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Earned Media vs Paid Media: Understanding the Differences

Discover the key differences between earned media and paid media, and learn how each can benefit your brand.

When developing your marketing strategy, there are several terms to understand, including earned and paid media. These media strategies can help you reach your overarching marketing goals, boost revenue, and increase ROI.

However, while earned and paid media marketing are crucial components of a marketing strategy, they’re not the same. Knowing the differences between earned and paid media can help you find new ways to reach your target audience and increase sales.

Each offers distinct advantages and challenges, but they can be used together to help your brand reach and convert more customers.

So what are paid and earned media, and how can you use them to increase sales, drive growth, and build a good reputation?

Keep reading to learn more about these two terms and how you can use earned and paid media to improve your marketing efforts.

The role of media in modern marketing strategies

Earned and paid media are essential to any comprehensive marketing strategy. Media is communication; it doesn’t just refer to the press or journalists.

Instead, it refers to any assets or collateral you use in your digital marketing strategy and how you use it. Advertising, public relations, social media, blogs, and infographics are all types of media, but the distinction between whether they’re owned, paid, or earned is crucial in helping you create an effective digital marketing strategy.

What is earned media?

Earned media is content you earn through word-of-mouth or public relations (PR) efforts. You earn this media because your brand did something newsworthy or noteworthy that got people talking. Examples of earned media include:

  • PR efforts
  • Working with influencers for free
  • Reviews of your products or overall business
  • Advocates who share posts online

Earned media is also known as free media because it’s virtually free for your business to obtain. While you might be paying a public relations firm to pitch your brand, products, or expertise to journalists and various media outlets, the media you earn is free because you’re not paying for an advertisement or placement in an article.

Another type of media, owned media, is often mistaken for earned media. Unlike earned media, owned media is created by your business.

Owned media channels include things like your website, content marketing, organic social media posts, email marketing assets, and so forth. Earned media is not created by your business like owned media.

Instead, it’s created by a third party, like a customer or journalist. Owned and earned media can work together because they’re both technically free for your business. However, they’re not the same, and this distinction is crucial because you don’t have any say in what goes into earned media, but you completely control your owned media.

Benefits of earned media

The most significant benefit of earned media is that it helps you build trust with your target audience. When a journalist includes your brand or quotes in an article, it legitimizes your business for customers and potential customers. Other benefits of earned media include the following:

Builds brand credibility and trust

Brand credibility and trust are crucial to your business and its customers. Your customers need to know that you can deliver on your promises and provide exceptional service and products that meet their needs.

In addition, earned media allows you to showcase your expertise by getting featured in a respected publication, which may also increase your brand awareness.

Reaches a wider audience through word-of-mouth and social media shares

Earned media also refers to word-of-mouth marketing because customers are talking about you. For example, customers want to tell their friends and family when you deliver an exceptional experience or create a truly beneficial product.

This word-of-mouth marketing may also equate to social media shares because they’re sharing information about your brand online without you paying for it.

In this sense, influencers can be a part of an earned media strategy because they enjoyed your product or service so much they’ve decided to share it with their followers.

Generates organic publicity, resulting in cost-effective marketing

Earned media strategies are often lower cost than paid media and other marketing strategies because they don’t require advertising or paying for placement in major publications.

Instead, companies might invest in a public relations strategy, which consists of pitching the media and building valuable relationships with journalists to get their company featured in online and print articles.

While PR is crucial, some brands can get featured in major publications without trying. Instead, the media might find your brand’s products or services while doing research for an article and reach out to you organically to learn more.

However, you can’t rely on that to happen to every brand, so it’s always best to have a comprehensive PR and pitching strategy to increase the likelihood of getting featured in various trade and top-tier publications.

Provides valuable feedback from customer reviews and testimonials

Earned media also refers to media your customers share with you, such as reviews and testimonials.

You’ve technically earned this media because your customers have had an experience with your brand, whether good or bad. Positive earned media can help you attract and convert more customers. For example, you can add customer reviews and testimonials to your website to help new visitors determine whether they should continue on the customer journey.

Earned media is considered more trustworthy than other types of media because the public — your customers — knows you didn’t pay for it. As you may know, consumers no longer trust brands as they once did, and other types of media, such as paid media, can sometimes come off as untrustworthy.

Conversely, earned media comes from an external source, whether your customers themselves or the press, so it’s more trustworthy than other types of media.

Challenges of earned media

Unfortunately, earned media comes with several challenges. While it’s considered a more cost-effective strategy, that’s not necessarily true. Many companies invest thousands of dollars into PR efforts to help them build their brand reputation and increase pitching efforts.

Additionally, earned media is challenging to acquire since journalists and other content creators typically receive pitches from companies daily.

