Earned Media Has Arrived (Finally!)

BLOG POST BY LINDSEY IMPERATORE, DIRECTOR OF MARKETING AT THE NEWS FUNNEL

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As any Gen Xer in the brand marketing business can tell you, the world used to be divided between PR, advertising and direct marketing. Advertising was what you saw in magazines and and on highway billboards, subway posters, or of course, your favorite Thursday night sitcom; direct marketing was the authentic-looking checks you’d receive in the mail from credit card companies.  But PR? What exactly was that?

The most common answer was free media generated either by “evil geniuses” in fancy suits, by way of “planting” controversial clients in stories, or by young women in black cocktail dresses, showering gossip columnists with swag and invitations to “A-list” parties. For this discipline, not much has changed or everything has changed. It depends on who you ask.

As we now consume much of our media online, the lines between PR and advertising have blurred a bit into an eco-system of paid, earned, shared and owned media (PESO).  But in some corners, the dichotomy still exists. Paid media includes banner ads, display boxes, sponsored stories in your social feeds, and commercials that tweens watch while their Jake Paul videos cue up. Earned media is still free, and it includes blog posts, mentions or quotes in third-party stories, press releases posted almost verbatim on understaffed trade media sites, and white papers or case studies that industrious PR professionals manage to place gratis.

This form of publicity has always enjoyed a credibility advantage over its “paid media” cousin, even if it means handing over ultimate control to an independently edited media outlet. Nevertheless, a critical mass of brand managers have always viewed PR as an afterthought or stepchild. Paid media with its instant splash and carte blanche, has enjoyed the big budgets and a seat at the grown-ups table. But earned media is increasingly garnering the respect it’s always deserved. And who can the industry thank for this? Why, Google!

In its quest for online dominance, Google recognized from the get-go that, for its results to matter to users, credibility was paramount. Its search algorithms have always had a soft spot for news, and for a long time, could not distinguish between brand-generated press releases and third-party news sources. The PR industry was well-positioned to take advantage of this opportunity as page rankings by keyword became the marketer’s holy grail. Press releases submitted to paid online newswires, filled with outbound links to a brand’s website, provided potent SEO juice. Some ad agencies caught on and got into the press release game as a way to offer integrated marketing campaigns. But, about four years ago, Google put its foot down. A few tweaks to its “algo” made wire-spamming with ridiculous press releases something of a fool’s errand.

The search engine now emphasizes keywords and phrases -- especially product and brand names -- that are linked in content published by respected sources. In other words, earned media sites with a lot of inbound links are where you’ll find the best SEO action. Paid media is still a key part of the mix, but if you really want to rank you need to put in the elbow grease and step up your old-school PR game. Here are some tips:

1. Be newsworthy and invest in relationships with editors.

It’s one thing to put a press release on a wire and blast it to 300 journalists; it’s quite another to skillfully contextualize your brand’s news and send it to editors and reporters who respect you and will actually read your email.
 

2. Be provocative.

If you have something contrarian to say, than write a piece and submit to an outlet that knows you and wants to share your perspective with its audience. There’s a fine line between protecting your brand and paranoia. Figure out your parameters and go for it.
 

3. Make an editor’s life easy.

Newsrooms employ far fewer people these days. Editors and reporters are driven batty with deadlines and the need to keep their sites fresh with content. The more quality, publishable content you can hand many of them on a silver platter, the more useful you are. Make sure you have professional, high-res photos, compelling video and journalist-quality copy that follows Associated Press guidelines.
 

4. Understand the media landscape.

The flip-side of the previous tip is that it’s critical to understand that outlets published by industry trade associations and brands are vastly different than the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or independent trade outlets. If you approach the latter in the same manner you’d approach the former, not only might you destroy a potentially important relationship, but you may even find yourself on a blacklist. Do your homework, note the degree to which an outlet values the traditional tenets of journalism, and respect their mission.

The earned media landscape is a tricky minefield. But consumers and business customers will continue to search Google when they are in the market for a product or service. If you want to get noticed and be respected, you have no choice but to navigate this terrain deftly. Once you do, the rewards will be plentiful.