What’s the Difference Between Paid, Owned and Earned Media?

By Matter

Even seasoned PR pros sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between different forms of media in the digital age. That’s because they all bleed into each other, blurring the lines. So, what is shared media versus earned media versus owned media versus paid media? And what exactly is shared media?

The nuances can be especially challenging for junior folks cutting their teeth at PR agencies.  I’ve seen more than a few otherwise bright eyes go full Cookie-Monster-googly when I discuss this topic in meetings.

An easy way to understand and remember the differences within the media landscape is an acronym Matter Communications came up with called: “POETS” (Paid, Owned, Earned, Traded, Shared). There are exceptions to all of these, and some of them can peacefully co-exist within other categories, but this will get you smart enough to be dangerous:

Paid – If you buy a banner ad, or place an ad in a magazine or on the radio, that’s called paid media. You didn’t earn it, you paid for it. And no matter how good or bad your product is, the audience will see/read/hear exactly what you want them to. Paid Facebook and LinkedIn ads fall into this camp, as does (in some instances) rewarding bloggers for coverage. In general, consumers are growing more distrustful of ads than ever, because it’s obvious the media was bought and paid for by a company with its own best interests in mind. That’s where native advertising comes in (in which an ad ostensibly poses as valuable content) but that’s a column for a different day.

Owned – If a company has a blog, pumps out ebooks or newsletters, creates infographics or “think pieces,”  these are all forms of media they “own” and can use to attract eyeballs to their respective websites or landing pages.  These typically fall into the content marketing bucket and, like Paid media, this helps companies keep control of the brand (to an extent).

Earned – This form of media is synonymous with “traditional” public relations. A company hires a PR agency, the agency weaves a narrative around the company’s products and/or services, and then pitches that story to online and offline publications, blogs or news outlets. The resulting editorial articles, broadcast hits or blog posts are called “earned” media, since the company didn’t pay the outlets to write about them. The coverage, therefore, was earned.

Traded – Sometimes two companies will agree to do guest posts on one another’s blogs, or work together on a video series around the same topics. Perhaps they’ll even share booth space at tradeshow or team up for speaking gigs. In these cases one company is yielding part of the discussion to another entity, betting that trading part of the stage will return bigger results from a larger network of interested parties. Here’s where it gets nuanced, but many companies are working with influencers and bloggers to garner coverage or social media love in exchange for access, information or input on a company’s product, etc. Lines = blurred.

Shared – This one is trickiest to explain and can take on many forms, but essentially, consumers are working in concert with a brand to create and share/promote the brand’s content. For this to happen, the brand must have fans and followers who feel passionately about the brand and want to engage. Or, the brand has to be giving away something of significant value. A recent example is Lay’s “Do us a Flavor” contest, where the company asked fans to help pick the next flavor of potato chips. I participated in this form of shared media, and I happened to recommend Sriracha as a flavor. Alas, Cheesy Garlic Bread won.

Is this helpful? Let me know if you’ve got a different way of categorizing these buckets in the comments section below.