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The digital transformation of the media landscape has changed how brands connect to consumers. Where audiences were previously limited to a handful of newspapers and broadcast outlets, users can now choose between dozens of traditional and digital publications, social media channels, blogs and vlogs.
At the same time, brand teams benefit by having far more options to reach existing and prospective users. Some of those channels allow companies to connect directly to their users without needing a journalist or publisher in the middle.
There is no doubt that the digital transformation of the media has transformed brand communications. However, despite dramatic changes, one key element of communications between brands and consumers has remained the same. That element is the need to establish trust and build credibility. Earned media coverage is one of the most powerful tools for brands to encourage consumer trust and credibility.
What is earned media?
Owned media refers to anything published directly by the brand, for example, on the company’s blog or social media channels. Bought media includes digital and analog advertising, including social media, newspapers and even billboards. Earned media refers to media coverage filtered through a third party, such as a journalist, blogger or consumer.
Successful media strategies optimize their tactics across all three. By doing that, the business can take advantage of the respective strengths while covering potential downsides.
The power of earned media
Out of the three media pillars, earned media creates the highest trust between a brand and its audience. The fact that the brand’s message has been filtered through a third party immediately raises its credibility.
A pre-pandemic survey by YouGov showed that more than nine out of ten consumers trusted earned media. By comparison, only about 50% of those surveyed believed the content of paid ads. Just a few years ago, reaching consumers through earned media meant creating a solid public relations (PR) strategy and reaching out to newspapers, radio, and TV stations.
In the digital era, the importance of a well-built PR strategy remains the same. But public relations professionals have a far wider choice of potential media outlets at their disposal. As a result, this industry is projected to grow globally from $88 billion in revenue in 2020 to $129 billion by 2025. In the United States, PR agencies also reported growth despite the effects of the coronavirus on the wider economy.
Combined with high levels of consumer trust, the growth of the PR industry shows that earned media continues to create outstanding brand value.
From getting noticed to establishing thought leadership
Previously, the success of PR campaigns relied on strong relationships with established media outlets and heavy pitching to a limited number of journalists. Today, PR campaigns for most brands reach out differently. PR pros connect with journalists in the classic sense of the word and reach out to bloggers and other influencers relevant to the brand.
Just like classic newspaper or magazine coverage is earned media, so is a mention in a widely read personal blog or on an influencer’s social media channel. The same goes for content being shared by users. The coverage has been earned in each case, and a third party has filtered the brand’s message. As a result, the message has been given greater credibility.
Invitations to publish guest blogs on a third-party channel or appear on another person’s or organization’s podcasts are two more examples of earned media. Both provide brands with excellent opportunities to establish thought leadership in their field. Of course, anyone can start on this path through owned media, such as a company blog. Nevertheless, being featured by a third-party outlet increases the credibility of the content.
Choosing earned media outlets
If a media outlet can add credibility to a brand message, it stands to reason that choosing the wrong outlet can also damage an organization’s credibility. Therefore, effective earned media coverage requires a strategic approach that defines target publications and individuals with whom the brand wants to establish a relationship.
The reputation of the selected media channel and its credibility – or lack thereof – will automatically reflect on the brand. Ideally, the credibility of third-party, earned media improves the brand’s credibility and helps to grow and protect its short- and long-term reputation.
Limitations of earned media
Increased credibility and trust in a brand are the main benefits of successful earned media activity. But there are limitations to this approach, especially if it is not combined with other media relations activity.
Even before the pandemic, journalists believed that trust in the media was decreasing because of so-called fake news and misinformation campaigns. Journalists believed that consumers had started questioning the authenticity of online sources.
Research by the Pew Research Center found that, for political news, Americans placed some level of trust in the news outlet they used most frequently, although this trust was not uniform across the population. Levels of trust varied depending on the political orientation of survey participants, with Democrats more likely to trust their main news source.
Another limitation of earned media is its reliance on third parties. This level of dependency can make it more difficult for brands to publish their message promptly. Establishing trust and working relationships with journalists, bloggers and other third parties can also take significant time. This may prove a serious barrier to success for new brands, but it is not enough to take earned media out of the communications plan.
Earned media is critical to building trust and credibility between brands and their audiences. It works most effectively as part of a balanced, comprehensive media strategy.