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The Digital Dilemma, Paid vs. Earned Media

In real life you cannot buy trust, you need to earn it. The digital society is no different. Web authority comes through consistently delivering value that’s true to your story and to customers’ needs. This is how your site gets links and followers. You just cannot buy your way into an organic ranking on the first page of Google search results. You need to earn it. In America post-financial crisis, people are looking for brands that are kind, friendly and generally social responsible. They respect brands that serve their communities. That is the real deal. They reject brands that are trying to buy their trust only through advertising. Businesses need to align their marketing dollars with customers’ values. They need to shift their digital approach from buying to earning. This means less “online advertising” (e.g., display banners/SEM) and more partnerships, community outreach and great content.

Small businesses know that the key to success is not advertising. It is consistently delivering a good product or service worth talking about it. My favorite restaurant in Park Slope, Al Di La, has never advertised. However, it is always full. It doesn’t even take reservations. The restaurant just delivers amazing Italian food with great service, day in and day out. Everyone in the neighborhood knows it.

If we look at the numbers, earned media already accounts for 500 billion influence impressions compared with two trillion online ad impressions, according to Forrester. Earned media impressions are likely to continue growing as global Internet penetration increases and consumer digital habits evolve. This means that earned media is likely to outnumber paid media in the near future.

In terms of effectiveness, earned media carries more weight since it’s more credible. You cannot buy peoples’ opinions. Up to 92% of consumers trust word of mouth recommendations, but only 24% trust online ads. A recommendation from a trusted friend conveying a relevant message is up to 50 times more likely to trigger a purchase compared with another recommendation.1 This is why the display of friends’ pics on “Like” is becoming the new trust currency (see my recent post below for more detail).

No wonder the response rate on display advertising has been steadily declining over time. For 2008, average click-through in the United States was 0.10% for banners [DoubleClick, Benchmark Report, 2009] a tiny fraction of the 3% average in the 1990s. Consumers tend to mentally block display advertising according to a 2003 Wharton study.2 Can you remember the last banner you saw? I certainly can’t.

Businesses need to rethink their digital approach. They need to better align marketing dollars with customers’ values and online behavior. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is dead. It just needs to be reformed. And by the way, earned media is not free. It requires just as many -- or more -- resources and staff time.

1. Why Earned Media Optimization Belongs in your digital Marketing Toolbox along with sEO and Ad Optimization,” nils Morkulnes, Beyond digital, April 2, 2010
2. Dreze and F.X. Hussherr, “Internet Advertising: Is Anybody Watching?” Journal of Interactive Marketing, (17:4), 2003


  1. Interesting assessment. How can traditional media play a supporting role in building trust? Can a company ignore spending on SEM and create an integrated campaign based only on WOM? Guess the right mix differs for each company
    fm Malhotra


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