The Future of Marketing Is Earned

As consumer behavior shifts and ad budgets shrink, earned media is becoming more important

In May 1998, a tank waving a Union Jack rolled through the streets of New York toward Times Square. Once there, the armored vehicle smashed through a wall of stacked cola cans. The intended message: America’s soft drink giants, Coke and Pepsi, were under attack.

Onboard was flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who was promoting his latest product: Virgin Cola.

“We thought it was a humorous way to get some attention,” Court Crandall, a creative partner at Virgin Cola’s ad agency Ground Zero, told Adweek at the time.

Crandall was correct. Reporters and camera crews from various media outlets showed up to cover the event, thereby letting people across the country know Virgin Cola, which debuted in the U.K. a few years prior, had just entered the U.S. market.

As CNN put it: “The British are coming.”

The strategy matures

Although Virgin Cola is no longer with us, the strategy of brands using stunts, sweepstakes and survey results to generate buzz most certainly is—and it’s only increasing in importance.

In recent years, Velveeta created a cheese-scented nail polish. Pizza Hut introduced a streetwear collection, which included a red tracksuit and matching slides. Hidden Valley designed a 2-carat diamond by heating ranch seasoning to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, then crushing the remains under 400 tons of pressure for two months. After setting the jewel in a white gold band, the condiment maker put the ring up for auction on eBay.

Despite the many strengths of traditional advertising, earned media is becoming a vital part of the marketing playbook. Industry insiders and outside observers alike expect the tactic to mature and flourish in the coming years as platforms continue to splinter and consumers get bored of the same old experiences. Today’s cloudy economic climate, which is putting pressure on conventional ad spend, will only accelerate earned media’s ascent.

Consider this: 82% of consumers aged 18-24 use some kind of method to avoid seeing ads, according to a new report from marketing intelligence firm Comperemedia.

“Younger generations have been marketed to their whole life; they know how to spot an ad,” said Lierin Melvin, Comperemedia’s director of insights. “But this is also the same consumer group that really feels a deeper connection to a brand when they have a beneficial and engaging social media presence.”

One of Comperemedia’s predictions for 2023 reads as follows: “Big, maximalist campaigns are out; small, niche, and natural campaigns are in. The best way to not only reach the consumer, but to also survive a potential recessionary period, will be to stress organic engagements within a marketing strategy.”

Indeed, many marketers are moving in this direction. PetSmart’s CMO, Will Smith, said the retailer’s efforts to generate more discussion have compounded the company’s connection with its customers and helped propel the business forward.

Recent examples include giving away 150 sets of custom holiday sweaters for pets and their pet parents, and posting a pair of job openings to hire PetSmart’s first-ever dog and cat “chief toy testers.” The gig pays $10,000 per animal.

“Will we do more to drive more earned media coverage in 2023 than 2022?” Smith asked. “No doubt.”


Calling all cats and dogs to apply to be our first-ever Chief Toy Testers! Apply now at! 🎉🐾   No Purchase Necessary. US/DC 18+/age of maj. Ends 02/17. Rules & Elig: #AnythingforPets #PetSmart

♬ Happy Up Beat (Medium) – TimTaj

Three definitions

Maybe now is a good time to pause and establish some definitions. What, exactly, are we talking about? In the spirit of navigating a topic with as little confusion as possible, let’s divide all marketing activity into the following three categories:

  • Owned media: Content on mediums a brand owns. Think of a company website, an email newsletter, an in-store sign.
  • Paid media: Content on mediums a brand does not own but pays to put there. Think of a TV commercial, a paid search result, a sponsored article on somebody else’s website.
  • Earned media: Content on mediums a brand neither owns nor pays to put there. Think of a newspaper article, a user review, a YouTube comment. But also: The things people say when talking about a guy driving a tank around Manhattan or nail polish that smells like Velveeta.

Obviously, there are plenty of fuzzy lines here. One category can and will spill into another, making it hard to see any distinction.

Sometimes paid media will lead to earned media. Sometimes earned content will influence content that appears on an owned channel. Often, a brand will use a combination of owned, paid and earned to promote their latest automobile or gaming chair.

Not everyone will agree with these definitions. Some might prefer to think in terms of paid media versus organic media. Others might argue social media is a unique beast and therefore deserves its own category. These are all fine points and worthy of exploration. Another time, perhaps!

The benefits

At present, earned media occupies a small piece of the marketing pie.

A look at U.S. digital marketing budgets reveals just 11% of the money goes toward earned, according to The CMO Survey, an ongoing study run by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Paid and owned, meanwhile, make up the bulk.

But this is also kind of the point. Earned doesn’t have to be expensive. Come up with a clever idea and convince enough journalists to write about it, and your brand can reach more consumers for less than it costs to shoot a commercial and air it on NBC’s Chicago Fire or TLC’s MILF Manor.

As traditional ad spend shrinks, earned can be a good bet. There’s potential for more bang per buck.

“Given current economic pressures, we’ve witnessed more marketers explore earned media as a cost-effective strategy to increase brand awareness,” said Shelby Armstrong, a vp at global marketing communications firm Finn Partners.

Last autumn, spirits brand Absolut made a limited-edition purse that looks like an espresso martini. Forbes, Thrillist, Food & Wine and other publications wrote about the handbag, generating a combined 2.5 billion impressions in a week, according to Pamela Forbus, chief marketing officer at Absolut’s parent company, Pernod Ricard North America.

“People just aren’t seeing ads like they used to, but they are reading the press and seeing what catches on,” said Forbus. “If my campaign is returning $2 for every dollar and I can get an extra 25 cents from some earned media, that makes my ROI better.”

