Skip to content

Corporate Storytelling: Cross the Paid, Earned, and Owned Divide

crossing paid, earned, owned media dividePaid, earned, and owned media. The phrase may be a marketing workhorse, but with the explosion of digital channels and new technologies, “paid, earned, and owned” is a lot less useful as a way of looking at media strategy and spend than it used to be. As the lines between paid, earned and owned media have eroded beyond recognition, marketers need to rethink how they spend marketing dollars, staff teams, drive strategy, and collaborate with agencies

According to an Altimeter Group report, The Converged Media Imperative, agencies and brands need help (a lot of help) understanding and navigating the new landscape.

The first and most basic problem

Longstanding organizational silos divide marketing organizations, making them poorly prepared to deploy a desperately needed integrated media strategy. “A brand may consider its Facebook page owned media because the brand controls it and adds their own content to the page,” explains Rebecca Lieb, Digital Advertising and Media Analyst for Altimeter, and co-author of the report. “At the same time, Facebook is paid media because you’re advertising on it or paying for an enhanced page. And Facebook is also earned media because anyone can contribute comments, upload photos, and join a discussion.”

So is Facebook a social media responsibility? PR? Content? And does your staff communicate effectively in your organization to drive an integrated approach?

Lieb goes on to explain that paid, earned and owned media convergence is evident across all manner of platforms and channels — not just the “biggies” marketers talk about most often. For instance:

  • Native advertising from companies like OneSpot redefines the concept of ad units, delivering sponsored content “in-stream” with editorial content or within rich-media ads.
  • Bazaarvoice offers brands the chance to collect and leverage customer reviews, using customer-generated content (i.e., earned media) and repackaging it in ads (i.e., paid media) or aggregating it on their own website (i.e., owned media).
  • The New York Times’ new media product for brands, called Ricochet, allows brands to publicize earned media in a controlled environment. If Gucci, for example, promotes a story from The New York Times on one of its media channels, visitors clicking the URL enter a controlled environment, free of competing ads, on The New York Times site.

As Lieb explains, “Products like Ricochet are calling for new skills sets. Who buys it? PR will say, ‘We don’t buy media.’ Then who? In the late 1990s, the lament of digital was, ‘We’re balkanized and siloed.’ Fast forward 15 years and we are seeing the same degrees of balkanization in digital.”

Other issues marketers face with converged media

Lieb also points to other critical hurdles marketers face when trying to respond to the converged media imperative:

  • First, the rapid proliferation of technology feels overwhelming to marketers, who struggle to figure out whether an integrated digital marketing suite or one-off purchases of best-in-class tools makes the most sense. (Check out these 14 questions to ask when choosing technology.)
  • Heads of social media are on the front lines of listening to and engaging with customers, but they often don’t have the authority or influence to drive strategic decision-making for the brand.
  • Many marketing organizations still believe agencies should lead with the “big idea.”

“Agencies used to determine the creative idea for a campaign because it was the most expensive element,” says Lieb. “In a sense, agencies were the boss of everything. In this incredibly iterative, reactive environment, we find what drives the creative train is owned media. Creating, experimenting, and listening with owned media — and using those findings to inform paid media.”

Understanding the basics of convergence

So what’s driving paid, earned and owned media convergence at such a high rate? Content. Specifically, socially powered, technology-juiced content.

Social-powered content has become marketers’ new darling; yet, at the same time, paid media (in particular online display ads) are increasingly called into question. As Jay Samit, a digital media innovator, recently tweeted, “5.3 trillion online ads shown in 2012 & I have yet to click on one. More likely to be hit by a meteor.”

But more than just falling out of favor, the concept of the “ad” has changed. When PandoDaily, a Silicon Valley blog, asked Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO of Story Worldwide, to name the best online ads of 2012, he wrote a post, “The Best Online Ads of 2012 Weren’t Ads.” Explains Cheyfitz, “My picks were not paid units sitting between content. They were the content. And they were unpaid. Prime example: Felix Baumgartner and the plunge to earth. How right on for Red Bull is jumping out of a space capsule? It was a great story, but it wasn’t a paid unit — and yet it got tens of millions of viewers and more juice for Red Bull than an ad could have received. It’s the present and the future of advertising. And that’s why content specialists need to understand advertising and what it does.”

In fact, Cheyfitz claims social content is a new ad unit:

“The conversations that used to be started by mass media have now become mass media. The conversation is the thing itself of advertising. Social content is the most powerful because (a.) research shows messages from peers are more impactful than messages directly from brands, and (b.) sharing increases reach while decreasing cost-per-impression. All this means every serious advertiser must rethink their strategy from top to bottom.”

Social is now advertising, but social is also earned media. Owned media is sometimes an ad when it’s native. Then again, it can also turn into earned. You get the picture.

Amidst all this, brand marketers are struggling to maintain an “always on,” iterative approach to media. They’re moving away from top-down campaign thinking in favor of an integrated corporate storytelling approach that iterates constantly, leverages technology effectively, operates at scale, and tells such a great story it competes effectively against all the other choices your audience has before it.

