Paid Media vs. Earned Media

by | Aug 31, 2022 | Marketing Strategy

Paid Media? Earned Media? What’s it all Mean?

One of the age-old debates among marketing strategists is about the validity of the notion that all publicity is good publicity. We’ll save that topic for another day, but there is another question that tends to make its rounds among marketing pros that we wanted to turn our attention toward. That question is: “Should I focus on paid or earned media?” 

There are many different factors and variables at play here that should be considered before that decision is made, which means we can’t tell you which approach is right for you. However, what we can do is outline some of the pros, cons and differences of each to arm you with the information you need to move forward.

Paid media

If the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, we’ll let the cat out of the bag and tell you that paid media involves making a financial investment in order to reach potential or existing customers. Paid media is what comes to mind when most of us think of traditional advertising outreach. That means everything from billboards to TV commercials and newspaper ads to direct mail postcards would qualify as paid media. However, other forms of paid media include advertorials—paid spots intended to look like organic and authentic editorial content—and digital ads like in-app ads and website banners.

When it comes to the benefits of paid media, many platforms (especially digital) enable you to highly target who will see your ad. That means your efforts are likely to be put in front of customers who are interested in what your brand has to say. It’s also easy to track your return on investment with paid media because creative can include specific phone numbers or landing page URLs that enable you to monitor performance. That also brings us to the downside of paid media—it costs money. For companies with small marketing budgets, paid media isn’t always an option, as dollars may be best allocated elsewhere. There’s also the notion that some people are leery of advertisements and are less likely to convert due to skepticism.

Earned media

Now that you know paid media involves spending money to reach your target audiences, you’ve probably guessed that earned media is the name for publicity or coverage generated through branding or public relations efforts. This can come in the form of unprompted coverage (gotta love when that happens), the result of coordinated media relations in which a news story or idea was “pitched” to a member of the media, or when something goes viral on social media and brand mentions spread like wildfire.

There are ample benefits to earned media. Coverage that appears in a well-regarded publication or online news outlet can heighten your credibility and do a lot for legitimizing a brand or its products/services. Additionally, it may give you a chance to expound on your core messaging in a way that a print ad or TV commercial simply can’t do. As for the cons, because your message is open to interpretation by the journalist or online user, the brand lacks some of the control available with paid media. Additionally, tracking leads or conversions based on earned media is nearly impossible. And, as every good executive knows, time is money—so while it’s fair to say that earned media doesn’t cost actual dollars, it can take up a significant amount of your time.

Don’t be fooled by the gray area

As we talk about paid and earned media, we wanted to educate you on a trap that a lot of business owners tend to fall into when they lack marketing expertise—especially in health care. It’s common for a company or a physician to receive word of inclusion on a “Best Of” list, only to learn later that it’s nothing more than a high-pressure sales tactic. In many cases, these pay-for-play opportunities are blasted out to broad swaths of email addresses, with sales folks casting as wide of a net as possible in the hopes of catching at least a few fish. When approached by someone about an award recognition, it’s always in your best interest to dig deeper by asking if there is an associated cost before getting your hopes up about being honored.

Ready to find the right blend of paid and earned media for your business? The team at Heart & Hustle Brands has extensive experience on both sides of the aisle. Let’s chat today.

Stacey Harrison

About the Author

Stacey Harrison is the lead brand strategist and designer at Heart & Hustle Brands and has provided creative direction for healthcare, industrial, and financial services brands for 20 years. She started Harrison Creative Group in 2017 to serve businesses that need a professional brand image on a budget. In 2021, the company rebranded to Heart & Hustle Brands to walk in the shoes of clients that experience a change of name or brand refresh.