Earned Media vs Paid Media: What’s Best for a Digital Strategy?

Key Takeaways 🔥

  • Media’s Two Titans: Earned and paid media dominate marketing. While earned media thrives on organic buzz from third-party endorsements, paid media is the transactional behemoth, ensuring brands dictate their narrative. Both have distinct roles in a brand’s visibility.
  • Earned Media’s Silent Costs: Trust is earned media’s currency. Nielsen’s data underscores this, revealing that 83% of consumers trust peer recommendations. However, it’s not without its price tag. The hidden costs? Content creation, relationship-building, and community outreach.
  • Paid Media’s Control Comes at a Price: Paid media offers unparalleled control. Brands can craft messages, select audiences, and allocate budgets. But there’s a caveat: consumer skepticism. The challenge is evident, with 81% of consumers valuing friends’ and family’s advice over businesses.
  • Deciphering ROI’s Dual Nature: ROI in paid media is transparent. Spending correlates directly with outcomes, be it website traffic or product sales. Earned media, however, is more elusive. While assigning a dollar value to a positive review is challenging, metrics like brand sentiment offer valuable insights.
  • Authenticity vs. Assured Visibility: Earned media is authenticity’s champion. Its organic nature lends credibility that’s hard to rival. In contrast, paid media ensures your brand doesn’t fade into obscurity. It’s the guaranteed spotlight in a crowded marketplace.
  • Synergy Over Supremacy: Earned and paid media are allies, not adversaries. While paid media amplifies the message, earned media is the organic applause, the validation. Together, they redefine marketing strategies, offering a holistic approach.
  • Navigating the Future Landscape: The media terrain is ever-evolving. Trends indicate a shift towards automation and refined targeting in paid media, while earned media gravitates toward transparency. For executives, the key lies in leveraging both, ensuring adaptability in this dynamic digital age.

The Arena of Earned Media vs Paid Media

In marketing and communications, two main forms of media dominate the landscape: earned and paid media. Both are very different and are usually managed by separate teams. Earned media refers to publicity gained through promotional efforts other than advertising, while paid media refers to buying ads to promote a brand or product. Understanding the distinctions between both has become a focus area as people consume information dynamically and unpredictably.

Earned MediaPaid Media
DefinitionPublicity achieved without direct paymentAdvertising requiring a financial transaction
Trustworthiness83% of consumers trust peer recommendations81% of consumers trust friends and family over businesses
CostsContent creation, relationship-building, community outreachDirect financial costs for ads
ControlLess control, dependent on organic buzzHigh control over messaging, audience, and budget
ROI MeasurementChallenging to assign a direct dollar value, uses metrics like brand sentimentTransparent, direct correlation between spend and outcomes
Impact on Brand ImageAuthenticity and credibilityGuaranteed visibility
Future TrendsShift towards transparencyAutomation, refined targeting, visually engaging formats

Setting the Stage: Defining Earned Media

In an era where every brand is vying for consumer attention, the value of earned media is undeniable. Defined as any publicity a brand acquires without direct payment, earned media results from third parties such as media outlets, blogs, other media examples, or consumers sharing press releases (that doesn’t usually happen, though). No doubt, there’s an inherent appeal to this form of media – it’s cost-effective and often seen as more trustworthy by consumers.

A well-known Nielsen study revealed that 83% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family, and 66% trust online consumer opinions, both forms of earned media. This reaffirms the influential power of earned media in shaping consumer perceptions and decisions.

While earned media appears to be free, it is not devoid of costs. While there’s no direct payment for the publicity, significant effort and resources go into pitching media. This often involves a substantial investment in writing content, relationship building, and community engagement. Hence, while free media seems cost-effective on the surface, one must consider the hidden costs contributing to generating earned media.

Shifting the Spotlight: Unveiling the Intricacies of Paid Media

At its core, paid media is any form of advertising requiring a financial transaction. This can take on multiple formats – search, display advertising, direct mail, campaigns, and sponsored posts on social media platforms like Facebook.

One of the critical strengths of advertising is the level of control. Brands have the reins when crafting their message, launching campaigns, audience segmentation, and the level of investment. In addition, the lure of precision targeting and the power to shape narratives makes paid media a compelling proposition.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. One of the prevalent challenges in this field is the growing skepticism among consumers. Ads are often viewed with distrust. HubSpot revealed that 81% of consumers trust the advice of friends and family over that of businesses. This skepticism could potentially dilute the impact of advertising.

