The Backstory
The rise of earned media and audience endorsement has become a key strategy for any online marketer, especially those focused on social media. In fact, brands increasingly mimic and assimilate user generated content into their marketing initiatives. This attention to the look of earned media provides a strong indicator of the substantive power of user generated content. This post looks at ways people imitate and  incorporate it and what that means for your general marketing strategy.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) released “The Native Advertising Playbook” in December. It addresses how brands can create the appearance of authentic communication within their marketing. One key statement from the document: “most advertisers and publishers aspire to deliver paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels they belong.” Marketers can leverage existing features in social platforms, such as promoted content, to implement this strategy. Sadly though, imitation always fall short.  Nothing achieves IAB’s recommendation better than an authentic posting from a friend made on behalf of your organization.

Not only does getting your supporters to post on your behalf best achieve IAB’s strategy, it also taps into the power of a peer endorsement. Studies repeatedly show that people trust their friends more than traditional experts.  According to a 2012 study by Nielsen, 92% of people trust earned media more than any other online source. This aligns with results seen over the past 5+ years from Edleman’s Trust Barometer Report, which shows “people like myself” as one of the top growing sources of trustworthy information. This trust directly translates into higher conversion rates. In fact, studies show (such as the “Five Reasons You Need to Focus on Earned Media“) that earned media leads to a conversion rate 5x higher than paid media advertising.

Imitation
It makes sense that marketers want to appropriate as much of the strong benefits of earned media as possible. A recent Kentucky Fried Chicken campaign shows the style of earned media has infiltrated traditional marketing. You can see other examples of this phenomenon on television today for car commercials or the faux testimonial ads. The KFC ad clearly plays on the Edleman findings that people trust people like themselves. KFC has targeted a demographic and then created a simulated piece of earned media for their campaign. How much better would it be if actual 20 somethings had created the ad? That must be the question Heinz asked.

Heinz ran a promotion actively soliciting content from their ketchup loving fans to use in their campaigns. The bottles have the “Show Us Your Heinz” banner across the middle and an offer to win a prize. This lays the groundwork for the other way traditional advertising strives to attach itself to the power of earned media: assimilation.

heinz_picHeinz ran a promotion actively soliciting content from their ketchup loving fans to use in their campaigns. The bottles have the “Show Us Your Heinz” banner across the middle and an offer to win a prize. This lays the groundwork for the other way traditional advertising strives to attach itself to the power of earned media: assimilation.

Assimilation
In this strategy, brands solicit or collect content from supporters, ala Heinz, and incorporate it into standard campaigns. For organizations, this has been a long standing part of promoting events. What better way to show the fun people have at your walk event than to  include candid pictures of participants at the event doing just that, having fun. You can also execute this strategy by getting supporters to use a hashtag in social media to collect authentic content about your event or campaign on social media. This pulls all that content from individual sources into a single stream of content supporting your goal.

These approaches have become so popular that products have emerged to help marketers execute them.  An application like Storify can help collect and curate audience generated content. With a focus on visual content and ecommerce, Olapic has gotten a lot of attention by enabling brands to incorporate and leverage fan photos into their ecommerce strategy. The productization and investment to incorporate user generated content validates its power as a marketing tool. People will spend money to get that content, or imitate it, within their campaigns. The unique combination of authenticity and peer endorsement provide the influencing power these campaigns strive to achieve.

Impact
So earned media provides more impact than self-generated owned media or paid promotion, but by how much? Earlier we saw the 5x higher conversion rate, but what about an actual dollar value? SocialChorus took a step to quantify the value of a piece of earned media, developing what it coined the earned media value index (EMV). Based on their research, they assigned values ranging from $853 for a blog post to a Facebook Like at $1.60. Focusing on the value of a supporters post, a Facebook post or share came in at $10.17. Most Facebook paid ads cost between $0.50 and $1.00 per click, maybe a bit more depending on the targeted segment. This puts the comparative value of user generated content at 10x to 20x higher when you compare it to a click from a paid promotion in Facebook. If you take the 5x conversion rate advantage of earned media, you have content that exceeds the paid click by 50 to 100 times. Note: this analysis ignores click rates for the earned media item. If someone posts a message on your behalf and it gets 5 clicks, you’d want to divide the estimated value by 5 to compare it to the cost of the Facebook paid ad.

As a marketer, you can strive to mimic the power of earned media, but it always lacks the critical element of peer endorsement. Your first goal should be to inspire user generated content on behalf of your desired outcome. As an extension of that, look to at ways to assimilate supporter content into your marketing execution. Personally, I would shy away from mimicking the style of earned media, but clearly others feel differently (KFC, etc) and invest in this strategy. Regardless you should make all your marketing inspire sharing of your content so you can reach new audiences with an even richer message propelled by the enthusiasm and interests of your supporters. To this end, the volume of shares must always be a key measure of success, compared right alongside conversions. That way you’ll start to learn what inspires earned media for your organization and make it a successful element of every campaign.