It’s absolutely perfect timing for this blog post (which I’ve been thinking about for the last month or so), hot on the heels of Altimeter Group’s report, released this week, titled, The Converged Media Imperative: How Brands Will Combine Paid, Earned and Owned Media. It’s a great report that identifies and speaks to a trend we first saw emerge in 2009: the fact that multiple channels and multiple sources of content inevitably bring cross-pollination, which is an operational problem for most marketing and communications organizations (while you can download our recent whitepaper on the subject, we’ve been speaking and writing about this topic since 2010, here’s a post that references much of our own past thinking around the challenges of convergence in paid, earned and owned media, as well as a link to a whitepaper on the same subject we co-authored with Digg in early 2010). I strongly suggest you read the Altimeter report – Social Media Group will be contributing case studies from our own client work to Altimeter as they support their new research into this topic on the speaking circuit this Fall.

So what do I mean by “Paid, Earned and Owned are Dead”? Simply: the distinctions we have made about content based on its origins and delivery methods are rapidly becoming meaningless. As our own public communications channels have multiplied and diversified in ways unimaginable just ten years ago, so do our forms of content. I’ll give you a real-world example (click on the links to see the actual activity illustrating my point):

Company A creates and  publishes an original article on the paid Forbes AdVoice platform. The article is shared by employees of Company A via their personal Twitter accounts. The Twitter followers of those employees, who have no affiliation with Company A, start to share the content as well on multiple channels.

Is that original article paid, earned or owned? The answer is, confusingly, yes (it’s all of those things).

That’s what I mean by my somewhat controversial headline – we need to stop thinking about content (and channels) by our old, singular, labels (paid = mass advertising, earned = PR, owned = your website) and recognize that there are absolutely no boundaries between these types of content. In fact, what we’re looking at is a flexible, fluid publishing and sharing continuum; how the original work was created does not define it. Instead, what matters most is what happens to that content once it’s released. I would argue that our new set of labels should be about quality/interactions, rather than source, and that what content is can’t be defined until someone has engaged with it (or not). Ideally, a piece of content, like the Forbes AdVoice example used earlier, could be all (or most) of these things, though in no particular order: owned by origin, paid to scale, earned because of its quality.

This reminds me of a concept I spoke about first at the Society for New Communications Research Annual Symposium a few years ago, and which was covered not long afterwards by the Financial Post: as marketers, as communicators, you need to focus on one simple thing: and that is making your content (your messages) good enough to steal. What your content gets labelled as afterwards will tell you just how well you did.

[More on how to leverage paid media to scale and hypercharge earned media]


  1. Indeed, you were prescient on it a while back.

    Content is now operating at the atomic unit level. It’s that link’s journey and footprint that matters, but also the Engagement that ensues around it- not just in sharing it or liking it, but in terms of real conversations it engenders. Our research indicated that for many users, commenting and replying may be more important than sharing and liking

  2. Ken Hittel

    Disagree. The very fact that you say, “Ideally, a piece of content… could be all (or most of these things” — paid, earned, owned — invalidates your claim that “there are absolutely no boundaries between these types of content.”
    There’s a big difference, still, between the ideal you’re chasing and the realities of siloed-corporate-ownership, infighting, and indeed the very real & distinctive voices of multiple social media properties and venues.
    Getting paid, earned, and owned on the same page, speaking in a consistent voice, but also speaking in a voice that rings true on fractured social media — that’s an ideal that we aspire to, but it is not yet a practical reality for 99% of us. For the short term at least, “Paid, Earned and Owned Are Dead” is hype.

  3. ReaderX

    Disagree, as well. Clearly, stuff that originates with your employees is owned. It’s simple. You didn’t pay for inclusion, you haven’t earned authoritative mention. It’s the network of your owned assets: employees (most of whom probably felt pressured to pimp your content, some of whom wanted to).

