What’s Paid Owned and Earned, really?

JimYou’ve heard the words before. They are almost always used together, a triumvirate ruling the marketing media empire. They are the legs that make up the tripod upon which advertising swings.

Paid. Owned. Earned.

We use these words so often now to explain the marketing media ecosystem that it’s sometimes hard to remember that we didn’t always.

Looking for the first use of the terms, I couldn’t find a “first cause.” But Forrester took a stab at defining the terms back in December of 2009. Figure if they’re doing that then, we had at least six months of conceptual fission taking place before that. Daniel Goodall, then of Nokia and now, I think, at Rovio, was one of the first to talk publicly about the structure (http://danielgoodall.com/2009/03/02/owned-bought-and-earned-media/). So, it’s been 5 or 6 years since the terms worked their way into the digital media lexicon and became a template, at least in theory, for constructing communications plans.

And so, since then, like many turns of the phrase in our industry, the terms have been bandied about in meetings, conferences, and trade press without much attention paid to uniformity of definition and assignment of roles.

You might say at this point, “well, sure, Jim; we know what it means and we have assigned them their roles.” And maybe YOU have. So, this is for those of you who have maybe secretly wondered just how these really break down and just how they work together. Like I did when I was an assistant media planner and the term “SKU” was thrown around all the time for my coffee client. I was too embarrassed to ask what it meant, and so just nodded dumbly when it came up in conversation about the client’s product launch. It was months before I figured it out (this was when Yahoo! was still hosted on Stanford’s server’s, and Alta Vista was a disorganized torrent, and so a simple Internet search was out of the question). It means “Stock Keeping Unit” if you’re wondering…

So, first, definition:

It’s simple, really. The words describe themselves.

Paid: It’s what you pay for. That’s search marketing, that’s display, ads on social platforms, affiliates, influencer marketing (if money changes hands), billboards, skywriting, stickers on bananas. Anything you have to PAY for to commit commercial communicative action that is carried by a medium you do not own. Basically, paid is when you rent.

Owned: just what it sounds like. It’s what you BOUGHT. Or paid to create yourself. That’s your web site, social postings, email, PR. It’s your stuff. I actually put ongoing SEO in this bucket, because you’re paying for the service relative to your page; I see it as an extension of the primary owned property. Others do not. Perhaps it’s a chimera.

Earned: the conversation ensuing from your presence in the marketplace, both active and passive. Shares, mentions, forwards, WOM… the stuff that happens amongst the people that did not require direct paid intervention on your part. Think of it this way: you PAY your bills, you EARN your salary.

Now, McKinsey has published that there are two other categories – hijacked and sold – that should be added. But I see those as contingencies to be prepared for, not part of the core communication plan.

Earned seems to cause the most trouble of the three.

The word “earned” does not have a dependent cost structure as part of its definition. Earned, as a concept, is not dependent upon an accompanying cost structure, either. The examples of earning trust or respect are false equivalencies; but, they, too, do not require a cost structure to affirm the “earned” aspect of their nature.

One of the challenges with Earned is that expectations for it are usually overstated. Not all brands and product categories are created equal, and so not all brands and product categories need the same volume and intensity of Earned. Really, few people are looking for deeper relationships with their mayonnaise or their toilet paper. That said, if there were going to be any conversation about your brand and product, you’d like it to be a good one.

And so some form of all three is necessary for a brand to really sing.

Paid alone can lack context and authenticity. Often times, especially in the programmatic world order, paid means yelling “look at me, I’m motor oil!” on a parenting site just because the profile instigates putting an ad there.

Owned alone can lack scale and authenticity. Regularly, brand-generated content has the stiff and earnest, but plastic presentation of a sex education film at a Catholic junior high.

Earned alone can lack scale and context. A handful of semi-disembodied voices on a Twitter feed or posting a snipped GIF on Tumblr do little to activate a business objective. It is speech without reach.

A comprehensive communications plan requires some form of all three to catalyze one another into a motive for action on the part of the intended consumer. If you wanna get milk, the stool needs all three legs.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.