Promoting Communities and Downtowns with Paid, Owned, and Earned Media

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Whether your community is a large urban district or a small town, promoting it through traditional media outlets has become more challenging due to unprecedented changes within the communications industry. American newsrooms are in a season of disruption:

  • More than 70 daily newspapers have closed their doors or been consolidated since 2004.
  • Stocks of major media companies such as The New York Times and Gannet lost more than half their value from 2004 to 2014; The McClatchy Company, publisher of The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer lost more than 92% of its value during that time.
  • Regular viewership of local TV news, still the most popular outlet for most Americans, is down six-percent since 2006; among 18 to 29-year olds it’s down 14%.

Among the triggers for these changes to the media landscape are a fluctuating economy and growing access to the Internet. News managers struggle to make their websites profitable while customers and former customers choose an abundance of free online information over paid subscriptions.

While the profitability of news coverage continues to evolve, this diversification of sources has created opportunities for local government and economic development professionals. You have more tools than ever to convey your message directly to your audience, so why not use them all? This post describes an all-of-the-above approach to community marketing efforts that involves a mix of paid, owned, and earned media.

Paid, Owned, and Earned Media Defined

The paid, owned, and earned media model describes digital communication formats that are new, more dynamic versions of traditional communication methods (please see graphic). The term, POE media, is used frequently in private sector trade journals, but is less common in local government and economic development circles. Here’s how the three elements break down: paid media refers to advertising published by a third party in exchange for payment, such as a display ad on a news website. Owned media refers to a format over which the author has complete control, such as the website maintained by the municipality or district staff. Earned media refers to the sharing of information through someone else’s media. Earned media is generally organic and free of charge. This is the most highly-desired media because people tend to assign more value to information from independent sources. For example, you may be more likely to watch a movie after a recommendation from a trusted friend. The other side of that coin is that there is little to no control over the message in earned media. More on that in a moment.

POE-media-graphic-BowmanHere’s a simple example of how all of the POE media elements can work together: let’s say the director of a chamber of commerce buys a digital display ad on a local news website. This type of paid ad is dynamic, not static like traditional print ads. People who find it interesting can click to be transported to the excellent content that has been prepared by the chamber and posted to the chamber’s website. The potential customer can learn more about the chamber and the community it represents and perhaps will register for a service or contact chamber staff. In this example, the paid and owned elements have worked together seamlessly to help the customer complete a task. The third element, earned media, would enter the example through the use of another source’s media channels. For example, the same person who learned about the chamber through its digital ad and website can send a short message and a link to his or her followers on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks. The chamber’s content has “earned” this person’s attention because he or she decided independently to share it with friends. This digital version of “Word of Mouth” advertising is free and carries a great deal of credibility.

POE media works nicely with today’s technology. According to Pew Research, 58% of American adults own a smartphone, and 42% own a tablet computer as of January, 2014. This is significant, because smartphones and tablets provide instant, easy access to effective marketing messages. As tools continue to improve and become more affordable, their adoption is expected to grow.

Fine-tuning the Message to Take Advantage of All Elements of POE Media

Before considering ways to convey a marketing message, it’s often helpful to determine specific language and how that message will include a “call to action”. A call to action is simply an element in the message that prompts the audience to take action. Is the goal to prompt them to attend an upcoming festival or to persuade them to move a business to a vacant building? If the goal is to attract festival visitors, the call to action is to invite the person to visit. Perhaps a colorful photo of last year’s festivalgoers or a virtual coupon might do the trick: “Mention the word ‘downtown’ for a food truck discount.” A call to action for attracting business would be narrower; it could include a mention of grant money and whom to contact for more information, for example.

For earned media to be most effective, it needs to be sharable. Simpler messages are usually best because they are easy to understand quickly and can be easily repeated through multiple formats. In particular, paid ads and social media messages are most effective when they include concise, active-voice language. More detailed text can always be placed on a website. Paid and earned media messages bring the consumer to the community’s owned media content in the same way a front door leads someone to a physical office.

NC Example of Earned Media Success

Supporters of downtown Durham achieved impressive results from a campaign that relied heavily on earned media. A coalition of Durham boosters – The Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Durham, Inc. and the American Underground – created The Bull City Startup Stampede to attract startup businesses to vacant office space in an old bank building. The campaign was billed as an online competition. The prize for the 12 successful applicants included 60 days of free rent and networking opportunities with other early-stage businesses.

After making a few modest improvements to the building, the coalition created a simple website to explain what space was available. Then, the group began an unusually successful earned-media push. Over a few pots of coffee, they worked with established Durham entrepreneurs who used their personal email lists and social media connections to invite associates to apply. Matthew Coppedge of Downtown Durham Inc. says the contacts of experts were key: “When you have people who are respected in those industries and they’re willing to send the message out, that means much more coming from him than coming from us.”

Casey Steinbacher, President and CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, said the results were better than expected. “At the end of two hours we had talked to 10-thousand people and had 3,000 hits on our webpage,” she said. “We were up for three weeks and we had hits from 352 cities. We had 120 applications for 12 spots in three weeks.”

The campaign was so successful that they conducted two more the same way. Twenty-two of those startups are still operating in downtown Durham.

Dealing with the Unpredictable Nature of Earned Media

Not long ago, American televisions carried three, maybe four channels. The networks provided their audiences with information, and viewers had no way to reply. The content flowed in only one direction. Of course, that model is long gone. In the same way, local government and economic development professionals recognize that social media sites promote multi-directional conversations. When your organization posts content, particularly to social media, expect feedback. People have come to expect a response when they ask a question through social media. Taking advantage of these opportunities can help reinforce the relationship between a community and the people who care about it.

While earned media messages provide great opportunity, they offer little to no control of content. Twitter provides a great example of this; a community may send a short message or “tweet” about an upcoming event, but its control ends there. Once the message is released, any reader can see it, even if the reader doesn’t follow or subscribe to media produced by the community. The reader can then respond to the message positive or negatively for his or her followers to see. A tweet that attracts attention can grow exponentially.

While the community cannot control the message promulgated through earned media, there are some simple practices that can help reduce the risk of negative responses:

  • Provide helpful content. Before posting a message, think about the end user. Will he or she benefit from this information?
  • Promote a positive culture. Resist temptations to be drawn into whatever controversy is prevalent at the time. Above all, leave politics and negativity out.
  • Show respect to everyone online. Whether a commenter has 10 followers or 1,000 followers, treat him or her graciously and respond to concerns promptly. If a commenter cannot be satisfied, post a contact phone number or email address and ask to speak with the commenter offline. This provides the commenter a way to continue the conversation and shows others following the discussion that the commenter’s concerns are being taken seriously.

Paid, owned, and earned media are most effective when used together. Creating a simple message and using this model to communicate it can prove effective and valuable for a community. Combined with great content, digital media provide unprecedented opportunity to promote a district and measure success.

Brian Bowman is communications director for the Town of Knightdale and author of Digital Media and the Branding of Downtowns: Strategies for New Business Development Using Paid, Owned and Earned Media, which was produced the satisfy the degree requirements for a Master of Arts in Technology and Communication at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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