And finally, earned media is notoriously difficult to track, so it’s challenging to determine your true return on investment (ROI). For example, quantitative results may tell you how many new visitors you receive to your site from another website, but you won’t be able to track results from a print magazine.

Tips for earning media coverage organically

Earning media can help build trust with your customers while improving your reputation through thought leadership.

As we’ve mentioned, earned media is difficult to come by, even if you have a dedicated public relations team. Luckily, there are several ways you can earn media coverage organically, such as:

Make the news

Many companies make the mistake of believing that their companies are inherently newsworthy, but that’s not always the case. Instead, you have to make the press listen to you by providing them with a story or doing something noteworthy that interests their audience — the public. For example, developing a new product line, donating to charity, partnering with another brand, and sponsoring an event are all newsworthy actions you can take to get the press’ attention.

Build relationships

Building relationships with the press and content creators will help keep your brand at the top of their minds. When pitching various publications and journalists, your pitches can get attention, but journalists have already begun writing other stories. Instead, building relationships gives them the opportunity to come to you when they have a story that’s a good fit for your brand.

Always build relationships with journalists that cover stories in your industry. You can find who these journalists are by reading publications you’d like to be featured in and reaching out to them to see if they have time to meet for coffee or have a virtual meeting so you can discuss your brand and provide any expertise needed for a current or future article.

Use social media

Every business relies on word of mouth to help them grow. However, most consumers trust recommendations from family and friends more than the word of a brand, and social media has become the main platform for spreading word-of-mouth. Social media also allows you to engage with your customers and monitor brand mentions to determine whether you have a good or bad reputation.

Know your target audience

Knowing your target audience is crucial when investing in an earned media strategy because you must target journalists and publications that cater to the same audience. For example, as an eCommerce company, you wouldn’t contact a sports journalist. If you did, your pitch would likely go ignored because your topics are irrelevant to the person you pitched and their audience.

What is paid media?

Paid media is exactly what it sounds like — media you pay for, such as print and digital ads, social media ads, native ads, etc. Many brands purchase exposure to reach wider audiences and grow their business through paid traffic and brand awareness. Unlike earned media, paid media is easy to obtain as long as you have the necessary budget for it.

Benefits of paid media

The main purpose of paid and earned media is the same — to increase sales and boost profits. However, both have their places in a marketing strategy. The most significant benefits of paid media include the following:

Allows for precise targeting of specific audiences

While earned media allows you to connect with specific audiences by reaching out to journalists in a particular niche, paid media allows you to precisely target specific audiences. For example, paid social media advertising can target an audience based on location, gender, or interests. Meanwhile, with PPC search ads, you can target individuals already looking for products you offer by targeting them based on specific keywords, locations, interests, and more. Additionally, you can use paid media for retargeting strategies to attract customers back to your website.

Provides immediate results and can be measured through analytics

Earlier, we mentioned that measuring the ROI of earned media efforts is challenging because you can’t accurately measure website traffic or sales from traditional media sources. However, paid ads are 100% trackable, allowing you to determine which ads perform the best. Of course, we’re referring only to digital paid media. Depending on your overarching paid media strategy, which may include traditional advertisements, tracking your results can get a little more complex.

Increases brand visibility and drives website traffic

Paid media drives paid traffic to your website to increase brand visibility. Earned media’s goal isn’t necessarily to drive website traffic; instead, you might use it to build trust or increase brand awareness.

Paid advertising allows you to do everything — reach a new audience, build trust, and increase brand awareness — all while sending traffic to your website.

Allows for flexibility in budget and advertising strategy

Measuring the true cost of earned media strategies like PR is challenging because you can’t always determine how much a media placement earns you in revenue. However, paid media allows for more flexibility in your budget because you’ll always know how much it costs.

For example, if you pay for an ad in a magazine, you know the exact placement cost. Meanwhile, if you pay for search ads or display ads, you might pay per click or impression, which can help you estimate how much you’ll pay in total for your advertisements.

Tips for effectively using paid media

Paid media can work on its own or with earned media to help you increase brand awareness and conversions. It should be noted that paid advertising is typically more expensive than an earned media strategy, so you need to know the best ways to increase your ROI without sacrificing quality.

Here are a few tips to help you use paid media:

Find the right channel

Social media, billboards, magazines, digital display ads, native ads, and search ads are just a few of the different types of paid media. It’s crucial to find the right channels where you can reach your audience.

Luckily, there are several tools available to ensure your ads end up where they should. For example, you can use display advertising tools to target specific websites or niches with your display ads.

If you're investing in social media advertising, what’s most important is finding out which social media channels will resonate best with your audience. For example, if you’re an eCommerce company, it’s highly unlikely that your target audience will be on LinkedIn, so it’s crucial to advertise on other social media platforms where they’re most engaged.

