Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson's recent keynote at Ad Age Digital 2009 focused on earned media's increased prominence and growth, and for many in the crowd, the talk was an important lesson on the fast-approaching shift to conversational marketing. Wilson showed a presentation slide, created by former Critical Mass exec David Armano, that compared the steps involved in a successful paid media campaign with the steps involved in an earned media campaign. The systems of execution were very disparate, using entirely different strategic planning (digital media vs. social media strategies). Only one line, labeled "alignment," connected the two expansive systems.
Armano (and Wilson by proxy) are creating too wide a chasm in the earned media vs. paid media debate. While they may be doing so to highlight coming changes to the industry -- it's clear that brands and agencies can unify these principles and use both paid and earned media together as part of an overall strategy that meets and exceeds their marketing goals.
Think of viral video distribution, where this combination model has found success. Once a viral video is produced, a media distribution plan is put together identifying the intended viewership and deciding on a mix of three primary tactics in order to reach this viewership: 1) posting the video to sites and/or forums and making it easy to find the video; 2) contacting influencers and developing relationships with them with the goal of getting their participation/promotional help, and 3) buying seed media on target properties.
So, in the representative case you have one firm that handles all of the media distribution, strategically using both earned media and paid media as different tactics to generate as much attention as possible out of the budget available. Video marketers are familiar with this reality, but there's no reason to think that this trend won't transform media other than video, assuming that agencies involved build creative campaigns that offer true value to participants.
Arguably, earned media and paid media together will strengthen marketing campaigns more than when practiced separately. As such, agencies and media professionals shouldn't put themselves in a box and narrowly specialize in one or the other. Ultimately, we'll have to be well versed in a unified media strategy and utilize a different mix of tactics per-campaign in order to meet our clients' needs.