Another benefit of earned is that it comes with a sheen of credibility. Unlike paid or owned, earned media has been vetted and endorsed by a neutral third party. Whether you hear it from a friend or reporter or popular internet personality, someone decided the Hidden Valley ring made of ranch seasoning was worth sharing. Earned, in this sense, operates much like word of mouth, which research confirms is a persuasive form of marketing.

Added all together, evidence suggests earned is effective.

Communications and consulting firm Weber Shandwick, along with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, a U.K.-based trade association, examined more than 340 global campaigns between 2010 and 2020. Results found campaigns geared toward generating coverage and conversation outperformed those that didn’t on both brand metrics (e.g., awareness, image, differentiation) and financial figures (e.g., sales, market share, customer retention).

The study also showed earned still works for brands in economies with declining, stagnant or low growth. Sound familiar?

“We’re in tough times,” said Weber Shandwick’s CEO Gail Heimann, who noted marketing budgets for earned are often disproportionate to the value they bring. “I think it will make marketers more thoughtful about how money’s being spent.”

Another advantage to brands sparking conversations with consumers is that it can transform the world wide web into one huge focus group. People gladly offer feedback on new products and services for free. If a company wants to, say, test demand for an innovative toothbrush, it can share the device online and see what happens.

“You can use earned media in ways that lower costs elsewhere in your business,” said Edward Timke, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University.

One final bonus of earned that’s bound to become more prominent in the coming years is that, unlike paid, it avoids all issues of data privacy and regulation. No complications there.

The drawbacks

One aspect of earned media that’s not always welcome is the lack of control.

Sometimes when marketers invite journalists or consumers to partake in something they’ve arranged, the response can be silence. No one cares.

Other times, however, an earned campaign can go viral for all the wrong reasons. People care, but not in the way a brand wanted them to care. To be more specific: Ask the internet to suggest your ice cream company’s next flavor, and don’t be surprised if the submission that receives the most votes winds up being something like turd vanilla.

Weber Shandwick’s Heimann summed up the risks associated with pursuing earned using a line from French author and oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau: “When you enter the ocean, you enter the food chain—and not necessarily at the top.”

Flex Seal, the manufacturer of various home repair products, knows a thing or two about the internet taking interest in its marketing and running with it.

In one spot, Flex Seal’s energetic CEO and pitchman, Phil Swift, slaps a strip of Flex Tape over a hole leaking water from a large tank. Maybe because the slap was rather dramatic, people turned this moment into a meme, which has been used across the web for both wholesome and unsavory purposes.

In an email, Swift told Adweek he thinks the unforeseen development has ultimately helped the brand. It’s certainly put the Flex Seal name in front of lots of people the company’s paid media might have missed.

“We’ve totally embraced it, and our fans appreciate and acknowledge that,” said Swift about being transformed into a meme. “Occasionally, you’ll come across an inappropriate one, which we don’t share or condone, but for the most part they’re a lot of fun.”

Flex Seal has accepted its earned media enough to deploy it on its owned media.

One way to prevent undesirable online chatter from bubbling up in the first place is to maintain a consistent flow of owned media.

“The more you communicate your message, the more you can control the narrative,” said Liam Power, svp of global distribution at the press release delivery service PR Newswire, a subsidiary of the public relations platform Cision. “If you don’t communicate, or you’re pulling back in a recession, others have a chance to talk about you.”

Still, sometimes earned can go south real quick and it’s not clear why. It’s wise to have a contingency plan to counteract the onslaught of harmful comments, advised Michigan State’s Timke.

“You can get negative publicity even if you have good intentions,” he added.

Best practices

As the name implies, earned media is earned. Hard work is required. Strategy is necessary. PR professionals pitching journalists need to target the right person at the right publication with the right idea at the right time.

“Nurturing relationships with reporters and editors is a key part of earned media—it doesn’t just happen,” said Julie Karbo, CEO and founder of PR and marketing agency Karbo Communications.

Not everyone is doing this, though. According to Cision’s 2022 State of the Media Report, which is based on interviews with more than 3,800 journalists around the globe, 91% of reporters said only half of the pitches that show up in their inbox are relevant to their beat.

That means plenty of PR missives go straight to the trash bin. It’s not a good look for the industry.

For earned to work, it also needs to add value to the universe. This can mean anything from contributing to a critical conversation to making a silly video.

“It’s no longer about telling a story; it’s about doing something,” said Heimann.

Great customer assistance is another avenue for this. Google Trends reveals online searches for “customer service” have only increased throughout the past decade.

Comperemedia’s Melvin pointed to Fidelity Investments as a good example. The financial firm has established a presence on Reddit—not to advertise, but to answer people’s questions. Its subreddit r/fidelityinvestments has attracted more than 51,000 members.

“Fidelity has done an excellent job of not only identifying where consumers are going on social media, but also understanding why they’re going there and adding value accordingly,” said Melvin.

For Claire Spinola, who became Ogilvy U.K.’s first director of earned media last year, the future of getting people’s attention is about more than just captivating stunts or getting a client’s name in the newspaper. It’s about recalibrating brands to aid people’s lives, rather than interrupt them. It’s about treating consumers like participants, rather than targets.

As Spinola put it: “It’s about recognizing and responding to culture, not imposing a specific agenda.”

This story is part of Adweek’s Advertising Redefined digital package, which spotlights all the ways that the industry is evolving as brands face greater challenges than ever in reaching consumers.