Communications Strategy

Three Myths of Earned Media

By Kari Hernandez


What is earned media? When you hear the phrase, do you think of word-of-mouth marketing? Free media coverage? Building buzz?

According to a July 2019 report from Forrester, marketers agree earned media is valuable. But they don’t agree on what it is or how to measure it. With intense focus on owned and paid channels, earned media has become a catch-all for everything else.  

Forrester clears things up with this definition: Media exposure or publicity that a company gains in channels that it does not own, typically derived from usage of a company’s product or service, customer experience, or marketing efforts. 

In an expanded view, earned media can include a wide variety of marketing and public relations (PR) outputs, including:

  • Media coverage of all types
  • Social media mentions
  • References to a company’s branded research or content
  • Reviews and ratings
  • Contributed articles
  • Unpaid inclusion in analyst reports or other commentary
  • Organic influencer mentions
  • Participation in podcasts
  • Unpaid awards and speaking engagements
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) 

But do those outputs lead to valuable outcomes for businesses? 

Marketers have been slow to develop measurement standards for earned media that align with the sales funnel and business objectives. That’s changing as the industry embraces digital measurement and ad technology. Efforts that target the customer and integrate with paid and owned media build brand awareness and resilience as well as support sales and growth efforts. So, its impact should be measured to prove the value to the business. 

Let’s unpack some earned media myths so that you can define it, target it, and measure it strategically.

Myth #1: Earned media just happens,
and it’s free.

Driving earned media is a strategic process. It begins with understanding your customers’ needs, wants, and behaviors to develop a story that demonstrates how your business improves their lives. If you don’t do this, you might get results, but there is no guarantee they will impact your business. 

Next, you have to understand the preferences of the journalists who will reach your customers and craft your pitch and timing accordingly. Earned media pros know when to pitch an exclusive, when to do briefings under embargo, and when to pitch news on the day of an announcement – or all three. They know who to work with on a trend piece, a news article, a bylined article, and how to reach out with a friendly FYI. They incorporate the timing of the news, events, travel schedules, and the timelines of the journalists and executives. All of this feeds into carefully orchestrated media strategies. 

Earned media never takes place in a silo. Journalists want to interview sources they trust who have industry credibility and influence. Your brand’s social media presence and website play a role when journalists decide whether to take an interview or publish your news. The spokesperson’s abilities and thought leadership reputation are key here too. Media training has a direct impact on the caliber of earned media you can expect to generate.

While earned media comes from “unpaid” opportunities, you need to make a significant investment in time and talent to reach the right audiences with the right messages. Your in-house team’s salaries and agency fees, as well as measurement tools, wire service, and travel expenses, factor into the cost of results.

Myth #2: Earned media can’t be measured.

If marketers have lost touch with earned media, it’s because the industry hasn’t helped them measure it. Paid and owned media evolved with metrics tied to business value, but earned media continued to push vanity metrics and ad equivalency values. These are not an accurate standard, and at best they showed correlations with business success. 

As Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” 

Trendkite, now under Cision, led the way on proactive earned media measurement. The platform gave marketers the power to connect media wins with brand and business impact. It showed how hard-earned hits were or weren’t driving traffic, conversions, and business outcomes at all stages of the funnel.

An objective-first approach to planning and analysis illustrates how earned, owned, and paid media are working together to meet business outcomes. This helps marketers and agencies hone their strategy and message, invest in what’s working, and correct what isn’t. With empathy for the customer and alignment on objectives, your efforts can evolve to reach their full potential.

Examples of Earned Media KPIs That Tie to Business Objectives Include:

  • Media attribution – earned media impact is not always linear. Using the same tracking capabilities as online advertising campaigns, you can see traffic coming from an article and track visits to the site from users who read an article weeks earlier. 
  • Communications-driven web traffic – all external communications activities can have an impact on web traffic and performance. Combining direct referral traffic from media hits with referral traffic from blogs, social media, and paid campaigns can help you tell a more complete story of how earned media boosts your communications efforts.
  • Organic search referral traffic – if this goes up while you’re earning media, it’s a good indicator that brand awareness tactics are leading to search actions.
  • Lead tracking – working with sales, you can see how many leads, conversions, and sales originated from earned media efforts. 

Earned media supports business objectives that can’t necessarily be measured through digital or web metrics. For example, many companies value earned media as a way to facilitate a positive relationship with target customers. In this cases, ask your audience what they think as a way to measure the impact of earned media. Surveys that measure brand perception, purchase intent, and brand experience can help you benchmark and track perception metrics over time.

Myth #3: It’s more valuable than paid
and owned media.

The marketers in the Forrester study couldn’t agree on a definition for earned media. But, they could agree that it can add value to a marketing strategy. They also said it can be perceived as more trustworthy than other paid and owned media.

Inherently, earned media comes from an outside, uncontrolled source so it has third-party validation. But this still depends on the source and its reputation or potential bias.

Earned media plays an important role in the sales process. It is particularly useful for driving new traffic into the funnel and building brand awareness and resiliency. However, if you assign value to business outcomes and agree that it takes a mix of owned, earned, and paid to generate those outcomes, I don’t think anyone can say that one is more valuable than another.

The key instead is starting with the objective and the customer need. Then, collaborating across communications, marketing, and sales to see what is working. In this system, everything and everyone is trying to achieve the same goal – meeting top-line business goals.