Picture this: Your brand is being talked about on social media platforms, featured in news articles, and recommended in personal conversations — all without you spending a dime on advertising. What you’re seeing is earned media and the key to amplifying your brand’s voice. Instead of merely reaching your audience, turn them into brand ambassadors who share your content and recommend your business to their friends. The result? A wave of visibility and credibility that money can’t buy.

Small and medium-sized brands always hope for earned media attention — who doesn’t want their latest post to go viral? All you need to claim it are strategy, effort, and some simple social media tools. So, let’s talk about the high-level strategy and day-to-day tactics that unlock one of the major marketing categories and help brands attain long-term success and connection with their audiences.

Understanding earned media

The concept of earned media has been around forever but has evolved with digital platforms. Social media platforms, online reviews, and digital news have changed the standard earned media definition. They’ve opened possibilities for engagement and amplification, making the benefits of earned media more accessible.

What is earned media?

Earned media is any publicity or exposure your brand receives through means other than paid advertising or owned media channels. It includes simple word-of-mouth, social media mentions, and formal news coverage.

It’s always more effective when someone else compliments you than when you brag about your accomplishments, and earned media happens when other people find your brand or content compelling, valuable, and worth sharing.

What is another name for earned media?

Another common term for earned media is “free media.” The name emphasizes that this type of media exposure is not bought but earned through the quality of your offerings and engagement with your audience.

What is earned or unearned media?

While earned media refers to organic exposure, unearned media refers to paid forms of advertising. It’s another way to frame the contrast between earned and paid media.

Paid, owned, and earned media

Paid, owned, and earned media all have roles to play in the digital marketing landscape. A balanced marketing strategy leverages all three to maximize reach and impact. The differences between them lie in control, reach, and credibility.

Paid media involves paying for advertising space or sponsorships, giving you complete control over the message and placement. You can use paid advertising to reach new audiences outside of your circles.

Owned media — such as your website, email marketing, and social media profiles — is content you create and control. It keeps you connected to your existing audiences and creates more opportunities for earned attention, as content can be organically shared or discovered.

Earned media comes when people (1) mention or review your brand in their own words and images or (2) share paid or owned content you created.

How much time does earned media take?

Instant viral success is the exception, not the rule. Most earned media coverage doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a consistent effort in building relationships, creating valuable content, and engaging with your audience.

The time investment — both in immediate work and patience for that work to pay off — leads some brands to neglect earned media as part of their small business marketing. That would be a mistake.

Think of it this way: Earned media receives a little over 11% of advertising budgets for larger companies. They don’t pay for it directly but invest in cultivating related opportunities. 

What could you do if you spent 11% of your marketing time and energy working to extend your reach through the strategies below?

Why earned media matters for brands

The power of earned media lies in its ability to build and reinforce credibility and trust. Since earned media is essentially an endorsement from a third party, it carries more weight than self-promotion.

A study about trust in advertising found that 50% more people trust recommendations than paid digital channels such as banner, mobile, and search ads.

Earned media value (EMV)

Earned media value (EMV) is a metric used to quantify the worth of the exposure and engagement a brand gains through earned media. It is challenging to measure precisely.

The challenge of identifying EMV has made it easy to overlook, but earned media is becoming a priority for top brands, even if they struggle to quantify the results.

What are examples of earned media?

A few earned media examples include:

  • Press coverage
  • Reviews and ratings
  • Social media mentions
  • Referrals
  • Search engine snippets and organic rankings

You may not have known that search engine optimization (SEO) isn’t just a type of inbound marketing. It’s a source of earned media. When someone searches for one of your keywords (instead of for your brand specifically), the search engine acts as the source of recommendations, suggesting your content as the answer to their query.

Earned media strategies

How can brands effectively harness the force of earned media? Here are key strategies to elevate your digital marketing game.

Create content worth sharing

Make your content attractive enough to share. Here are a few tips for content creation:

  • Be original. Offer fresh, unique perspectives that stand out.
  • Evoke emotion. Content that sparks joy, surprise, or even controversy is more likely to be shared.
  • Add value. Whether it’s educational or entertaining, make sure your content adds value to your audience’s day.
  • Encourage engagement. Ask questions or prompt discussions to get people talking.
  • Optimize for sharing. Make it easy for users to share your content with social buttons and engaging visuals.

You can grab attention by getting creative and emphasizing quality over quantity. A single, well-placed article in a reputable publication or an awesome infographic can impact your brand. Remember that great content is relevant, timely, and delightful.

Earned media example from nonprofit "This is for the injury" campaign for Dyslexia
This campaign for a nonprofit went viral when it educated people about dyslexia by sharing the experience. People with dyslexia wrote unedited articles to mirror their difficulties for the average reader, and the campaign’s bravery and creativity paid off in shares and traditional media coverage. Image source: thisisfortheinjury.com

Maximize media coverage through engaging brand narratives

Craft compelling stories about your business to draw media attention. Your new product may be amazing, but journalists want to cover it more if there’s an interesting angle.

Imagine a startup that creates eco-friendly packaging. Their story isn’t just about what they make but why they do it — their mission to combat plastic pollution, their founder’s personal journey, and their community initiatives.