Furthermore, the price of admission can be pretty high. Forrester found that digital ad spending in the US is projected to reach $146 billion by 2023. These figures underscore the fact that paid media can be an expensive endeavor. Yet, it’s a price many companies are willing to pay for its benefits – more control, reach, and immediacy.

Forrester found that digital ad spending in the US is projected to reach $146 billion by 2023

Comparing Earned Media vs Paid Media

Unraveling the dynamics between earned and paid is akin to dissecting the complex layers of an onion. Each form of media serves a distinct purpose in a well-rounded content marketing strategy, yet they differ considerably in their approach, impact, and evaluation.

Let’s start with measurement and ROI. For paid ads, this calculation is relatively clear-cut. The amount spent on specific campaigns can directly correlate with outcomes like increased website traffic, a surge in app downloads, or increased product sales. For example, if a company invests $5000 in a paid search campaign and generates $25,000 in sales, the ROI is 400%.

Earned media is different. While assigning revenue on a glowing product review or a positive social media post might be challenging, these instances of an earned media strategy can contribute significantly to brand trust and recognition. A well-known Nielsen report found that 83% of respondents trust recommendations from friends and family, a clear indicator of the power of word-of-mouth, a form of earned media.

That’s not to say that earned media’s impact can’t be measured. Numerous non-financial metrics can give insight into its effectiveness. For example, metrics like share of voice, brand sentiment, and engagement rates can all serve as valuable indicators of earned media success.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the influence of these two media types on brand image and trust. Earned media often has a more powerful impact due to its perceived authenticity. A customer’s positive tweet about a product or a blogger’s rave review carries an inherent credibility that’s hard to replicate with paid marketing.

Conversely, paid offers advantages that earned media does not. For example, brands can have complete control over the message, timing, and audience, providing a level of predictability and control that earned media can’t match. Plus, ads ensure visibility, even in the most crowded markets.

Balancing Act: Synergizing Paid Media vs Earned Media

In any omnichannel marketing strategy, earned and paid media should work harmoniously, executing a synergy that can amplify a brand’s visibility and extend the scope of marketing initiatives. A calculated integration of earned and paid can transform the marketing terrain for brands in every industry.

The distinctions between paid media and earned media might be more clear with this example. Paid is a megaphone that can amplify a message to a broad audience. It’s the Google Ads or the promotions on your Facebook page or YouTube channel. The advertising strategy is the sound that echoes across the digital landscape​.

On the other hand, earned media is the applause from the crowd and the accolades received without direct financial investment. It’s the public relations efforts, the product reviews by bloggers, and the mentions in the press and other media releases​.

Let’s consider the example of a business or a challenger brand without a substantial marketing budget. Instead of burning through large advertising budgets, they might focus on garnering publicity from existing outlets. By crafting a compelling pitch or sponsoring an event, this brand could earn free press coverage and showcase its product or service to a select group of people.

Another example could be to create content for specific keywords or search queries to attract organic traffic. With a long-term focus, this approach could result in higher search rankings or even a featured snippet. When combined with paid or other owned channels, SEO (search engine optimization) could be a significant component of a digital marketing plan.

Social media is a fertile ground where earned and paid media often converge. For example, a brand could share a blog post on its social media channels, boost the content across the platform, and increase engagement and social shares. Likewise, a successful user-generated content (UGC) post could be further promoted using paid social ads, making social media an efficient platform for integrating earned and paid media​​.

Moreover, brands can further build up a digital presence on third-party review sites by inviting satisfied customers to leave a review, contributing to positive word-of-mouth, a form of earned media. Simultaneously, they could sponsor or advertise these sites, thus integrating earned media with paid​​.

These tactics are not mutually exclusive and should be deployed together for optimal results. For example, consider using social media ads to direct traffic to owned channels. In addition, brands can create shareable elements in owned media to encourage earned media mentions. Incentivizing the sharing of a brand’s content is another powerful strategy. When integrated, these strategies form a comprehensive digital marketing approach. This harmonious blend of paid, owned, and earned media is often called PESO marketing.

The terrain of earned and paid media is constantly in flux. On the paid media stage, the forecast points towards an uptick in automation, refined targeting measures, and a pivot towards more visually engaging formats such as mobile apps and display and video ads. Anticipation is also building around the increased prevalence of user-generated content and story ads, marking a significant shift in the engagement strategies of brands.

