Earned Media
Written by: Ryan Flannagan

Chapter 15: What Is Earned Media?


Earned Media has always been the most sought-after and credible form of marketing since well before marketing had that name. People are distrustful of owned and paid media because the message is controlled by the person trying to sell something. Earned media is controlled by a person who has experienced a brand, and that person is presumed to be giving an honest assessment of that experience. A 2013 Neilson report found earned media to the most trusted form of media to consumers. And that’s not all…

  • Earned media outperforms paid media by a factor of 10-15% when bringing in new leads, and cost an average of $14 less per lead
  • Millennials are 51% more likely to be influenced by earned media than by paid media
  • Socially shared earned media is especially important, with a 100% higher close rate as compared to pain channels
  • 88% of people report trusting online reviews as much as word-of-mouth advice from personal contacts

Earned media is so powerful that a form of paid media (the testimonial) giving the illusion of being earned remains one of the most powerful kinds of advertising despite the fact that consumers know it isn’t real.

Examples of earned media include:

  • Search-engine optimization (SEO) — that is, your SERP (search engine results page) rank based on your SEO is an earned attraction.
  • Customer reviews
  • Viral videos
  • Social-media affirmations such as Facebook Likes, Pinterest pins, and Twitter retweets.
  • Business-to-business partner channel rankings on an industry-specific site.
  • Online news media exposure
  • Referral reward programs for existing customers

Because consumers are connected, mobile and opinionated, earned media is a double-edged sword. Businesses who deliver good value with excellent service can expect near-immediate earned media reviews, testimonials, and social sharing to appear in the digital world. Businesses who deliver shoddy work, have rude service (or even a bad day) can expect word of those experiences to appear even faster.

This speaks to the largest disadvantage of earned media: lack of control. Even if you deliver excellent value, you can’t count on the client you wowed to go through the effort of telling others. Worse, any attempt to control earned channels will cast a pall of suspicion on all earned media regarding your brand, regardless of the transparency or honesty of that particular piece.

The PANDA and PENGUIN updates are a case study of both situations in action. Prior to Google putting them in motion, gaming Search Engine Optimization was a thriving business. Companies attempted to control the earned media channel of search results via a combination of tricks and hacks, including exchanges where friends would place irrelevant links to partners’ websites to give the illusion of popularity.

When the updates dropped, those companies that were engaging in dirty tricks plummeted in search rank status. Unfortunately, so did many companies that appeared to be doing so, but were acting in good faith. They were judged in the court of earned media by what they looked like they were doing, not by their intent or actual integrity.

If you can’t control earned media, what can you do? The best plan of action includes three pillars to support your earned media mojo:

  • Massive Value. Old business adages are like old soldiers. They might not be the most popular, but you have to ask how they survived to get old. Give massive value to every customer. Treat them well. Follow up. Your job doesn’t end when the stranger becomes a customer, but rather when the customer becomes an advocate.
  • Transparency. Use social media, your blog and, other online content to part the curtain and give the public a long look at what you do and how you do it. Secrecy looks suspicious. This is especially true if you make a mistake: own the mistake, publicly apologize, and share your plan for making good.
  • Responsiveness: Never ignore negative earned media or even potential for negative earned media. Get in front of it professionally and sincerely. Even if you can’t fix it for the customer involved, others will see the legitimate attempt and turn the negative situation into a positive reputation.

Turning to our examples of the cash-poor ski shop owner and harried chemical consultant, we’ll see that earned media isn’t something you produce so much as encourage.

In John’s case, a smart small business loan provider will remember that small business owners talk with other small business owners, and share their precise and honest opinions consistently. They might leverage this to reach John by:

  • Sharing posts of work by unrelated bloggers about cash flow and business lending, with the eye toward building likes and followers
  • Create a video with a humorous but informative review of modern lending that could go viral due to the value and comedy
  • Encouraging their previous customers to post reviews on third party sites where John is active such as Google Business, Angie’s List and, Yelp
  • Being featured as an award-winning business by a reputable third party
  • Cited as an expert by a local or trade publication

Mia is an especially important case because there’s a good chance her lawsuits came from (in part) her having followed poor advice. She will be especially suspicious of owner or paid claims, and will seek out earned media on her own. A company that wants her business might:

  • Grant an interview on a podcast or videocast for the tech and science consulting industry
  • Use online reporter platforms like HARO to become an expert interview on the topics of business liability in general, and tech consulting liability in particular
  • Create a community of small business owners for the purpose of discussing liability-related issues
  • Be active in the tech consulting online community via forums, google + and social media
  • Join associations that are relevant to the tech consulting liability community

As you see, these efforts create an overall environment that encourages positive earned media. They don’t say “Hey! Look how great I am!” Instead, they get others to tell their peers and followers how great the company is. This happens either directly (as with an online review) or indirectly (as with an interviewer identifying a company representative as an expert). In both cases, when combined with owned and paid media, the total impressions you leave on strangers can begin to convert them into leads.

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