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What’s the difference between earned, owned and paid content?

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

With 500 hours of video uploaded on YouTube every minute and 100 billion WhatsApp messages sent daily, cutting through today’s noise requires a robust content marketing strategy. Each media pillar needs to be included: Owned, Paid and Earned media - and they all need to work together in a cyclical motion to feed one another in order for you to grow brand recognition.

Today’s audiences are bombarded by information across a myriad of channels: broadcast and streaming; social media; text and chat; radio; phone and video calls; books and newspapers (yep, they still exist!); and in person meetings, conferences and events. Each way you communicate through these channels can be categorised under Owned, Paid or Earned content.

Three key types of content

Marketers need to combine Owned, Paid and Earned content to grow your brand awareness. Some strategists stretch the categories to include Social, or label Paid as Sponsored. For clarity, we’ve included Social in Owned and Paid categories, depending on what activity you are undertaking with social media channels.

All types of content can bring SEO benefits, and should be part of a holistic marketing plan. Here, we look at the three main content categories and how your strategy can include each of them.

Earned Media

Put simply, Earned Media is third party, independently produced content that features your brand. It’s content about your brand, not content from your brand.

Consumer reviews, media articles, unsolicited endorsements, social comments and word-of-mouth conversations on podcasts – all these examples fall under the umbrella of Earned Media. This type of content is often regarded by audiences as the most credible as it’s deemed impartial and is often produced by experts in relevant fields.

What are the positives of Earned Content?

The big positive of Earned Media is the high degree of trust an audience has in it. It can also often have a longer shelf life than Owned or Paid Media, and is more likely to be cited by other third parties. Any brand hoping to grow their Earned Media reach needs to be aware of the challenges: just as its name suggests, you have to work for results in this category!

You’re also reaching a new, yet engaged audience - casting your net further to help build your wider connections and network. Working with the right third parties you can reach the right type of buyer profile more effectively.

You need to build relationships with journalists and media brands, as well as your existing fans and customers. Even when the result of relationship management, brands relinquish control over their message and its timing in Earned Content.

Earned media gives way to brand ambassadors, this means more partnerships, indirect sales, referrals and recommendations.

Is there a cost to Earned Media?

Building relationships may have a cost involved (PR agency fees; having an image library for media use; sending product to potential reviewers – although for some sectors, reviewers source their own products, hosting influencer training days), but Earned Media is generally one of the most impactful content production items.

You will often not get any warning before the content appears. If you or your PR team is made aware of pending coverage, you are extremely unlikely to see it in advance. With Earned Media, you need to be prepared for negative feedback into your product, service, company behaviour and ethos.

Look at the recent Peloton inclusion on HBO’s ‘Sex and the City’ follow-up, ‘And Just Like That’. After a spin session on one of Peloton’s bikes, one of the central characters suffers a heart attack. Whilst the company was aware its bike was being used in the series, it claimed to have no pre-warning of the storyline. The viewer backlash to the storyline saw Peloton’s share price fall by over 11% in the first 24 hours after the episode aired. And just like that, financial analysts cut Peloton’s price target citing damage to its brand image.

As well as news or media coverage, Earned Content can be produced by influencers (as long as no payment exchanges hands), industry affiliations and memberships, trade shows and your brand ambassadors and fans.

You may not be able to calculate the cost of customer acquisition so clearly, but you’ll be able to see the impact it’s having on your other channels - and the value of your brand.

Can I reuse news about my brand?

You can often use Earned Media in brand communication – sharing social posts and links to third party coverage, or incorporating it into sales presentations. Sharing positive independent media mentions with your team and investors is also a great way to boost team morale and highlight your company’s credibility.

A quick word of warning though – particularly for news outlets, be sure you adhere to any copyright regulations as you may need to pay a fee or have specific clearance for (re)use in commercial activities.

Owned Media

Unliked Earned Media, Owned Media is all about control. This is where a brand can share its side of the story and project its messages. The content and its distribution are in your hands; you choose what to say, when to say it and where. Owned Content is created by your brand, and published on channels you own or run.

Benefits of Owned Content

The benefits of Owned Content for a brand include cost efficiencies (you can track spend and ROI in a much clearer way than Earned Media), and versatility in use and message. Where you own the materials used, you can freely rework your content across a range of channels, including in Paid Content, and even Earned (such as supplying images to media).

If your company has a strong reputation, Owned Content can resonate as trustworthy. This trust can take time to scale; your brand will need a track record of business success, exceptional customer service and expertise in your field to start building consumer trust. You can grow a sense of authority by publishing thought leadership pieces on industry topics on your own blog, and joining conversations on community forums and social channels, such as LinkedIn.

A strong, reliable, credible piece of content can be continually referenced by content producers. This is particularly likely with market research and data reports, with both brand references and direct links to the content your owned media begins paying for itself.

What is Owned Content?

Examples of Owned Content are newsletters, social media posts on your own channels, your company website, instore and point of sale materials, sales collateral, market research, whitepapers and operational touchpoints (from shop signage to packaging and even branding messages on receipts). Increasingly, with news websites packaging social media trends as news stories, your Owned Content from your own channels may overflow into Earned Media.

Looking again at Peloton, their initial response to ‘And Just Like That’ was to issue a rather dry cardiologist statement, citing the health benefits of exercising. They used the statement on their Owned Media channels, but also issued it to media, picking up Earned Media mentions. A few days after the episode aired, the brand posted on their social channels a much better response.

Ryan Reynolds - the internet’s hero (yes, that is his official title) - provided the voiceover on a short video featuring the actor Chris Noth and the real-life Peloton instructor who featured in the AJLT episode. A typical Reynolds-esque tongue-in-cheek tale, this piece of Owned Content has since gone viral, resonating with social media audiences. It has also jumped into Earned Media, featuring in leading news websites around the world, from entertainment news to financial stories.

Paid Media

The last of the big three media categories is Paid Content. In this instance, the ‘Paid’ refers to placements as there are, of course, costs involved in producing quality content for use as Owned Media and you may see some costs to acquire Earned Media.

Paid Media’s distribution and frequency are mostly shaped by what your budget is. The more you spend, the more eyes you can put your advert in front of.

Do I control Paid Media placements?

Subject to the channel used, there can be an immediacy (particularly with online advertising placements) in the timing of Paid Media placements, and you are in control of your message. Your advert’s design needs to fit channel size and file requirements, but you shape the overall look and feel of the content.

You should match channels to your desired audience, tweaking messages to target different outlets’ market demographics. Through using a variety of channels and creative content, Paid Media can help you introduce new contacts to your brand, ultimately growing your sales figures and/or database if your customer journey is ready to guide prospects through your sales funnel.

Is there a downside to advertising?

A potential downside to Paid Media is trust, or lack thereof! We’re all guilty of skipping the ads on TV, social and in print. That’s because audience trust in advertising can be hit-and-miss: it varies based on geography, age and other demographic characteristics, but in the UK, 55 per cent of the public trust advertising.

Examples of Paid Content include print and digital advertising; pay-per-click (PPC); third party partnerships and sponsorships. If you combine strong visuals and carefully crafted copy, and place your content on channels that reach your target market, advertising can be a valuable tool in your marketing strategy.

How do I include all content types in my marketing strategy?

Balancing a range of content need not induce a headache. By carefully planning and considering how to repurpose content, you can tick off a range of channels across all three media categories with ease.

Like all marketing activities, success will come from having a solid plan and being clear in your target audience and messaging. Regardless of your industry and your brand, messaging that is honest, transparent and shows some personality is likely to resonate with your audience and help you stand out from the crowd.

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