Unified Media Theory

Everyone understands a media buy. Its value proposition is simple to explain and it offers guaranteed distribution for your content -- a way to stand above the noise and be heard. For this reason, paid media has a cemented place in our industry, even as earned media gains popularity.

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.

10 comments about "Unified Media Theory".
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  1. Rich Reader from WOMbuzz, April 15, 2009 at 2:10 p.m.

    Treating earned media as a campaign element that evaporates when the campaign is over is a great strategy for winning a battle and losing a war. The alignment of earned media toward a linked continuum of paid media campaigns can be engineered for winning the war, but that objective has to be a larger part of the agency's integrated and over-arching account media strategy for a client, laid out in terms of 1 to 2 year timeframes, not 90 day engagements.

    This is a crucial issue for account and client relationship management.

  2. Kathy Sharpe from Resonate Networks, April 15, 2009 at 2:10 p.m.

    Well written, succinct piece that underscores one of the key problems in the industry- our tendency to complicate and multiply (confusining clients and our selves) instead of integrate and simplify and then get positive results.

  3. Langston Richardson from Cisco, April 15, 2009 at 4:54 p.m.

    I have to say... "Unified Media Theory" is quite catchy. Like was said in the comments, the creativity of the idea that relevant to the people who will be viewing is the fundamental factor that should be at the heart of any media consideration. Creativity is not just the creative department.

  4. Tyler Willis from Involver, April 15, 2009 at 6:52 p.m.

    Rich, creating communities (a common tactic in earned media as it makes future campaigns more successful) requires larger investment, but both forms of media (earned and paid) can be either long-term or short-term. A good example is Doritos' Superbowl commercial contest. They did the required outreach to generate the ads and then did a paid media campaign against the result. The unified campaign ended on January 26th.

    Kathy, Thanks!

    Andrew, we agree, I could have expanded on this line: "...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." How would you re-write it?

    Langston, thanks, I hope the term is catchy enough to get people to think about acting on it.

  5. Hugh Seaton from Seaton Consulting, April 16, 2009 at 4 a.m.

    Sorry but the two are not comparable. One needs to be clear that an brand interaction is not fungible - some interactions achieve awareness, some achieve belief.

    "Earned" interactions are much stronger on the belief front - by this I mean firm beliefs about the product that actually correlate to purchase. However these are usually interactions the consumer already knows to engage in - social media are based on consumers choosing who they interact with.

    Paid interactions suffer from source effects, and thus are better at building awareness but not beliefs in efficacy.

    I think you way overclaim with 'unified media theory'. But then again it was just a short article...

    Hugh Seaton

  6. Gregory Gotts, April 16, 2009 at 12:39 p.m.

    Unified Media Theory is catchy - and a great descriptor for evolving tactics in viral marketing. We call it the "Assisted Viral Campaign." The paid media buy gets the ball rolling, the earned media then builds 3rd/4th/5th party word-of-mouth credibility for the campaign. It's all about giving a paid boost to legitimate virality or buzz. That given a campaign with the content potential to go legitimately viral.

  7. Michael Fidler from Axis Digital Media, April 16, 2009 at 6:27 p.m.

    Regardless who’s right, I think this will be a big win for business cards companies. Think of all the people who are going to want to add their expertise in earned or unified media to their cards.

    First, I love the name “Unified Media Theory”, although it sound a lot like another unified theory, also called M Theory. If there’s a connection to Witton by Willis, It’s very clever! On the surface it seems logical to have a little of this combined with a little of that. However, in the world of Fred Wilson, it does not. If you can earn advertising for less, why pay more for the same results? Video distributors will find your idea preferable unless they realize as Fred has, that there's a way to do it for less. There’s also a reason Fred is not connecting earned media and paid media together. He’s not investing in paid media; he’s only looking to fund a pure play on earned media. Although, I agree with him, be mindful of his vested interests, as well. He mentions a tiny startup, in “mobile” fast food here in L.A. called Kogi as a great example of earned media. Check them out on twitter @kogibbq. It’s brilliant! I can’t wait to try it; I hear it taste great as well. See how easy it is; I just helped them because they’ve earned it! BTW, I did hear it’s good!

  8. Tyler Willis from Involver, April 17, 2009 at 9:12 p.m.

    Fred has invested in many big paid media plays, and I would argue that while he thinks earned media is on the rise, that he also sees opportunity in people who really push the world of paid media.

    Here's why I think that:

    would love to hear his thoughts on it though, maybe we can get him to comment. Will tweet him about it.

  9. Tyler Lecompte from, April 30, 2009 at 10:22 a.m.


    While I am currently focused on starting a new media company called MeHype that focuses on the earned media method, I believe that the industry overall would benefit from a unified media strategy in regards to online video and interactive media. Specialization will always be needed, because it is too hard to be great at everything, but without a partner to balance out the paid versus earned mix for a campaign brands/advertisers will see limited success. Thanks

    Twitter: @tylerlecompte

  10. Michele Clarke from Brainerd Communicators, June 3, 2009 at 12:48 a.m.

    Earned media has existed forever. It's called PR. While the advertising community desperately tries to create another channel for "preach" marketing, PR will continue to fuel (and yes, exploit) the conversation. And creating unparalleled value by driving endorsements by trusted third parties. See ya out there, Tyler. I'll be the one creating results for clients with an astronomical ROI.

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