Originally, I had planned to write about app overload in social media marketing – how to keep your social media strategy on track in the face of an ever-growing library of social media apps used by consumers, or, as Big Fuel likes to call them, “audiences”. But, lately, I find myself having to answer a much bigger question: does Social Media qualify as Paid Media or Earned Media?
I’ve had several conversations internally and with other social media SaaS and content distribution companies lately about this subject, and it seems we’re all still debating the notion that Social Media is “earned” (i.e. “free”). So, I thought I’d take it to the blogosphere, share my POV, and see what our audience thinks.
As @TedRubin so adequately tweeted yesterday, “Social Media is a platform, Social Marketing is how it is leveraged by a brand.” So, let’s start there. As a platform, social media has 7 distinct “channels” that social marketers can leverage:
Social Media Channels
1. Social Networks (e.g. Facebook, MySpace, Ning)
2. Video Platforms (e.g. YouTube, Dailymotion, Metacafe)
3. Niche Publishing Platforms (e.g. Twitter, Posterous, FriendFeed, Tumblr, DailyBooth, 12 Seconds)
4. Bookmarking Services (e.g. Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Delicious)
5. Niche Publishers (e.g. Pitchfork, StyleCaster)
6. Brand Publishers (e.g. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post)
7. Portals (e.g. Yahoo!, AOL, MSN)
Note that 5 – 7 haven’t always been considered social media. But, now that all their content has been socialized (with share functions such as “Like”, “Tweet”, “Digg”, etc.), I consider them part of the social media family.
Also, I used to consider “Communities/Forums” to be their own channels. But, now, with services like Disqus and tools like hashtags so readily available on these channels, they are all really Communities/Forums.
Now, within these Social Media Channels, you have Influencers. And, there are two distinct types of Influencers:
1. Hobbyists – Are people that blog, tweet, share content, produce content, etc., but they do it all for fun. In a sense, these are just socially active audiences
2. Professionals – Are people that blog, tweet, share content, produce content, etc. for a living. These are YouTube celebrities, bloggers, specialists (writing for niche publishers and brand publishers) and traditional celebrities (e.g. actors, athletes, celebrity cooks, etc.)
Social Media: Paid Media or Earned Media?
Now let’s dive into the Paid or Earned debate. I actually think this question does not adequately reflect what Social Media has to offer as a platform. In fact, there are four types of media to be noted within the Social Media platform:
1. Paid Media – Traditionally, is where media companies and agencies pay for impressions and clicks on social media channels (e.g. in-stream video placements, display ads, paid search). As a content company, Big Fuel addresses “paid media” slightly differently because we’re not about impressions or clicks; we’re about engagements. But, for today’s purposes, we’ll just define Paid Media as anything that requires paying money
2. Owned Media – Is where brands own their own social media channels (e.g. branded YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter handles, microsites)
3. Relationship Media – Is where brands develop relationships with Influencers and Audiences alike, by interacting with them through community/forum features on various social media channels
4. Earned Media – Is what happens when 1-3 are executed well and the brand, or its content, achieve Buzz, Word-of-Mouth spread or go “Viral”
Note that all four forms of media can be leveraged on all seven Social Media Channels. And, each type of media plays a unique role. Do you see what I’m getting at? Social Media isn’t synonymous with Earned Media. Rather, Social Media offers opportunities for Paid Media, Owned Media, Relationship Media and Earned Media.
Though, it doesn’t address Relationship Media, this table from Sean Corcoran’s blog on Forrester entitled “Defining Earned, Owned And Paid Media” is a good reference to the qualities and benefits of Paid Media, Owned Media and Earned Media.
Now, as Social Media becomes more sophisticated, Paid Media, in particular, is evolving. With the recent development of Facebook Stories, Promoted Tweets and branded Badges on Foursquare, the lines between Paid Media and Earned Media (previously defined as Social Media) are becoming ever more blurred.
Furthermore, Influencers, like bloggers, are now making a living out of being Influencers. They’re requiring payment for their services. Simply offering exclusive content, news, access, etc. isn’t enough.
Even Hobbyist Influencers need to be incentivized to share. That incentive was once as simple as the fact that by sharing interesting content or news, their social influence would grow. Now several startups are popping up that incent audiences by offering points/rewards programs or the opportunity to win swag. If a brand is paying for rewards or swag, isn’t that considered Paid Media too? If so, does that fall out of a Social Marketing company’s scope of work because it’s not Earned Media?
Brands and agencies need to readjust the way we look at Social Media and Social Marketing. The debate should not be whether Social Media qualifies as Paid Media or Earned Media. Instead, the debate should be: how do we leverage Social Media to achieve Earned Media? Thus, the notion that “Social Media is a platform, [and] Social Marketing is how it is leveraged by a brand [or agency].” Social Media isn’t synonymous with “free” or “earned”, but, when leveraged properly through Social Marketing, Social Media enables Earned Media.