    I would argue it’s important to keep a clear head: understanding how to best allocate your limited resources is paramount. One of the primary ways to quantifying returns on recent investments. Absent of some evidence, you’re largely left with ego as the decision maker and we’ve seen how poorly that plays out within organizations time and again.

    Paid is not earned; neither are owned. To pretend otherwise abdicates you to whimsical and willful ignorance.

  4. Maggie,

    Interesting food for thought. I agree with much of your commentary, but your headline is misleading and wrong.

    There is still a distinction between the three and all three still readily exist. What is changing (and you illustrate well in your article) is that there is a growing interdependence between paid, earned, and owned. Each still requires investment in the creation and distribution/amplification of said content.

    Marketing’s great challenge is identifying, understanding, and crafting “recipes” of paid, earned, and owned that maximize impact. They have been and will continue to be levers to be pushed and pulled to extend reach and engagement.

  5. Maggie Fox Author

    @ReaderX but here’s the thing about stuff that originates with your employees (which is exactly the illustration I have used) it CAN become paid through social platforms (used as paid media) and you CAN earn an “authoritative mention” when someone else talks about it or spreads it further. The question I’m asking, in that exact circumstance, is what kind of media is this, then? Paid, earned or owned? The answer: yes.

    @Brian strong words, “misleading and wrong”! I heartily disagree, of course. My argument is that those labels are too simplistic, and, as I said, rapidly becoming meaningless as content is shared and spread through various “paid, earned and owned” channels. At what point do you name the content? When it’s made? Where it finally ends up? None of that makes sense, and new words are needed to reflect the reality of our complex and converged content experience. Paid, earned and owned are dead.

  6. Maggie Fox Author

    @Ken – my friend, you do not need to school me about “the realities of siloed-corporate-ownership, infighting, and indeed the very real & distinctive voices of multiple social media properties and venues”; we’ve been doing this for six years, and I know well EXACTLY what happens when you start mixing up paid, earned and owned inside a large global organization; we were among the first to do so with Twitter, Outbrain and Digg in 2009/10.

    It’s because of that extensive experience that I feel perfectly comfortable making this controversial statement; we’ve used earned media in paid placements, scaling it to mass audiences as part of the Twitter promoted tweets beta program. We’ve watched owned content become earned (shared, re-shared and posted about) because of its incredibly high quality, on channels like Outbrain and Reddit. In those circumstances, what, exactly, should we label that content? Earned, paid and owned labels are meaningless and simplistic. They’re one-dimensional names in a 3-D world.

  7. ReaderX

    FWIW, I understood your original point and carried forward your example. So, there’s no misunderstanding there. We simply disagree. You see a tangled mess, I see valuable distinctions.

  8. Of course this is not dead at all (and you don’t really mean it is), we just need to understand how they relate to each other, and how one is useful to the other.

    “owned by origin, paid to scale, earned because of its quality” is a pretty good summary, and describes this diagram I drew a few years ago when I decided that the Own Paid and Earned media were being considered as separate things rather than part of one coherent, integrated plan:

  9. Very interesting post Maggie. The title of the post did its job and got me to click and read more. I do not think owned, paid, and earned media are completely dead – I don’t think you are actually even arguing that. You are illustrating that the lines are becoming increasingly blurred, I couldn’t agree more with that point. That is what you are saying, right?

    I know with the tool we are building– marketers can associate the value from content, communities and social teams – we encountered this very same issue. We have actually built a whole product around dividing content into different buckets. Simply saying it is blurred is not the solution in itself.

    We’ve broken owned into social content from brand accounts or team accounts.
    So when the employees share out the tweets, it would be considered owned (team).

    I don’t think there is an argument that the paid article is anything but paid… Then every ad should be considered owned too?

    We also divide earned content into earned community vs earned social. Earned community meaning they like you on facebook or follow you on twitter. Gives better insight into the value from your social following, compared to the rest of the social web.

    You are definitely ahead of the game in terms of thinking outside the traditional marketing box in social media. It isn’t black and white, but the concepts still very much apply. They are just more 3 dimensional.

    Great post, different then the same old!

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