media comprises all of the channels that a company can control, such as their website, company blog and social media accounts. Although this represents the easiest and most direct way for a company to get the word out to customers, there is no guarantee that anyone will see these messages, especially people who are not already customers. Paid media, by contrast, includes all of those channels that a company can pay to spread their message for them. These channels include display advertisements, paid search, sponsorships, etc. While paid media guarantees that your message will get in front of lots of eyeballs, many people tend to discount whatever they see in these kinds of advertisements, viewing them as having poor credibility or, at worst, being spam.
Earned media, on the other hand, is the term used to describe when the customers, themselves, become the channel through which a company spreads its message. Sometimes called “word-of-mouth”, “creating a buzz”, or “viral marketing”, earned media offers companies the least control over how and to whom their message is spread, is hard to measure, and can easily turn negative. However, earned media is far and away the most trusted kind of media in the eyes of consumers as the message is conveyed not by the company or an advertisement but by a person that the consumer already knows and trusts.
How about an example of earned media at work: Let’s say your company creates a video about the new product and posts it on all of their owned media, including the company’s Facebook page. At that moment the video has a fairly limited reach as only the people who already know and “Like” the company will be exposed to the video. Then, one of those people who Likes the company watches the video and enjoys it so much that she decides to share it on her own Facebook page. Now all of that user’s connections on Facebook are exposed to the video, dramatically increasing the video’s reach and allowing the company to spread its message to a whole new group of people they may not have otherwise targeted in the first place. Maybe one of that user’s friends decides to share the video, too, exposing it to all of his Facebook friends. You see where this is going…
Show Me the Money
That is the power of earned media and leveraging the social connections of your target audience. When customers become the vehicles of delivery for a company’s message, the message gains far more credibility, reaches far more potential customers, and accomplishes all of this at little to no cost to the company. Don’t believe me? How about some numbers: As of August, 2013, 93% of marketers said that they used social media for business purposes. Up to 92% of consumers say that they trust word-of-mouth recommendations (i.e. content that they receive from their social connections), but only 24% say they trust online advertisements. Indeed, a report by Wildfire discovered that 82% of users that clicked on a friend’s news feed post about a quiz they’d taken went on to take the quiz themselves. According to AdAge, earned media is responsible for 25-40% of all traffic and lead generation and yields 5% or higher conversion rates, as opposed to only 1% or less for traditional paid media. Another study which focused on a large telecommunications firm that was marketing a new service found that “network neighbors” of current customers (i.e. those customers’ social connections) ended up adopting the new service at a rate 3 to 5 times greater than the baseline groups selected by the best practices of the firm’s marketing team. Because it is organic and authentic, earned media clearly has the advantage over owned and paid media when it comes to getting potential customers to engage with a company.
So what about the value of earned media? How much is a Facebook Like or a friendly blog post really worth? Well, thanks to Social Chorus we can now concretely measure the value of social word-of-mouth marketing efforts. For example, Social Chorus found that a blog post endorsing a company or one of its products or services is by far the most valuable type of earned media with an estimated value of $853.00. Facebook Likes, the most widely deployed of all social endorsements, is valued at $1.60, while Facebook shares are worth $10.17 and Twitter Tweets and Retweets represent a $5.00 value. And remember: because earned media is delivered by the customers, all of this value is generated at no direct cost to the company. So from a strict budgetary perspective, there’s no contest when you compare paid media to earned.
Tips for Getting Earned Media
So how can your company start getting some earned media of its own? Well, the most important thing to do is to create content that people find so interesting and cool that they decide to share it (see our article in Denver Post’s YourHub on Content Marketing for more on that). As social media is an inherently selfish platform, generally the most “shareable” kinds of content are things that allow a user to discover an aspect of their personality they weren’t aware of or to display facets of their personality to share with their friends. One recent and highly successful example of this comes from LinkedIn, which sent out emails to some of its users early in 2013 telling them that they were among the top 1%, 5%, and 10% most-viewed profiles in 2012. Wanting to impress their friends with their newfound status, these users then went on and shared this information with all of their connections, thereby providing tons of free publicity for LinkedIn.
A more obvious tip to get your company some earned media is to provide value to your customers. According to that Wildfire report mentioned earlier, posts that get the most engagement on Facebook include information about coupons, giveaways, and sweepstakes. However, discounts and the like are not the only kind of value people care about. Providing information about a new product, giving out helpful tips, or sharing behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the company are all ways of delivering value to your customers and fans. How do you know what your customers value? Use social media to listen in on how your company is being discussed by people and in what context.
Also, you can always use both owned and paid media to create earned media for your messaging campaign. While some people are busy predicting the end of paid media as a useful form of message promotion, smart marketers know that paid media is actually shifting in purpose from the foundation of marketing efforts to a catalyst for earned media. For example, there’s no reason not to use paid media in the ramp up to the holidays in order to get your message out to as many people as possible who, in turn, may decide to share that information with friends and give you some valuable earned media.
Finally, the other option available to businesses who want to generate earned media for themselves is to hire a company that specializes in this sort of thing. Relevance Media, for example, targets individuals on social media based on behavioral profiling and leverages network effects to spread highly targeted messages from the nodes (people) they can readily identify to other nodes (their friends) that have not yet been exposed to the message. In this way, companies like Relevance Media can build audiences for messaging around specific profiles while identifying and reaching other, previously unknown, users.
Now, let’s be clear on one thing: earned media is not necessarily free media. It requires hard work to generate and sustain steady coverage and to build on the momentum of past successes. However, by providing real value to your customers and by utilizing platforms like social media that allow customers to share this value throughout their social networks, your company will be able to make the most out of earned media and maybe even generate content that achieves that coveted “viral” status.