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The Challenge Series: The blurred lines between Earned Media & Paid Media

Updated: Jul 24

Influencer marketing as we know it, looks way different than influencer marketing "as we knew it" - if you ask someone who has been in the industry long enough. The costs of running an influencer marketing program are greater, the returns a bit riskier, and it is getting more time intensive to run a successful program. Competition is also higher and though it seems like there are "thousands" of influencers you can tap into - it's becoming very clear that there is a huge difference between a self proclaimed "influencer" with an audience and top notch feed, and someone who actually has the power and credibility to move and sway the opinion of their audiences.


Like the world of Social Media itself, the world of Influencer Marketing will continue to require constant education on best practices as brands continue to face challenges and re-invent their programs. I created The Challenge Series to highlight some of the biggest questions around the industry and address potential solutions for improving programs to both brands AND creators a like. *Yes, this is a dual resource!*


The Challenge: Is Influencer Marketing "Paid Media" or "Earned Media"? Why has the line gotten so blurry?


Influencer marketing actually evolved out of both paid media and earned media. The lines between the two have gotten incredibly blurry - which has caused misalignment in expectations and program measurement.


Let's take it back around 10 years ago. Around this time, Facebook was just going public (outside of college campuses), Twitter was brand new and frankly, weird. Social media wasn't a main source of news and media, it was a main source of networking and connection.


At this time, the only media that had really been absorbed into what we would consider "media" was blogs. Blogs had mirrored online publications - they were simply run by everyday people writing about any topic they desired. Blogs grew to be both earned media as well as paid media. Much like other publications, they were pitch-able and would consider covering brands and topics relevant and important to audience (earned media). Much like some advertorial options, you could also pay for coverage (paid media). I like to attribute this to the fact that blogs, like publications, received income from ad revenue on their pages. Working with "brands" on advertorial or product coverage was not the only channel of monetization for a blog. There was a need to push out a lot of content, very quickly that was fueled by publicists working on behalf of brands to secure earned media.


Instagram, Youtube, podcasts and the growth of Twitter and Facebook also allowed for more "everyday people" to build and lead communities around specialized topics, each now adding unique mediums like video, photo and conversation alongside written blogs.


The existence of the new online community allowed a few pre-existing marketing tactics from both Earned and Paid media disciplines, to tap into new channels that became known as "influencers":


  • Public Relations, which traditionally employed pitching and gifting to publications, now extended pitching and gifting to these online communities to secure earned media exposure.

  • Sampling, traditionally done offline, could be extended to the online realm where there is greater visibility from a more extended network than physical sampling provided at events or retail locations.

  • Word-of Mouth-Marketing, occurred at a faster rate when it was conducted online because of the ability to reach more people in less time. It became efficient for brands to engage in cultivating more WOM, referrals and recommendations in the online realm because it quicker payoff on the company's growth.

  • Endorsement marketing, which historically partnered with celebrities because of their online reach, now could be extended to a new class of online communities and receive similar benefits, for less money.

  • Online advertising, the simple method of paying for a threshold of distribution and reach, could also be executed within online communities. At the time of conception, the cost for running "advertising" through an influencer channel was extremely competitive with other online advertising channels, allowed brands to reach really niche audiences, and had the additional benefit of helping to grow social presence for the brands entering new online platforms.


Where does sales fall? I keep sales out of this conversation because it simply does not fall into earned or paid media, it is the collective end goal of the marketing function as a whole. We will talk more in depth about sales in another challenge.

Efforts to engage "influencers" and online communities evolving out of public relations, some sampling, recommendation and referrals were still considered earned media. It wasn't necessary that brands pay these online communities to speak about product and services. Great products "earned" exposure through influencers that was amplified quickly.


Efforts to engage influencers evolving from endorsements or online advertising were still traditionally considered paid media. Brands were paid for the guarantee of endorsement and promotion to a certain audience reach and paid rates were competitive with other online advertising.


Sampling and word of mouth efforts danced between both paid and earned when brands realized that small monetary incentives to sample or refer could help guarantee recommendations and positive sentiment with positive returns for the brand.


The key difference between paid and earned media - no matter if you are engaging in influencer marketing or another marketing tactic, lies in the expected returns.


Earned media is media that you earn, but are not entitled to simply for sending a pitch and product. Paid media is media you pay for, with guarantee of promotion.


Why this is important: If you are gifting, sampling or pitching product and services (taking an approach rooted in earned media) you cannot have the same expected return of paid media.


This worked extremely well for brands 5-6 years ago as the ability to EARN media easily or pay for media at low costs had MAJOR value and returns for brands. (But to be honest, the value was shifted so far in the favor of brands, that it was as if they were taking candies from babies).


