Being on a Hollywood lot is spooky. It feels so real on the outside, but of course it’s just a façade. These two-dimensional structures are candy for the eyes but, lacking depth, they fool us only so long as we don’t actually enter and try to use them.
Movie sets aren’t the only things that can you fool you into thinking they have depth and substance but turn out on use to be surprisingly uninteresting. Ideas (and people) can be that way too.
All of which brings me to the current craze in digital campaign measurement to carve up measurement using two seemingly powerful but ultimately rather superficial frameworks: Paid/Owned/Earned and the equally ubiquitous customer lifecycle.
The Paid/Owned/Earned framework was originally pioneered by Nokia (not a company you really think of as a leader in the interactive space) but has become positively universal. Hardly an agency or a client we’ve worked with hasn’t used or demanded it as the basis for their strategy or reporting and its appeal, I think, is that it provides a different and potentially interesting way to think about the growth of social media channels. Unfortunately, people have taken what started as a sound enough concept and decided that it's actually a good framework for measurement and reporting.
Paid media covers traditional advertising plus all the places in digital where a brand pays to leverage a channel. Owned media includes things like Websites and Facebook pages – any channel which the brand controls. Earned media covers any kind of customer (or PR) generated content and includes things like customer tweets, article mentions, and positive reviews.
While I believe that the earned media concept dates back to old-style PR, the success of the framework is largely driven by its applicability to a world in which it’s important to generate positive user mentions, reviews, and commentary. Earned media really is far more important in today’s world than in the ‘80s.
I also happen to think the Paid-Owned-Earned concept is wildly popular not least because it creates a framework in which agencies can create digital strategies and campaigns where the goal of media campaigns is subtly shifted from selling your product to selling their content. I have yet to meet an agency that wouldn’t rather sell their creative than your product. By focusing on the inter-relationships of various marketing domains, the Paid-Owned-Earned structure encourages companies to think about how effective their media spend is at “earning” additional reach and engagement. That’s quite different than focusing on selling product. Notice, too, that I said media spend (Paid) and not Paid and Owned. Owned media is, in general, far less likely to create earned media than paid campaigns. So a heavy focus on earned media works doubly to an agency’s advantage. It encourages you to spend more on paid campaigns vs. owned channels and it encourages you to think about “earning” media not sales.
I’m more than enough of a capitalist to recognize that just because something is self-interested doesn’t make it wrong. The Paid-Owned-Earned structure isn’t without value and it does capture something fairly important. Earned media really is far more important now that it was two decades ago. I’d even argue that deep attention to “Earned” might well shift a company from a marketing focus to a customer experience focus and that might be all to the good.
But I have a deeper problem with Paid-Owned-Earned as a marketing framework than its putative agency self-interest. The real problem with Paid-Owned-Earned is that as a framework – a way to organize and evaluate your marketing – it isn’t any good.
I expect that a good marketing framework will do a bit of heavy lifting when it comes to thinking about how to organize my marketing and evaluate its effectiveness. Paid-Owned-Earned doesn’t do that very well. Agencies and clients think that by grouping marketing efforts into Paid-Owned-Earned, they can compare efforts inside each bucket and use similar metrics. That’s a natural assumption, but it doesn’t work.
When you group marketing efforts by Paid-Owned-Earned, you are combining channels that are fundamentally different in tenor and construction. Within Paid, for example, you are grouping Display with PPC. From a broader perspective, you are lumping mass campaigns with direct response campaigns. These are two fundamentally different types of effort. One is pull (customer comes to you), one is push (you go to customer). The metrics are utterly different. The types of execution are different. The agencies(!) are nearly always different. Metrics that are key in one world (push) are nearly meaningless in the other (pull). By putting the two together, you’ve conflated almost everything that’s important to understand about your actual media effort.
Things don’t get any better when we consider the Owned channel. You own your Twitter channel, your YouTube channel, your Facebook page and your Website. But the fact of ownership is dwarfed by the radical differences between these four channels. Twitter is a short-form push medium. YouTube is a longer form pull medium. Your Facebook page is a push-pull CRM platform. Your Website is a multi-form pull medium. The metrics for measuring each of these are fundamentally different. Grouping them doesn’t add to your understanding – it subtracts from it.
What’s more, creating an “Owned” channel of this sort encourages companies to miss the cost component involved. You can spend a boatload of money on “Owned” traffic and if you somehow missed the point that cost is a part of the “owned” channel too you’ll likely never think about it in a rational fashion.
Even at the “earned” level, I think the Paid-Owned-Earned framework is fundamentally misleading. At the very least, it tends to conflate PR type “earned media” targeted toward professional influencers with customer “earned” media. I’ve written before how little worth there is in metrics like “total brand mentions” and I think the Paid-Owned-Earned framework encourages that kind of sloppy thinking. Hearkening back to my earlier point, I also think that grouping “Earned” tends to conflate earned via customer experience with earned via “viral” campaigns. My strong sense is that these are two fundamentally different phenomena that should be kept rigorously apart.
The bottom-line is that as a marketing framework, Paid-Owned-Earned is nearly useless. It encourages us to mentally group campaigns that are fundamentally different in purpose, execution and delivery. It encourages the separation of campaigns that share many similar features and metrics. It delivers very little (a better strategic sense of the value of “earned” media) in compensation – and that very little could, I think, be recovered in other, better ways.
So if Paid-Owned-Earned isn’t the best way to think about your marketing, what is? I’ve already hinted at part of the answer: thinking about marketing efforts along dimensions like push vs. pull and short-form vs. long-form, etc. is far more productive and interesting. These dimensions actually cut. They mean something in terms of the types of metrics that matter, the types of agency skills that are necessary, and the types of function they fulfill in the marketing lifecycle. Paid-Owned-Earned accomplishes none of this; it’s just a decent idea that’s been pushed far beyond its useful boundaries.
I’ll follow up this blog with one more post that covers the dimensions I think should be included in a good marketing framework. And surprise, Paid-Owned is there (in a way) and Earned lives-on in a completely different guise.