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What Is the Difference Between Earned Media vs. Paid Media? (And Which Is Better for Your Strategy?)

In this video, Alicia from the WebFX Social Media team talks about the differences between earned media and paid media. Keep reading to find out more!


Hey there! When you’ve bought items online in the past, what sorts of things convinced you to buy from a particular company? Did you see a really compelling ad or maybe you read some really good reviews?

Odds are it’s a little of both.

The two examples I just gave represent the difference between earned media vs. paid media. You might be interested in using both types of media in your own marketing, but maybe you aren’t totally clear on what the difference is, or which one is better to use.

Lucky for you, that’s just why we’re here. We’re gonna talk about the distinction between earned and paid media, and how to integrate them into your marketing efforts.

What is earned media vs. paid media?

What is paid media?

Let’s start by explaining what is paid media. Paid media refers to any form of online marketing where you pay to advertise through a particular platform or service, such as paid ads, but it’s technically much broader than that. It pretty much covers any type of online marketing where you have to pay a third party.

One of the great things about paid media is that it’s fast. You can launch an ad and have it appear in front of people that very day. Also, a lot of paid marketing options come with audience targeting so you can reach the exact people you want to reach.

What is earned media?

On the flip side, earned media is a type of marketing where, instead of advertising yourself, other people are talking about how great your company and products are.

It can be helpful to think of earned media as word-of-mouth marketing, though it can also come in many other forms. Earned media often comes in the form of press mentions, influencer mentions and reviews, general organic buzz about your brand, or backlinks on third party websites, which is an important element in SEO.

Earned media is in many ways the opposite of paid media. Paid media is where you pay to advertise yourself. Earned media, on the other hand, is earned promotion that is traditionally unpaid. However, getting true unpaid earned media doesn’t happen very often and yet it can be one of the most powerful marketing tools since people tend to trust other people over brands.

What is owned media?

There is another media type worth mentioning, owned media. Owned media is just what it sounds like. It’s any type of marketing media that your company directly owns.

A great example of this is your website. You might have costs associated with web hosting and your domain name but it’s not like you have to pay to put up pages or ads on your site. You own the site, so you can market however you want there. The same goes for something like a company mobile app or newsletter.

Now that we’ve covered what earned and paid media types are, let’s look at some examples of marketing that fall into each category.

Types of earned and paid media

Types of paid media

One of the most common types of paid media is Google Ads to run display ads on third-party websites.

Certain types of search engine marketing are also paid. You can run paid search ads that appear at the top of Google or Bing search results, where you bid on specific keywords you want to target. (Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the earned media version of this, which we’ll get to in a bit.)

Even social media can sometimes fall into the paid media category. If you boost sponsored posts or run social media ads, both of those qualify as paid media.

Types of earned media

One of the most obvious examples of earned media is reviews and testimonials. That’s where people who purchased your product or service take the time to talk about how great your company is whether it’s in a formal review on a website or a comment in a forum or on a social platform.

You wouldn’t have those good reviews if you hadn’t provided top-tier service or an outstanding product. Unless you paid for fake reviews, which… please don’t ever do. Users won’t trust your company ever again if they find out you’re simply buying reviews.

Search engine optimization — or SEO — walks the line between earned media and owned media. SEO is where you create and optimize content on your website to get it ranking in search engines. The more people respond positively to your content, the higher it will rank. Plus, your content often acts as a shareable asset which falls within earned media because it gets other people talking about your brand, which is free promotion for you. But your website itself is owned media.

Earned media vs. paid media: Which should you use?

At this point, maybe you’re wondering: When it comes down to earned and paid media, which one should you choose? And my answer to that is, Both.

The best strategies include both media types. They often fulfill different roles in a customer’s journey. Paid media gets your brand name out there quickly and you can be very specific about whom those ads reach. Earned media offers those users third party endorsements to prove your brand can be trusted and your service or products are high quality.

Using both paid and earned media together is the perfect way to balance speed and efficiency with quality and reputation.

Learn more about paid and earned media from WebFX

Well, that wraps up our overview of earned media vs. paid media. If you’re curious to learn more about the specific strategies that fall into each of those categories, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel, or to Revenue Weekly, our email newsletter.

Thanks for watching, and we’ll see ya next time!

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