Re-evaluating 'owned', 'earned' and 'paid' media: Are brands taking their owned media seriously enough?

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

We’ve been living with the notion of ‘owned’, ‘earned’, and ‘paid’ media for at least six years and a good deal has happened during that time.

In December 2009 Sean Corcoran, then at Forrester, defined these three categories as follows:

Just six years on, how does the Forrester analysis stack up? The first thing to note is how digital-centric it was. The examples given for ‘owned media’ are exclusively online. The crucial importance of the brand’s packaging was overlooked completely, yet the billions of opportunities to see that an on-shelf or retail presence delivers far exceed all other channels of communication. Love it or hate it, Metro Bank’s garish design, often clashing violently with neighbouring buildings, creates massive visibility for this challenger brand.

Brand managers need to audit all the media they own, not just their digital platforms. These are just a few of the offline ones: point of sale material, packaging, business cards, building signage, customer magazines, employee uniforms, and call handling systems. And for each of these ‘owned’ offline and online media channels the estimated cost of production, the estimated audience, and thus the approximate cost per thousand should be calculated. This produces a rank order which can help set priorities and budgets.

One of the most important communication channels can represent over half the company’s cost base – employees, who can be its brand ambassadors. While the people working in customer facing roles are vital to business success, how often does an outstanding service experience get delivered? This failure is one of the reasons why the traditional London taxi has come under such pressure from Uber. Key to the success of the challenger has been the passenger rating system which is a crucial management tool for quality control.

Forrester defined ‘earned’ media as “When customers become the channel” and the phenomenon of people as publishers is still going strong as evidence by Tumblr. But many brands have discovered how hard, and expensive, it is to produce content that bloggers, vloggers, and social media users want to share.

Though the global number of tweets peaked at around 600m daily in 2014 and has halved since then, 300m is still some clutter to cut through. The UK’s 13m monthly active users are pumping out 12m tweets per day. What chance does a brand have unless it stars Kim Kardashian? The story repeats itself across the other major platforms: 300 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube every minute according to DMR.

In November 2015 Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said that 1.5m small and medium-sized businesses shared videos in September alone. Instagram claims that over 80m photos are shared daily on its platform. That’s massive competition for eyeballs.

There’s also a growing realism about the metrics that are bandied about reporting social media. As Jeremy Swinfen Green, director of Mosoco, observes:

“In fact a lot of metrics (such as 'Likes' on Facebook) are 'vanity' metrics that don't really tell you anything beyond whether you are possibly doing better or worse than last month.“

So what’s happened over the past couple of years is that brands have learned an old lesson, made famous by author William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything”. His observation was that Hollywood found it almost impossible to predict how a movie would do before its release. In effect the business model of film-making and book publishing relies upon the occasional, unpredictable blockbuster to finance hundreds of failures. In the face of this uncertainty, many brands are making much more cost-effective use of ‘paid’ media rather than relying on organic message distribution.

But again we are focusing too much on channels, and not enough on content. The current near-panic about ad-blocking is symptomatic. People have always blocked ads – just watch them flicking past your lovingly produced double-page spread. Brands need to provide the right sort of content via the channel where the recipient is, and where they find it useful, interesting, or entertaining depending on their mood and mode.

The other big question the brand owner or cause champion must ask themselves is whether they have the money and time to bring about the desired change in behaviour by focusing primarily on brand building to change attitudes. Or whether their budget should be deployed on short term activation. The good news is that it’s not an ‘either or’, but a ‘both and’, as proven by Les Binet and Peter Field, in their IPA report ‘The Long and the Short of It’.

Their conclusion was that on average there should be a 60:40 budget allocation between long term brand building and short term activation. And there’s a dividend which comes with activation which is only recently being appreciated. This is that behaving in a certain way can affect the way a person feels and thinks. An unknown brand like Uber could have spent millions on brand building advertising to overcome the incumbency of traditional London taxis. Instead it e-couponed people to get them to try its service. Within a remarkably short time, and despite a massive lobbying campaigns, Uber has become well-established in over 60 countries and over 300 cities worldwide.

It’s still valid to think in terms of ‘owned’, ‘earned’, and ‘paid’ media, but too many brands still don’t take their ‘owned’ media seriously enough. The idea that ‘earned’ media is somehow free is long gone. Brands have tried the publishing model to make ‘earned’ work for them, but have discovered that misses far outnumber hits. They’re also learning that social platforms can work better using ‘paid’ media, thus reinforcing the dominance of the ad funded model.

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor to 23red. He tweets @hamishpringle

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