Earned Media Marketers Unite!


Image: An example of unpaid outdoor media?

It’s only fair to warn you: this is a #longread of a blopost. If you’d prefer a pithier morsel try this… 

It’s not just the Today Programme that loves to manufacture a bit of artificial controversy, going for a polarising debate when examining the common ground would be a much more useful exercise. No, it seems we all like to do it when we are thinking — or talking out loud, more worryingly — about business.

It is a mental trick, a kind of rhetoric of strategy that means that we can always set one idea up in opposition to another to test them out, see what’s happening, see what it throws up. Only problem is when we think the exercise is live-fire, that it actually matters if one thing beats the other…

This of course is a dialectic, or more precisely the Hegelian dialectic, to resurrect my A level philosophy: by setting opposing ideas against one another (hypothesis and antithesis) we reach synthesis, a new idea that emerges from the opposing positions.

PR vs. SEO vs. Content vs. Social Media is a four-way argument that has now run its course. The synthesis is Earned Media, a term taken from the Paid Owned Earned Media model handed down from media agency land, where it was coined by Nick Burcher (he has a book out you know).

We’ve co-opted “Earned Media” at Brilliant Noise to describe how we do everything, integrating social media, content marketing, UX, SEO and PR, led by strategy, underpinned with data.

Technically, we’re talking about Owned Media too I suppose, but “earned” feels like the important thing here — it’s the outcome, it’s the imperative, it’s the antithesis of bought attention. As I’ve said for a while, in the age of the web and content superabundance, all attention is earned.

Lots of people are reaching the conclusion that there is something in the middle of all these non-Paid Media disciplines, something hopefully more than the sum of its parts. Certainly it should be more than the sum of its parts in terms of marketing spend, since currently many big brands still spend less than 10% of their resources on anything that doesn’t involve buying ad space.

This new, merged marketing discipline is being built in all sorts of different ways: some envisage an innovative merging of the disciplines (hello social / digital start ups), others see a gentle assimilation, and others still act like it’s a hostile takeover by their sector.

The less interesting side-show argument is which of these four disciplines will be most successful at assimilating the others. SEO’s got the better digital chops and higher retainer revenues, but PR’s been around longer and content strategy’s beginning to really become a force to be… oh, hang on – I said that was a less interesting argument, didn’t I?

While emerging Earned Media disciplines are disunited, unintegrated they are missing big opportunities. It’s not just me who finds this odd. In his recent, superlative state-of-the-content-marketing-nation blog post Tom Critchlow says:

It puzzles me that the SEO industry and the content marketing industries rarely talk to each other. While there is some modest overlap, by and large, the two worlds keep to themselves on blogs, twitter, and even with having separate conferences.

Earned Media – let’s keep the capitalisation until taste or reason persuades me to do otherwise — has some jargonistic synonyms:

  • Inbound marketing
  • Social media (if you are brand focused)
  • SEO (if you are direct response-focused)
  • Integrated or Cross Channel Marketing
  • Converged marketing (actually in this excellent post – Future of SEO: Change, Convergence, Collaboration – Andy Betts makes a case for SEO to be merged with the other disciplines and called “Inbound Marketing” — but I read it and thought “Converged Marketing” was a useful way of describing his point of view too)

Actually, if spot any more in the wild, let me know. Which term wins the marketing jargon wars is an uninteresting distraction of a debate — some will prevail, some will be as embarrassing in five years time as that QR code on your T-shirt

Enter the villain: Paid Media

So now, what will earned media be set in opposition to? The temptation — and I am so very tempted — is to set it up against Paid Media, i.e., advertising.

In this line of thinking, we might say….

Paid Media: Vacuous, troublesome, bloated, rude and corrupted beyond usefulness, Paid Media – and its media agency overlords — are the villains of modern marketing, holding back innovation and muddying the waters with endless unnecessary complexities…

We’ll take ’em down. We’ll take their budgets. Define their strategies. Yeah Paid Media, we’re going to show you all right…

If you are girding your loins, rallying your troops, bending your clients to your will, this is a compelling story.

But it’s not what’s actually happening of course. As a strategy for an agency or a brand, it is risible.

Paid Media and Earned Media need to work together. Right now they don’t. Not that often (Tracy Stokes of Forrester’s recent report Traditional Paid Media Must Fuel Earned Media Efforts has some good examples and ways of thinking about how to integrate the two, if you have $500 or access to an account with them).

Paid Media needs to be relegated to a tactical status in the marketing hierarchy. Problem is, for the time being, Earned Media is no position to take up the slack. Maybe it will be the management consultants who take strategy out of the hands of all the marketing agencies (see below for evidence of McKinsey’s efforts, and the other big consultancy firms smell media agency blood too).

Earned Media is fragmented and full of in-fighting. Because of that lack of cohesion — and some measurement issues — up to now it has commanded the share of marketing budgets it warrants. With the new convergence in Earned Media disciplines taking place, that is beginning to change — and as budgets shift toward earned the process will, in fact already is, accelerate.

The coming market correction in brand communications

So, there’s a market correction that’s required in terms of where budgets go. As McKinsey pointed out a year ago, “You’re Spending Your [branding] Money in All the Wrong Places”.

That’s why Coca-Cola’s CMO and CEO [subscription required] have both said 20% of their marketing budget will go elsewhere (the former called it inbound marketing, the latter called it social media).

That’s why the CEO of the company that spends more on advertising than any other, P&G, was called to account by Wall St analysts about his marketing budget imbalances, and he promised to spend more on social media, content and SEO (i.e. Earned Media).

According to Business Insider

He told Wall Street analysts that he would have to “moderate” his ad budget because Facebook and Google can be “more efficient” than the traditional media that usually eats the lion’s share of P&G’s ad budget.

90% of budgets going into Paid Media campaigns is wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s obvious when it is pointed out by independent experts like world-leading management consultants or investment analysts — it’s just not obvious when your main advisors work for people who make most of their money out of buying 30-second spots.

Earned Media and Paid Media need to work together, put Paid Media shouldn’t be in charge any more. In fact, to get the correction underway, you want to relegate it to a supporting role.

So, you want a strategy team in charge who is media neutral, as the terminology goes?

No. No, you don’t. Because that strategy team is nine times out of ten Paid Media neutral. They will — as one planner friend of mine put it, take any marketing challenge you put to them and make the answer land in media. Why the media bias? Because they work for a media agency or a marketing group that makes most of its money from media buyers.

And – as the McKinsey article makes clear – Paid Media depends on an addiction to the sales funnel model.

Once you become more interested in models like McKinsey’s Loyalty Loop, and look at the evidence of where the opportunities to engage with and influence the customer are, then Earned Media becomes.

I suppose the question about the market correction we are seeing in marketing spends is — where will it end? Will Coca-Cola stop at 20%? Will it be 30% in a couple of years? 50% in five years?

This Loyalty Loop model is one we’ve seen being used again and again by forward thinking marketers.

Let’s return to the POEM model for a moment. As Neil Perkin puts it in his post about Nick Burcher’s book on the subject:

For me, the interesting spaces in the POE model are where they overlap, and work seamlessly together. This is where the most innovative stuff is happening right now, from people who have a great understanding of not just one of these constituent parts, but all three.

Who to put in charge of the whole thing? Brilliant Noise is a digital strategy firm, so I’m going to say us right. But taking that as a given, who else might you consider?

McKinsey, PWC and Accenture will happily relieve the marketing industry of that burden, if we don’t see Earned Media specialists taking leadership. The alternative is that control remains with the media agencies, and that they evolve to be able to lead with Earned and support with Paid.