There are many ways to market your small business. You might run a social media ad campaign, launch a newsletter, or even offer an interview on a local TV news program. Although each of these tactics serves the same end goal—raising brand awareness—they’re actually examples of distinct media strategies, referred to by marketing teams as owned, paid, and earned media, respectively.
Understanding the different strengths, costs, and potential benefits of these strategies can help business owners leverage each to reach their business goals.
Table of Contents
What is paid media?
Paid media is any media placed through a paid partnership with a publication, search engine, ad agency, or an individual creator—in other words, any type of paid advertising. Popular paid media distribution channels include third-party websites, the top of search engine results pages (SERPs), print publications, and social media sites.
Paid media offers business owners a way to raise brand awareness. Instead of waiting for traffic to increase organically, you can purchase ad space for access to specific target audiences. Paid media includes the following:
- Digital advertising such as native advertising, display advertising, and paid search
- Traditional advertising such as billboards, print ads, and radio commercials
- Paid influencer marketing such as partnerships with brand ambassadors and content creators
What is owned media?
Owned media is hosted on an owned media property—any marketing channel that your business controls, such as your website, email marketing list, or social media profiles. It allows you to retain control over publication schedules, media formats, and content. Owned media includes the following content types:
- Webinars, podcasts, or video marketing content businesses create themselves
- Content designed for search engine optimization (SEO) or content marketing
- Social media posts
- Marketing emails and newsletters
What is earned media?
Earned media is unpaid media coverage hosted on channels not controlled by your business, such as a news story on a local TV station or a positive review of your products posted to a personal blog. Earned media can elevate your brand reputation and increase brand awareness. It can include the following content types:
- News stories or articles
- Online reviews
- User-generated content, such as social media posts
While paid, owned, and earned media strategies all aim to raise your business’s profile, the specific goals you set to measure their success can be different. The best choice for your business often depends on your immediate needs.
Paid media strategies aim to raise brand awareness and drive traffic to an online or brick-and-mortar store.
Owned media campaign goals can include growing site traffic, increasing brand loyalty, and capturing and nurturing leads.
One of the main goals of an earned media strategy is to increase brand recognition and elevate your brand’s reputation with its target audiences.
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Business owners create complementary marketing strategies for their paid, owned, and earned media efforts. Each strategy contains specific actions to help you reach your goals.
A paid media strategy involves purchasing specific types of media exposure. Common steps include identifying and vetting distribution channels, paid influencers, or ad vendors. You may also need to develop creative content for purchased ad space. It’s also essential to track your results to make sure you’re hitting your goals.
An owned media strategy involves publishing content to properties that you control. If you don't have them already, you should create and set up owned media properties (such as a blog or social media account). You should then dedicate time to creating content, publishing it, and measuring its impact. The results can help you optimize your investment in your owned media.
An earned media strategy involves elevating a brand’s profile in an attempt to generate unpaid coverage by other outlets. An earned media strategy might involve sending out press releases to get attention, conducting direct outreach to media members, and planning events or activities designed to generate press coverage.
Businesses invest time and money in paid, owned, and earned media marketing. Each avenue has different costs and budget considerations.
Paid media strategies involve a direct exchange of funds for advertising space. Effective paid media budgets can vary widely and scale up or down based on your priorities and available funds.
The costs associated with an owned media strategy include content creation expenses and platform maintenance costs. Owned media strategies can also scale with your business, but some strategies (like content marketing and social media marketing) can rely on publication volume to produce results, making them less effective for small budgets.
Earned media costs include investments in owned and paid media designed to generate press attention and promotion by third parties. Events, publicity stunts, and product launch giveaways can be effective ways to attract media attention, but they can be costly and don’t guarantee coverage.
All three strategies can be part of your ongoing marketing efforts, but their timelines for initial results vary.
You may see the quickest results from paid media efforts. By purchasing ad space, you can place content in front of target audiences without taking the time to generate awareness or build an organic following.
You can build owned media content libraries relatively quickly. Developing and nurturing an audience for that content can take time.
Earned media coverage is not guaranteed, so an earned media strategy requires patience. Planning events, cultivating media relationships, and executing publicity stunts all take time.
Another key difference between the three strategies is the level of control you have over the content, audience, and message of your media strategy.
The amount of control you exercise over paid media content varies depending on the specifics of your strategy. For example, most publications will allow you to design your own ads or write your own sponsored content, but you’ll need to follow their specifications. If your paid media strategy involves working with an influencer who will create content for your brand, specify in your contract if you’ll require editorial review or the right to approve content before publication.
Owned media provides business owners the greatest amount of control. If you’re publishing media on social media channels or other platforms owned by a third party, you’ll need to abide by platform regulations. Beyond that, what you publish (and when you publish it) is up to you.
Business owners have the least control over earned media because earned media coverage isn’t purchased or created by your business. Publishers are under no obligation to speak about your company in a favorable way. You can increase the likelihood of fair coverage by maintaining an accurate, informative, and respectful digital presence, providing a press contact on your website, responding to press inquiries, and offering commentary in advance of any anticipated news.
Businesses monitor the success of each type of media strategy, paying attention to key performance indicators (KPIs) commonly used in each case.
Paid media KPIs can include website traffic and conversions. You can use your website platform to identify the sources of traffic to your store and even attribute individual conversions to specific ads. When evaluating paid ads, you may also look at cost per click (CPC), which gives you an indication of your return on investment (ROI) for the price you’re paying a platform for the digital ad space.
Owned media KPIs are often similar to paid media KPIs. They include traffic from your owned media channels, such as a blog, email marketing content, and social media posts. You can also track the size of your email list and the followers you’ve gained or lost on different social platforms.
Earned media KPIs can include the number of press stories, social media mentions, or reviews your company receives. Businesses monitor them using search engine alerts, social media analytics tools, and brand reputation management tools.
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Paid, owned, and earned media FAQ
Do businesses have complete control over owned media channels?
For the most part, yes. Owned media content must adhere to any applicable platform regulations (such as social media platform content guidelines). Beyond that, businesses have complete control over owned media content.
How do businesses track the performance of paid, owned, and earned media?
Businesses can use digital analytics tools to track the performance of paid, owned, and earned media marketing efforts. Marketers often look at their paid digital advertisements’ ability to drive conversions, their owned channels’ web traffic patterns, and the amount of press coverage they’ve received.
Why is earned media more challenging to control or influence than paid or owned media?
Earned media coverage is more difficult to guarantee, takes more time to execute, and, in most cases, businesses aren’t able to control earned media content.