Identify the stories that resonate, and make these the focus of your pillar posts and media pitches.

Prioritize customer satisfaction

Happy customers are your best advocates. When customers have positive experiences, they’re more likely to share those experiences through reviews, testimonials, and word-of-mouth.

According to the trust in advertising survey, 88% of people trust recommendations from people they know, and referrals may be your most potent source of earned media.

Drive organic traffic by appearing in search engine results

High-quality content that ranks well in search results increases your brand’s visibility, making it more likely that your content will be found, shared, and featured across platforms.

Pay attention to SEO best practices for your website.

Connect social media and earned media strategies

The connection between social media and earned media is essential. A strong social media account is a source of content for you and others to share.

Blend earned and social media by:

  • Sharing earned media wins. Post about positive reviews, mentions, and awards.
  • Engaging with followers. Foster a community willing to amplify your content by being active and responsive.
  • Creating shareable content. Tailor content for each social platform to maximize shareability and engagement.

Build and maintain media relationships

Press coverage is within reach for all brands, regardless of size. Local websites and publications are a great source of earned media.

earned media example: Family Fun Twin Cities ad for Whirlyball
This excerpt from an article on fun things to do with kids in Maple Grove, MN, is an excellent example of earned media for small businesses. It lists multiple local establishments, such as Whirlyball, a Minneapolis favorite that combines lacrosse with bumper cars. Image source: Family Fun Twin Cities

Remember: Writers always need subjects. Reach out to journalists and submit press releases to keep the public informed, increase your credibility, and gain new customers. 

Cultivate influencers for brand endorsement

Influencers wield power online, and their thumbs-up can take your brand to the next level. Think of all the celebrities who’ve boosted their favorite charity as influencer marketing for nonprofits.

But influencer marketing isn’t just for celebrities or nonprofits. Find people with an audience who love what you do and align with your values, and get in touch. They probably want to know all about your brand.

Make sure to connect on the right channel. The most popular influencer channels are LinkedIn and company blogs (for business-to-business brands) and Instagram and Facebook (for business-to-consumer brands).

Executing Earned Media Tactics

Strategies depend on big-picture thinking and small but consistent practices. Put any of these earned media tactics to work for your brand:

  • Ask customers for reviews and referrals.
  • Follow and connect with industry influencers.
  • Participate in trade shows and industry events.
  • Create experiences and events for fans.
  • Share awards and five-star reviews.
  • Conduct surveys and research studies.
  • Host social media contests to increase engagement.
  • Integrate interactive campaigns like LinkedIn Fireside Chats.
  • Develop long-form content for thought leadership for your blog or an industry website.

Tools and resources for earned media

The right tools play a pivotal role in amplifying earned media outcomes. Here’s how you can track and measure yours, using the results to enhance your strategies going forward.

How to track and measure the impact of earned media

As mentioned, measuring earned media value is tricky. Start by aligning earned media strategies with business goals and defining relevant KPIs (key performance indicators). These might include website traffic, new leads from referrals, or social media reach.

When tracking your results, try to see the whole picture. For example, Google Analytics lets you identify where your web traffic originates, like press shoutouts or social media shares. This helps you locate your most effective channels.

An easy place to start is to ask new clients how they heard about you.

Top earned media tools

Improve your earned media with a few powerful tools:

  • Review sites: In addition to Google and Facebook reviews, leverage review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor to promote your brand.
  • Social listening tools: Monitor brand sentiment and third-party mentions with applications like Brandwatch or Mention.
  • Constant Contact: Take advantage of easy-to-use social media tools to engage your audience and encourage people to share your posts and emails.
  • Influencer marketing platforms: Streamline the process of discovering and managing influencers with one of the top influencer marketing platforms.
  • HARO alternatives: Cision closed HARO (Help a Reporter Out), but there are HARO alternatives that let you find and connect with journalists looking for industry sources.

Final considerations and future outlook for earned media

As mentioned, earned media takes time. Here are a few final tips to help you stay the course and prepare for the future:

  • Stay true to brand. A consistent brand identity and message allows people to remember you no matter the source of the mention.
  • Monitor trending topics and platforms. Keep an eye on emerging social media platforms and use tools like Google Trends to identify relevant, new areas of interest.
  • Respect users’ privacy. Look for mentions and posts to share, but never share something from a private account without the user’s permission.
  • Keep learning. Digital marketing is constantly (and quickly) evolving. Tune into industry blogs, podcasts, and other resources to educate yourself about emerging opportunities and insights into earned media.

Act now: Starting your earned media journey

Earned media gives brands exposure and credibility. Make it part of your marketing by investing in long-term relationships — with influencers, journalists, and your audience — and by creating compelling content that encourages sharing and discussion.

There are plenty of tactics you can try to court media attention, but the heart of all successful earned media strategies is a commitment to making your community happy. Put your customers first, and they’ll become your biggest advocates, fueling your marketing channels with real feedback from real people.

Start simple. Take one action today, whether contacting an influencer or asking for a review. Do it again tomorrow or the next day, and develop the habits that naturally lead to earned media for your brand.

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