Earlier this month, Todd Defren wrote eloquently about the importance of a solid media strategy, noting that, "Earned Media is far and away the most effective influencer of consumer trust." (The emphasis is Todd's.) Pointing to the Edelman Trust Barometer, Todd notes that "'traditional' news is not only the most trusted source of information, but also is growing." Trust in "someone like me," within the Social Media category, is growing even faster.
With a lot of discussion in communications/marketing circles turning to conversion, it may be tempting to shrug off earned media as a discrete effort. After all, a lot of communicators are focusing their efforts on breaking down silos. There is a growing understanding that people don't stop to check provenance of the content they see (e.g., "Was that YouTube video originally a paid TV commercial or just some content somebody cranked out?").
The idea of convergence recognizes that, from the consumer perspective, everything is one big content stew. But silos shouldn't be destroyed; we should just be punching a lot of holes in them. What would happen to all that grain if farmers didn't have silos? For companies, silos make it easier to allocate resources and ensure tasks match objectives. In communication, it's still important to find a media buying specialist in an advertising (paid media) silo. And it's still necessary that a PR (earned media) silo have people who know how to reach out to mainstream media and social media influencers in order to obtain that coveted coverage.
The importance of earned media has grown even more important in light of a new Gartner study that suggests 10% of all social media reviews will be paid for by the companies pitching the products. Quoted in a C|Net post, Gartner senior research analyst jenny Sussin says, "Many marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews with cash, coupons, and promotions...in order to pique site visitors' interests in the hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty, and customer advocacy through social-media 'word of mouth' campaigns."
Gartner's view of these paid reviews isn't rosy, projecting that at least two Fortune 500 companies will be sued by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for failure to comply with disclosure rules. Those same rules apply to the reviewers.
Granted, nobody will get rich betting on the accuracy of Gartner's predictions; analyst firms in general don't have the world's greatest track record, although nobody has audited the accuracy of AR claims. Still, this one isn't hard to accept. If anything, the estimate may be too conservative as marketers struggle to amplify their messages. And it's always important to keep in mind that most of the people in any profession are not the most creative, hardest working or most ethical. Mediocrity abounds.
Which is why you-one of those in the higher tier of your profession-need to redouble your earned media efforts. The genuine post offering an unbiased review of a product or service is bound to have greater appeal to people who are growing more adept at distinguishing something genuine from something bought and paid for.
Research has shown that people are able to better complete cognitive tasks when an intrinsic reward drives them. Simply getting paid actually inhibits the ability to think creatively. Likewise, getting paid to write a review will lead many bloggers (and others publishing to social venues) to produce less-than-convincing reviews. Someone writing because they honestly were impressed with the brand and who genuinely does want to share his or her enthusiasm is far more likely to produce an authentic piece of content. Provenance may not be top of mind for readers, but authenticity will count for a lot.
Standing out from the oncoming flood of paid reviews will require outreach skills. The media remains important, of course. As Todd notes, "Traditional media, by far, is the most trusted by consumers." He also argues that earned media "spawns from the social realm." Having the skills to inspire unpaid coverage and reviews will be increasingly vital as consumers become more discerning in their consumption of online content. (Convergence-a critical concept-happens at the front end, with earned media strategized as an element of a content strategy, and in the collaboration between all the communication functions, including those that produce content for paid, owned and social channels.)
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