This morning I searched Google for blog posts about two seemingly related phrases.
The first search -- for "earned media" -- delivered nearly 7,000 results and every link on the first page pointed to a marketing blogger writing about the concept of unpaid media mentions, impressions or coverage (with media, in this case, including consumer generated content on social sites and elsewhere.) Every one of the top 10 results represents a blog post written within the past 30 days, including an Ad Age Digital Next article citing a speech by the well-respected NYC venture capitalist Fred Wilson in which he advises marketers to focus more on earned media than on paid media. Sage advice, kinda...
My second search -- for the similar phrase "earned attention" -- delivered fewer than 500 results and displayed not a single marketing blog post within the first page of links. Digging deeper, I did find a post by Max Kalehoff in which he wrote of the central role of "earned attention" in the integrated marketing mix. He published this particular post in 2007.
Earned media isn't a new concept, of course. If you need a definition, it refers to any effort by which a marketer gains unpaid publicity through either mainstream outlets like television, radio or print, digital outlets like traditional web publishers, or social media outlets like blogs, communities, forums or podcasts. These media mentions might be earned through PR or just by doing something that garners positive word-of-mouth -- but the distinguishing characteristic is that your brand appears in the media without your company writing a check to media sellers. This stands in marked contrast to paid media marketing approaches like advertising, sponsorships and product placements.
Much of the current conversation (7,000 blog posts and one high profile speech by Fred Wilson) ponders whether the rises in social media and consumer-to-consumer influence, along with the corresponding faltering of mass advertising's effectiveness, have ushered in an age where earned media reigns supreme over paid media.
This is a fair question and one worth considering, but it also misses the mark by a mile. Why? Because whether you earn your media or buy it, the very concept of media (as we use it in marketing, at least) puts corporations -- rather than consumers -- at the center of the value equation. Really, the only meaningful distinction between paid media and earned media is whether or not the marketer (or it's agency) is writing a check for the privilege of bleating its message out. They are different ways of saying what you want to say, but they are both still ways of saying -- when what you really want is to be heard. You don't just want to get in front of people; you actually want to get their attention.
Soooooo... marketers really need to focus not on earned media but on "earned attention."
Although it may seem like it, I am not arguing about semantics. Media conveys -- it delivers impressions, reach and share of voice. If you said that media (paid, earned or otherwise) provides the means of garnering attention, I probably wouldn't argue (assuming your definition of media was broad enough to include consumer generated content.) But even a means of gaining attention doesn't guarantee you've actually got someone's attention.
The brutal fact is that, whether your company's message found its way into media by purchase or by persuasion, it has never been easier for consumers to get the content they want without really paying attention to the corporate messages they don't. We all TiVo past 30-second spots, flip by print ads without a glance and contract an acute case of banner blindness whenever we surf the web. We also casually skim news stories, picking out the highlights without digesting the details -- or glaze over when the hosts of Good Morning America prattle on about some uninteresting topic or another. In all of these instances, the media themselves (never mind the companies who have paid or earned their way into those media) have flat-out failed to earn our attention.
Attention is a scarce resource. Far scarcer these days than media inventory or marketing budgets. And with scarcity comes value. Speaking as a consumer (because, of course, we are all consumers before we're marketers): if you want my attention -- even a teeny tiny slice of it, even only for a few moments -- you have got to earn it. Period.
Does the fact that you have enough money to name a stadium or advertise during prime time get my attention? If I'm Adweek, yes. If I'm Joe America, probably not. Does the fact that your PR person worked hard to get some reporter or another to sit through a briefing that resulted in a newspaper puff piece get my attention? Not a chance. So much for earned media. Right?
Earned attention isn't about paid vs unpaid. It isn't even necessarily about where your messages appear or who served as the mouthpiece to deliver those messages. That debate amounts to little more than sibling rivalry between ad brothers and PR sisters. In fact, (as a consumer) I probably don't care if you buy advertising or earn coverage to reach me, provided that whatever I see or hear is meaningful and relevant to me.
And therein lies the bottomline - I don't care... Not "me" per se -- of course I care (about you, more than about anyone else) but normal people really and truly don't. They are living busy, complicated lives and your marketing and communications matter very, very little in the grand scheme of things.
You earn attention by making people care -- by giving them a reason to stop what they're doing and take notice. And you make people care by giving them something they can care about. This could be a great product, a stand-out customer experience, a noteworthy new approach or something to talk about. You make people care by making it all about them, by demonstrating that you cared first.
This isn't easy. In fact, it's damn hard. Certainly much harder than buying or earning media impressions. But it's absolutely central to the success of your marketing efforts, because until you've earned your consumers' attention there's little chance they'll reward you with their interest, loyalty and hard earned money.
So -- ummm -- can someone explain to me why nobody seems to be talking about how marketers can earn attention instead of debating the different ways of gaining media placements?