Paid vs. earned media promotion

If you are a non-profit organization, it is critical to be a good steward of your donor dollars. You probably don’t have the luxury of a $100,000/month online paid media budget. If you’re relying on PSAs (public service announcements) and “added value” vendors with special non-profit discounts to drive your marketing, you don’t have the control you need to target your audience.

These challenges bring up an important question:

With so many online advertising and social media decisions to make today, what is the most effective channel mix to get out your online message?

Let me see if I can help make some sense of this.

The key is looking at your “paid” vs. “earned” media mix. But first, it’s important to understand what these terms mean. Since people define them differently, I’m going to attempt to provide what one of my colleagues would call “profound simplicity” by starting with some key definitions:

  • Media is any communication that reaches or influences people widely.
  • Paid media is purchased and driven from inside your organization.
  • Earned media is exposure driven by people outside your organization.

Benefits and drawbacks of paid vs. earned

Now let’s take a moment to look at both paid and earned channels.

Examples The Role Benefits Challenges
Display Ads
Paid Search Ads
Social & Video Ads
Affiliate Marketing
Cast a wide net, and create high traffic volume when you need it On demand
Easy to measure
Low direct click-through rates
Low perceived credibility
“Banner blindness”
Noise & clutter
Remarketing Ads (search, social & display) One-to-one marketing, showing ads to a higher “qualified” audience by tracking prior visits to your site; ad is there when they are ready Eliminates the guessing
Higher direct click-through rates
Soft attribution can be measured
More expensive
Requires placement of a pixel code by IT team
Can make consumers feel “stalked”
Examples The Role Benefits Challenges
Social Shares
PR/Blog Articles
Viral Videos
Inbound Marketing
Create a conversation between the constituent and organization and allow your advocates to be your marketers Most “authentic”
Can influence and build credibility
Lives over time
Low control
Risk of negative comments
Scale based on need
Hard to measure

Bottom line, it’s important to consider all channels and define your optimal marketing mix based on your business strategy and goals.

If you want to acquire new names or “leads” to cultivate into long-term donor advocates, you may use social media to acquire and then cultivate over time with email marketing. If you need short-term results and new donor acquisition, you may need to invest more heavily in paid search to find people who are at the end of the evaluation funnel and ready to take action.

To get started, you can consider the following core questions from your marketing plan:

  • How you are defining success?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Is there a content strategy in place?
  • How will you keep donors engaged?

5 Tips for Evaluating Your Media

1. Leverage staff, partners or celebrities.

Before committing to purchasing impressions, see if you know someone with a large social following that will retweet or share your posts. Your most loyal influencers are probably right on your own staff.

2. Get your fans to fuel your earned media.

Remember that resources and staff time also equal a cost. Find ways to empower others to post and develop a network of bloggers and social advocates that will help share and enhance your initial marketing message.

3. Market to the individual instead of casting a wide net.

You can save costs by marketing only to people that have shown an interest in your brand. Explore new remarketing techniques; we call this driving highly “qualified” traffic and this can increase conversion rates.

4. Make sure you can measure your efforts.

It’s hard to know whether your media is working or not if you don’t have a benchmark. Make sure you are looking at both click-through rate and conversion rate. Compare your growth to non-profit industry standard key performance indicators (KPIs).

5. Make sure you have an “optimization budget” for testing.

It’s probably not likely you will know the “secret sauce” right off the bat that will get your audience to click. Preload your media placements with multiple creative versions and be ready to shift dollars as needed to the channel and messaging that is working!

I hope these charts, questions, and tips open your eyes to the new possibilities in online media! If you want to learn more about paid vs. earned media, leave a comment or email

Next: Treating digital as a silo