Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Earned Media Done Right

Published in May-Jun 2022

How to make earned media work for your brand.

Earned media is publicity or exposure gained from methods other than paid advertising. The views of a credible medium or a messenger will always be of greater value than brand self-praise ever can be – and today’s consumers are more discerning and sceptical than ever before. They put their guard up when they see brands blowing their own trumpet through paid media. They are irritated and hit the skip button or switch channels when their favourite content is interrupted by ‘push advertising’. They don’t like it when they know you are trying to push your influence on them through paid advertising. However, they put their guard down when they are consuming their natural media choices and listening to trusted voices through earned media.  

Earned media is about getting the ‘influence entrepreneurs’ on the side of your brand. Paid advertising is effective, paid advertising amplified through earned media is magical. Earned media done well will help your brand achieve a disproportionately high ROI, offering a much higher level of sustainability and longevity than can be achieved through paid advertising alone.

There are fundamental differences in the approach. Paid advertising is one-way traffic, earned media is a conversation and the conversation needs to be inspired and curated in the brand’s favour. Remember the brand’s voice is not necessarily the most credible on a subject. Earned media is all about making the medium and the messengers work for you. Some brands do it well, like Apple and Tesla and some successful political parties. They command loyalty and brand value beyond what they deliver in literal or rational terms. 

Earned media requires a different mindset compared to the one that drove traditional advertising. Here are some of the factors that set effective earned media planning apart:

1 . We are talking to the influence entrepreneurs, not the end consumers: The influence entrepreneurs are the media channels (traditional, digital, on-ground) and messengers (celebrities and others) who hold a disproportionate sway among the consumers of your brand. Put the influence entrepreneurs on your side and consumers are sure to follow. 

2. The messenger is as important as the message: There is a lot of behaviour change science to back this insight, and paid advertising is often not the best messenger. It is not just about getting the biggest celebrity on board; in fact, multiple ‘credible voices’ that are ‘trusted’ by the audience are often more effective. This is in contrast to traditional approaches that attempt to shortcut the process in an attempt to quickly get the brand message through to the consumer.

3. It is not about creating short-lived hype, but about changing the tide in your brand’s favour: Earned media done well requires a holistic approach that seeks to influence through a ‘normative’ approach, making it natural for consumers to advocate for a brand, as a result of changes around them. 

4. Responsiveness is the key to success: Think of earned media as a living organism, rather than a static PowerPoint presentation. Things do not always go as planned; challenges and unexpected opportunities do come in. Brands that stay connected with the pulse of things and have the flexibility to course correct do better. 

5. You can’t buy it; you need to earn it: It is called earned media after all! Yes, you will need to incentivise the media, the content creators and the influencers to an extent. However, the real art is earning their goodwill and keeping the paid element down to a minimum. This is tricky in practical terms and leads to choices such as prioritising lower-tier influencers over top-tier ones (who are quite overused in Pakistan). This approach mandates the formation of ‘organic partnerships’ rather than trying to buy messengers or mediums. Trying too hard on this score backfires. It creates the wrong mindset and can harm the brand.

6. Earned media is much more than traditional PR: I feel full-service agencies are better equipped to manage effective earned media approaches, as they are better placed to be the ‘maestros’ in the overall symphony. Pushed press releases and forced messaging do not constitute effective earned media in my book. 

So what is the magical formula that will make media work for you?

Effective earned media strategies look more like journeys and less like neat little formulas that can fit on a PowerPoint slide. It is as much an art as it is a science. Some effective earned media approaches that have worked well for me include:

Conditioning: The messengers and the decision-makers behind the mediums need to be conditioned before you can get them to work for your cause. Brands need to ‘ready’ the messengers and the mediums before they can convert them. Sceptics need to be disarmed, negativities need to be neutralised. 

Tilting content towards newsworthiness: Your target for earned media is the ‘message entrepreneurs’ rather than the end consumers. Brands and agencies need to pay heed to what is newsworthy and beneficial to the cause of the messengers before they can benefit your brand’s cause. The messages need to lean into the messengers first before they can come on brand.

Pulsing it like a heartbeat: Plan it and pulse it like a heartbeat, sometimes strong, sometimes soft, but always as part of a coherent plan with a definite goal. Do not reveal all your cards in one go. Keep people anticipating and wanting more, just like you would do in a real relationship. Make sure your plans have enough responsiveness to manage the challenges and opportunities as they come.

Do not be afraid of sideways discussions: Discussions are good. If your key messengers are talking about your brand, this is a good thing, as long as they are not too negative. There are always three types of mindsets toward your cause; pro, neutral and anti. Well-choreographed discussions help bring the neutrals into your camp and dilute the views of the antis. They also turn the pros into your brand’s passionate lovers. Learn to lean into the discussions and tilt them in your brand’s favour.

Always claim the high ground: This is very important. Your brand needs to be one of the good guys. Consumers care about causes and social good and they need to see their brand as a force for good. You cannot make this up as you go along. The high ground needs to be an integral part of your brand’s DNA; otherwise, it will be called out. Be the better brand and it will pay off sustainably.

Know the skeletons in your closet: Brands are like famous people. The world is now so connected that bad news spreads like fire. Every brand has some skeletons in their closet; it is important to recognise the risks and put together risk mitigation plans to ensure you are ready if a crisis hits you. Do not get caught with your brand’s head in the sand.

Afzal Hussain is General Manager, M&C Saatchi Pakistan.