Use landing pages

Creating custom landing pages can help you increase conversions because they have a clear purpose — to keep your audience focused on your primary message. However, your landing pages must be cohesive with your advertisement.

For instance, if you’re using display ads, you should use some of the same elements on both the ad and the landing page. Meanwhile, if you’re using search ads, you might choose to use the same copy to ensure a consistent user experience (UX).

A/B test everything

One of the biggest benefits of using paid media is that you can split-test various elements to determine which combination of copy and design works best. Testing small variations can help you determine which colors, buttons, design elements, and copy affect metrics like conversion rates and clicks.

Key differences between earned media and paid media

There are many different types of marketing, some of which require earned and paid media strategies to succeed. We’ve already discussed a few of the differences between earned and paid media.

The most significant, of course, is that earned media is earned while paid media is paid. However, since they both have similar end goals, it’s crucial to understand the key differences to ensure you make the right decision for your business and its budget.

Cost differences

Earned media is often more cost-effective than paid media. For example, if you hire a public relations firm, you might end up paying thousands of dollars a month for a few quotes or mentions in a top-tier publication.

However, you likely won’t be able to measure your ROI completely. Knowing how many visitors came to your website after seeing an article in a publication online or in print isn’t always possible.

Since earned media often comes with other benefits like building trust with your audience, the actual cost and ROI may be less important, depending on your brand’s goals.

On the other hand, paid media is more expensive but, in some cases, may be more effective in helping you reach your goals. For example, if you want to sell more, paid media can enable you to do that quickly and without having to spend time focusing on building relationships.

In addition, paid media is efficient and offers a faster time to results, which may make it more cost-effective in the long run.

Reach and targeting

If you want to be able to target specific audiences, paid media might be the better option for you. As we’ve mentioned, you can target your earned media strategy toward journalists and publications with a specific niche audience. For example, if you’re a B2B pet product company, you can target pet industry trade publications to reach pet businesses.

That said, paid media often has better targeting options, allowing you to reach a wide range of customers with a few clicks of a button.

Credibility and trust

Paid media is obvious to consumers. They’re advertisements on billboards, in magazines, digital ads on websites, and so forth. Consumers know what ads look like and are less likely to trust them. Instead, earned media is usually better for building trust with consumers because it comes from a third party, like a journalist or another customer’s testimonial.

Which approach is right for your business?

In general, a marketing approach that combines paid and earned media is best because it gives you the benefits of each option rolled into one effective strategy.

Yet, there may be some instances when a brand might invest more in one than the other. Factors to consider when deciding between earned and paid media include the following:


As we’ve mentioned, earned media is considered the more cost-effective option because you don’t have to continuously pay for ad placement.

However, it’s important to note that true costs may vary when working with a public relations firm. PR is time-consuming, so it may end up costing you more in time than more efficient paid advertising.

That said, customer testimonials and brand advocates posting about your business online are completely free.

Paid media typically require you to spend money continuously on ad placements. However, your return on investment might make it well worth it, depending on your sales numbers.


If you want to boost sales quickly, paid media is your best option because it’s immediate. You can begin reaching your target audience as soon as your ad is published.

On the other hand, earned media takes time, even if you have something newsworthy to share with the public. PR is focused on relationship-building with the press, so you can’t expect a quote in every major publication in the first few months after implementing your strategy.

Target audience

Paid media allows for better audience targeting because you have more options than earned media. With paid media, you can choose your audience based on location, age, gender, interests, activity, and other factors to help you target a specific type of customer.

In addition, audience targeting is more cost-effective because it allows you to focus only on those most likely to purchase your products.

Brand reputation

Having a good brand reputation is crucial for building trust with prospective customers. Earned media is focused on reputation management to help you properly handle customer complaints, bad reviews, and so forth.

Public relations can help you obtain mentions, quotes, and thought leadership pieces in well-respected publications to improve your reputation over time.


Who will be working on your paid and/or earned media strategies? It’s crucial to determine your resources. With so many paid media platform options available, almost anyone can create professional digital advertising without experience.

Of course, both earned and paid media requires a strategy, so you will need a team in place to create your plan of action and execute it.

Why should you know the difference between earned and paid media?

Paid, owned, and earned media can and should work together to help you develop your overarching marketing strategy.

Without knowing the distinction between these three types of media, you won’t know where they fit within your overall plan of action. With paid, owned, and earned media, you can begin developing a strategy that helps you reach more customers, improve your reputation, and build trust with customers while increasing sales and revenue.

Mailchimp can help you improve your marketing strategy by helping you create media assets with our graphic design, advertising, and website tools.

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