While the tactic of influencer "marketing" was evolving, the trajectory and growth of the influencer and online community was evolving too. Over 5-6 years we have now seen an increase in the skill, quality of content, size of audiences, demand for partnerships and the advent of the career "influencer-creator", all which justify rising costs. (In other words, the babies grew up and now said - you can't just take my candy, there needs to be an even value exchange.) Rising costs to keep things "fair" without "extra" returns has diminished ROI slightly, but most importantly, it made it more difficult for brands to categorize their influencer partnerships between paid and earned media and jumbled expectations which led to confusion in assessing the impact of the brand partnerships.


What are steps toward a solution?


For Brands:

  1. Set-up a few different "programs" and back align them to earned or paid media to get really clear on how to measure their success fairly. For example, Always On "Gifting"/Sampling Program (Earned), Quarterly Ad Campaign (Paid, Impressions), Ambassador Endorsement (Paid), Advocate Program (Earned) etc. (You can also aligned these with the 9 other values Influencer Marketing brings to the table that other online advertising cannot)

  2. Group influencers into these programs. It will help clarify exactly what you are looking for from the partnership.

  3. Align program partnership expectations to earned or paid media. Approach influencers with the right expectations and negotiate involvement and rate based on whether it's earned or paid media. This could mean walking away from influencers who may not accept your gift, or make it clear they will only promote for payment. This could mean accepting that you invited an influencer to event, but received no coverage. It could mean grouping the influencer under a separate program and negotiating rate based on your KPIs for that specific paid program.

  4. Aligned program content expectations to earned or paid media. In earned media, you typically cannot influence or control the content. Suggestion is appropriate, but there should be no requirements and no contract. Paid media requirements and contracts should be mandatory - this is part of the guarantee that's paid for. Leave room to infuse the personality and creativity of the influencer, but some control over talking points and angle is expected. Approvals are norm.

  5. Search in all size tiers for earned and paid media. Smaller audience does not necessarily equate to free exposure.

  6. When pitching "gifting" rejection is inevitable - don't let it discourage you.

  7. Manage the expectations of brand leadership on results. Earned media is typically measured by efforts (labor and product) vs. results. Engaging 1 influencer in an earned capacity who could have cost over $1000 spending only ~$500 in product and labor has positive correlation and ROI - this is why earned media approaches are still employed. Paid media is typically measured by benchmarking against industry standards. Earned can be more difficult than paid.

  8. Approach "earned" like a publicist - interesting stories, spins, launches, events, stunts all "earn" from influencers much like they do traditional media.

  9. Approach "paid" like an advertiser - assess partnerships based on KPIs such as reach, engagement, conversion rates (for DTC) benchmarked against the industry and averaged amongst each other. Paid method KPIs can also be considered amidst measurements like Acquisition, Retention costs and other areas of a marketing plan that paid advertising supports.


For Influencers:


Awareness of the evolution of influencers and influencer marketing is critical. Being an influencer is not proclaimed entitlement, it is an earned title based on your ability to establish and influence an online community.


  1. You will be approached by brands with various goals for your partnership and thus various budgets and payments - and that the role of money is really tied to each individual brand's expectations for content and promotion. Free is a gamble, Paid is a guarantee.

  2. Understand the relationship between payment and expectations - do not be afraid to push back on an opportunity with $0 payment and high expectations.

  3. Even top influencers who have successfully monetized accounts engage in gifting and favors. It is not realistic to expect that every mention of a brand, by any size or skill of creator, should be monetized. This is not reality - in fact only 64% of creators choose to be influencers to increase their revenue. [Influencer Marketing Hub]

  4. The difference between gifted/paid is in the question, "do I love this enough to promote it?", "will my audience really like this too?" You can create your own guidelines for the decision on whether to work in gifting capacities.

  5. There are benefits to promoting gifted products. Unlike a #ad it does not come with expectation, therefore it can help restore some of the audience feedback that comes with paid partnerships - do you really like this or are you being paid to say it? Is your goal as an influencer just to sell me products or are you creating value for me? I like promoting having a portfolio of paid, unpaid, short-term and long-term to bring balance to the authenticity, loyalty and attention of your audiences which allows you the metrics to collect top dollars on your paid opportunities.

  6. Understand the ask of "work". The biggest push back I see to gifting is "I'm not working for free" and I think this is utterly ridiculous. As a social media USER, let alone an influencer, we are taking our own time to engage online and tell stories. Whether this story involves a brand or not is kind of a moot point. If you love a product, you love a product - by nature and as humans, we share what we love to our communities who benefit from it. In unpaid exchanges you maintain control and expectations over content - no pressure.

  7. If a brand seems uneducated - do not be afraid to have a conversation. There are still many brands out there looking for earned media with the expectations of paid media. If a brand has an usually low budget, ask how they are measuring the success of the program, what KPIs are they looking for? You can then match these measurements to your own value to justify out of low budget. For example if a brand is looking at a 0.05-.10 cost per view, you can consider looking at your own views (10,000) and come to the agreement that $1000- $1500 is a fair rate to meet those goals (adding in skill and others. For further information of pricing, check this resource. )

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