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Benefits and Limitations of Earned Media vs. Paid Media

Kaley Deneen

Earned media and paid media are two different things, but the terms often get used interchangeably (and therefore, incorrectly). Here, we’ll define both terms and go over some of the advantages and disadvantages of earned media vs. paid media.

Earned media

Earned media describes coverage your brand receives organically (i.e. without compensating a third-party outlet for featuring it). If a news outlet, industry publication, or social media account gives your organization positive coverage without being paid to do so, that’s earned media.

Is a press release earned media?

A press release is an official statement from a company announcing something to the public, usually crafted by a PR or communications team. Most companies publish press releases on PRWeb, as well as housing them within a “Media” or “Press” section on their own websites.

Despite requiring a bit of spend for creation and distribution, press releases can best be categorized as earned media, because their goal is to organically generate media interest.

Benefits of earned media

Earned media comes with a number of considerable benefits, including:

  • Brand exposure – When people organically come across coverage of your brand, it may prompt word of mouth communication, further research, cross-channel engagement (like following your social media accounts), and of course, conversion. Even if earned media doesn’t immediately influence someone’s buying decision, it could help them convert one month, six months, or even a year after consuming the content.
  • Brand loyalty – Consumers who are already familiar with your brand may feel a deeper connection after reading positive coverage, moving them closer to becoming organic brand ambassadors.
  • Brand credibility – When your brand is represented positively in an authoritative outlet (e.g., Forbes, HuffPost), it lends your brand some of their credibility and legitimizes your place in the market.
  • SEO benefits – Earning backlinks on credible sites with high domain authority or page authority can give your search engine rankings a boost.

Limitations of earned media

Earned media does come with some challenges, particularly in terms of effort and ROI. First, it can be extremely difficult to acquire — journalists and content creators are bombarded with pitches all day, every day, and it’s difficult to cut through the noise with a compelling, brand-centric story.

Secondly, although some platforms claim to track ROI for earned media, it’s very difficult to measure the sentiment that an individual takes away from reading brand coverage without conducting an in-depth interview. This makes it difficult to demonstrate quantitative results for earned media.

Helpful earned media tools:

  • HARO, a free tool that aggregates queries from actual journalists, bloggers, and influencers looking for interviews, input, and experts for their articles.
  • #JournoRequest, a hashtag on Twitter that journalists utilize when they are looking for input on a story.
  • Cision, one of the best PR tools for pitching, communicating, and managing relationships with journalists and publications.

Paid media

Paid media is exactly what it sounds like — exposure that is purchased. Examples of paid media include digital media campaigns (e.g. programmatic advertising, paid search, and paid social), as well as sponsored content.

Read More: Salted Stone's Integrated Approach to Paid Media

Unlike earned media, paid media is relatively easy to utilize as long as you have the budget for it. You don’t have to convince overloaded media outlets that your brand is worth covering; you just have to create content that follows the applicable guidelines.

What is sponsored content?

Sponsored content refers to paid features in third-party magazines, podcasts, or other outlets. Often, this takes the form of an editorial-style article that a company has paid to publish. This type of paid media typically appears in outlets like Forbes or industry-specific publications with a small “Sponsored” tag.

Pairing a banner ad campaign with sponsored content boosts impact.

Benefits of paid media

Just like earned media, paid media can generate brand exposure and credibility. But the biggest benefit of paid media is the ability to target specific audiences that are most likely to engage with your brand.

Here are some examples of how paid media efforts allow you to target specific audiences:

  • Paid social media ads enable you to reach audiences based on demographics like age, gender, location, and job title or psychographics such as interests and activities.
  • With paid search ads, you can reach people who have searched for particular keywords related to your products or services.
  • Sponsored content enables you to advertise your brand in publications whose readership is likely to show interest, and craft content based on that particular audience.
  • Programmatic paid media campaigns utilize insights and algorithms to serve ads to the ideal audience at the best time and price.

You increase the likelihood of conversion by targeting specific audiences with specific messaging.

Example paid social media ad on LinkedIn.

Limitations of paid media

As its name suggests, paid media requires spending money. In addition to the ad placement itself, you also need a budget for creating the ads, whether you handle it in-house or hire an agency.

In terms of sponsored content, high-quality outlets generally know what a placement with them is worth and charge accordingly, so in most cases, you really do “get what you pay for.” Additionally, it’s notoriously difficult to track the return on investment for sponsored posts, which makes them a bit of a gamble.

So, which one is better?

Unfortunately, we can’t give you a definitive answer on that — whether your strategy should focus on earned media vs. paid media will largely depend on your organization’s size, budget, industry, and existing level of brand recognition in the media. That said, here are a couple of things to consider:

  • If you feel that you have a legitimately newsworthy angle or announcement, then it makes sense to move forward with an earned media strategy. Unfortunately, few brands are able to successfully cut through the noise that publications and reporters experience — that’s just the reality of earned media.
  • Because paid media gives you a high level of control over your audience, you can maximize the likelihood of engagement and conversion. That means that in most cases, it’s good to incorporate paid media into your strategy, even if you’re also trying to get earned media placements.

To sum up…

In general, earned media describes coverage your brand receives organically, without compensating the outlet for the feature. Press releases exist in somewhat of a gray area, because they do require spend, but most marketers would consider them earned media.

Paid media is just that: paid for. It includes programmatic advertising, paid search, paid social, and sponsored content.

Neither one is inherently “better” than the other — the best approach for your business depends on your particular goals and situation.

Not sure how to proceed with your media plan? Let’s strategize together! Get in touch.


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