David Germano, Vice President of Empower MediaMarketing’s content marketing practice, Magnetic Content Studios, and former general manager of (a joint venture between BBDO’s Proximity and Procter & Gamble) puts it this way: “Technology allows consumers to control the ‘what, when and how’ of media, and so brands have to create content consumers want. It puts brands in the position of having to create brand-agnostic stories. The question today is not, ‘Is the media paid, earned or owned?‘ The question is, ‘Should I buy the media, or create it?‘ And many marketers aren’t comfortable with that yet.”

The converged media imperative

Why are they not comfortable? Well first, it’s because it’s proven to be hellishly hard. It’s uncomfortable because it requires a new way of working — requiring new team members, new areas of expertise, new technology, and new strategy. And all of it at prairie dog speed.

Explains Germano, “Brands are being asked to embrace convergence, to be more fluid, more 24/7. Marketers are told to create multiple assets, publish in real time, and iterate constantly. This is absolutely challenging most marketing organizations.”

But for brands and agencies alike, an integrated media strategy — regardless of paid, earned, or owned media — is a brand imperative. Explains Lieb, “As consumers, we know we are on this dynamic journey. The world is a virtual Times Square of brand impressions. But if there’s not congruence [among] paid, earned, and owned media, the brand experience will be fragmented. That means you have to get all these disparate digital players around the table and talking the same language — because consumers are not differentiating between all the different channels.”

To set out, brands must reach a better understanding of what converged media is and what it means for their marketing strategy. And they must ensure their organizational structure supports, rather than hinders, a converged media approach. Marketers must stop letting “paid, earned, and owned” define the conversation, and instead focus on understanding where their customers are and what they prefer. As Cheyfitz explains, “When there were four channels, opening a meeting by summarizing your channel strategy made sense. When you have 40,000 channels, it makes no sense. While you’re talking about it, more channels will be invented. The real questions are, ‘Where will I find my audience? Who do I want to talk to? And what are their media habits?‘ ”

Impact on agencies

Just as brand marketers are racing to reinvent themselves, so too are agencies under pressure to adapt. Based on our research, top areas of concern among agencies include:

Competition from all sides: Ad agencies are taking on broader expertise in content, digital, and analytics. And content agencies, PR firms, and social media agencies are expanding and encroaching on ad agency territory. Says Altimeter Group’s Rebecca Lieb, “All these media changes are threatening to the agency model because it’s no longer all about paid media. And social media agencies and PR agencies are making a go at ad agencies’ business. Just think of the dust-up related to Samsung’s promoted tweet by the Associated Press — brokered by Edelman. Larger PR shops see lots of opportunities. The gloves are coming off.”

Ensuring media transparency: The growing interest in brand journalism, native advertising, and “sponsored stories” comes with risk, explains Empower MediaMarketing’s David Germano. “Conceptually, convergence makes sense. But without transparency, it won’t help our industry. That’s the big risk. I don’t blame journalists for saying, ‘You’re going to corrupt the system.’ There are those agencies (and brands) that are managing convergence irresponsibly. If transparency is not part of your model, you don’t have a long-term hand. There’s a self-policing nature to all this. In fact, it’s become a sport to figure out which brands are behaving poorly.The Atlantic“case was figured out quickly. Same with the AP/Samsung-sponsored tweets. You can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes. If you sacrifice the long-term relationship with your audience because of some ham-fisted execution, you’re not doing anyone any favors.”

Intra-agency cooperation: Increasingly, brands are asking their agencies to put rivalry aside and collaborate more effectively. Converged media requires an integrated approach, meaning multiple agencies need to operate from the same playbook. Says James Meyer, CEO of corporate publishing agency, Imagination Publishing, “General Mills, one of our clients, has multiple agencies — branding, advertising, and social. We find ourselves collaborating with the others, getting on calls with two or more agencies at a time. The lead agency may provide overall branding or an ad campaign, and the rest of us take that lead and use it to formulate a content creation plan. By the same token, we will take our own insights from the social media space, and bring it to the lead agency. What we see on the ground may inform a shift in thinking different from what the lead agency is currently addressing.”

Recruiting marketing generalists: Agencies used to be on the hunt for creatives. These days we hear agencies say they struggle to hire talented generalists. Lest you think that means someone who dabbles in many areas but masters none, think again. The new marketing generalist understands at a functional level multiple disciplines — including marketing technology, social, content strategy, corporate storytelling, and SEO. And they must be comfortable moving quickly, adapting, and taking risks. Says Germano, “Coming from an agency, I have to hire generalists — people who understand the relationship between display, social, and search. And I’m looking for talent that can tell a story, publish it to a WordPress platform, and know how to promote and distribute that story.”

The number of content agencies is on the rise. To find agencies operating in this space, check out CMI’s Agency Listings. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine. 

Cover image via Bigstock