Meanwhile, the trajectory of earned media trends towards heightened transparency. In an era where trust is paramount, this shift serves as a testament to the changing priorities of marketers and their audiences. As we look ahead, companies will likely place equal emphasis on earned and paid media, leveraging each distribution channel’s unique advantages. This balanced approach promises a comprehensive marketing strategy and allows for greater flexibility in navigating the ever-changing digital landscape.

Earned and paid media are akin to two key players in a chess match. Each move is deliberate, and every strategy is carefully weighed. Yet, the convergence of these two powers can reshape the field for brands, marketers, and companies alike. The secret lies not in treating them separately but in realizing the potential they hold when they collaborate – a potent alliance forming a robust marketing strategy that reaches far and wide.

In the face of these media changes, it’s clear that the role of thought leadership is more crucial than ever. Marketers can no longer publish content and expect it to gain traction. Instead, today’s consumers demand authenticity, relevance, and value from the content they engage with. As such, the spotlight is on brands to produce thought-leading content that demonstrates industry expertise, provides unique data insights, and sparks meaningful conversations. The evolution of digital space in this dynamic illustrates a shift from a one-way broadcast of information to a dialogue that fosters trust and rapport.

Search engines, too, have become discerning evaluators of content quality. As a result, brands cannot merely rely on keyword stuffing or old SEO tricks to propel them to the top of search results. Today, algorithms have evolved to prioritize high-quality, original, and valuable content. Consequently, marketers are tasked with creating content that genuinely provides value to their audience rather than targeting popular search terms. This shift underscores the importance of building relationships with customers through brand content that resonates rather than pushing a hard sell.

Today, it’s critical to monitor brand reputation metrics. With the increasing scrutiny from consumers and search engines, the stakes have never been higher. Brands that consistently deliver authentic thought leadership content and actively engage with their audience are the ones that will flourish. Their reward? The opportunity to garner earned media. This form of media, achieved through the goodwill and advocacy of consumers, carries credibility that money can’t buy. As companies navigate this new terrain, a balanced blend of earned and paid media will be the key to success, underpinned by solid thought leadership and relationship-building.

Looking forward, as we venture into the next era of marketing, the board is ready for a gripping match. Earned and paid media, each critical to the game, step up to the forefront. As the battle begins, the anticipation builds – in this rapidly advancing digital arena, the competition promises to be thrilling.


What is the difference between paid media vs earned media?

Paid media refers to advertising and promotional efforts that require payment to reach a target audience, such as sponsored posts, display ads, and pay-per-click campaigns. Earned media, on the other hand, is the exposure and recognition gained through organic means, such as word-of-mouth, customer reviews, and media coverage.

How do paid media, earned media, and owned media differ from each other?

Paid media involves spending money to promote content and reach a target audience. Earned media is the publicity gained organically through third-party endorsements, and owned media refers to the channels and platforms controlled by a company, such as websites, blogs, and social media profiles.

What does it take to balance earned vs paid media?

Balancing earned and paid media involves creating a marketing strategy that combines both approaches. This can include investing in paid advertising to increase brand visibility and reach while also focusing on creating high-quality content and engaging with customers to generate positive word-of-mouth and organic exposure.

How do earned vs paid media influencers differ?

Earned media influencers are individuals who organically promote a brand or product because they genuinely like it or find it valuable without receiving any compensation. Paid media influencers, on the other hand, receive payment or other incentives to promote a brand or product to their followers.

What is the difference between earned vs paid social media?

Earned social media refers to the organic engagement, shares, and mentions a brand receives on social platforms due to the quality of its content and interactions with its audience. Paid social media involves using paid advertising options, such as sponsored posts and ads, to reach a wider audience and boost brand visibility on social platforms.

How do paid vs earned media performance compare?

Paid media performance can be measured by metrics such as impressions, clicks, and conversions, and it often provides immediate results in reach and visibility. On the other hand, earned media performance can be more challenging to measure, as it involves factors like brand reputation, customer sentiment, and organic engagement. While earned media can take longer to build, it often results in more long-lasting and credible brand recognition.

Michael Brito

Michael Brito is a Digital OG. He’s been building brands online since Al Gore invented the Internet. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.