More on the Paid Promotion of Earned Media

In my latest Adweek column I offered a few reasons why I felt there were ethical lines being crossed when companies choose to use earned media stories in paid media ads. Over the course of a couple conversations it’s become clear I’ve touched a nerve and so I wanted to offer some expanded thoughts on why I have a problem with the practice.

First off, I’ll acknowledge that this is now apparently standard practice. A quick Google search reveals that “pay to boost the reach of your positive coverage” is a thing now, something that is common enough to be wholly unremarkable apparently. But it’s a big change from just a few years ago and I wanted to explain more fully why I remain skeptical of the practice, or at least dissatisfied with the reality that makes it necessary.

Different Goals, Different Tactics

There’s a very good reason that paid, earned and managed media have been – or at least were – separate practices for so long: They’re meant to accomplish different goals. Paid was about conversions/sales, earned was about changing reputations and perceptions and managed was about long-term message dissemination. The goals were so different and the tactics employed that they had to be. Now, though, those responsibilities and areas of expertise are starting to blur.

There were exceptions, of course. Paid ads often pointed to managed channels, usually because there was an end goal or conversion that was being tracked. Earned media could be shared on managed channels because doing so expanded the reach of the stories that had been placed, exposing them to a larger audience.

Paid Is The New Organic

Ethical issues aside, I’m frustrated at the state of the industry that makes payment necessary. Changes made by Facebook and Instagram, the increasingly cluttered nature of Twitter and other upheavals mean it’s now necessary to pay to achieve the same reach you could get organically just a few years ago. The social networks that promised marketers a way to naturally fit into the flow of the feed and reach a massively scaled audience have now pulled the rug out, making it clear payment is table stakes. You could make the case that organic reach is now so paltry that all social network marketing is paid advertising.

I Was Promised An Ad-Free Future

OK, maybe not quit that. But the original promise of content marketing was that telling your own story was so much more powerful than advertising. Ads were for suckers without interesting stories to tell. Corporate blogs (and by extension any form of owned media) was so much more convincing and freeing because you weren’t beholden to the confines of an ad, nor were you subject to the whims of media editors. That dream was ripped away by social networks that were thirsty for all that content and then, like any good drug dealer, hiked up the price after they’d gotten customers hooked.

I understand that this is now table stakes. That doesn’t mean I have to be a fan.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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