By Nathan Safran, from Search Engine Watch –

I had the pleasure of participating on a panel with Mel Carson of Delightful Communications at ClickZ Live Toronto. The session, Hand in Hand: Combining Social and Content to Earn Visibility and $, focused on how marketers can meld social and content to drive visibility and ROI.

Preparing for the talk got me thinking about the “paid” vs. “earned” media challenge. That is, the ongoing tension for marketers between investing in paid vs. earned media.

Paid media may produce a more rapid return than earned media. However, like Sisyphus, the Greek tragic who pushed a boulder uphill only to have it repeatedly roll back down, it also requires a continued deposit of funds to continue functioning.

On the earned side, the returns can be many multiples that of paid, but it does require more rigor than depositing coins in the AdWords or Twitter ad machine.

For many marketers this tension – do I invest in the immediate ROI paid offers or make the longer term commitment but greater return earned media offers–is both an ongoing one, and one that spans channels, vexing marketers across search and social channels alike.

In my part of the session, I explored the paid vs. earned media question as it relates to social, and I want to recap some of the findings here. But, before exploring the paid vs. earned media question, any question of which of the two to invest in on social must be preceded by a discussion of the degree to which social has impacted consumer behavior. Understanding this will inform us as to the size of the opportunity for marketers, and the degree to which they should be giving mindshare to the channel.

Social Media Adoption Exceeds the Population of Nearly Every Continent

Even accounting for the fact that Google has rolled Gmail and YouTube users into their Google+ user count, the total number of social network users is greater than the population of every individual continent but one. Facebook has become so globally pervasive that analysts talk about it approaching a saturation point for the worldwide addressable market of users with social capable phones.

Social Media Visitor Growth Registered Users

You might be thinking “that’s the market size, that doesn’t tell us how users do or do not use social networks.” Research from Forrester tells us that social networks have become a critical discovery platform and is now the second most popular channel for website discovery, behind only organic search.

How Have You Typically Found Websites You've Visited in Past Month

Conductor’s research supports this finding and sheds more light on how users are using social networks. Aside from “socializing”, content discovery is the second most popular use of social networks.

Information Retrieval Frequency

The above tells us that social has become a critical website/content discovery method for users. But, the extent to which it has impacted consumer consumption habits was illustrated in a recently leaked New York Times internal report (hence the poor image quality below). The report showed the dramatic decline in visitors to their home page (, not the site overall) over time.

New York Times Home Page Visitors Decline

The reason for the decline is due, in large part, to how social has changed our content consumption behaviors. Pre-social’s influence, we navigated directly to our favorite content site’s home page and clicked into content from there.

Now, specific content pieces are discovered on our social networks, and this has the effect of driving visitors to specific pieces of content rather than the home page.

New York Times Tweet Leads to Specific Content not the Homepage

Social has changed content consumption dynamics and it has also contributed to changes in how we consume news. Pew Research data shows consumer news consumption has shifted from checking news at regular times to getting news “from time to time”.

When During the Day do You Get the News

The Social Opportunity Is There for the Taking

The data is clear about the opportunity for marketers in social: market size is calculated in the billions and at least when it comes to content consumption, it has fundamentally changed online behaviors. Conversations are happening on social networks and brands need to be a part of them.

Now that we have established the size of the opportunity, let’s return to the paid vs. earned media question.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Less than 1 percent of Twitter clicks go to ads
  • 44 percent of Facebook users will never click on ads
  • You’re more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad
  • Half of online users don’t trust advertisements

The lion’s share of social opportunity is in social’s organic channels. Users are clicking on content links in the organic social activity; they are interfacing with brands in organic, and they can even now make purchases there. Worse yet for those overly invested in paid media, not only is all the activity taking place in organic social media, increasingly, consumers outright don’t trust (or don’t see what’s happening in advertisements.

Take Steps to Join the Conversation

The opportunity to reach your customers on social networks is enormous. What should Marketers who are overly dependent on paid media in social do to break their dependence and reach users where they are more engaged?

Start by taking the following steps.

1. Start With Content

Content and social media are intertwined. To reach consumers on social media start by reviewing your content strategy.

Ask yourself if you are developing content users would find interesting/useful/funny – in other words, engaging. If the answer is no, develop a content plan that will allow you to emphatically answer “yes!” to that question.

And, consider devoting part of your editorial calendar to content that lends itself to social sharing and engagement such as video. Your social strategy will naturally follow a sweet content plan.

2. Figure Out Which Conversations You Should Join

To start to diversify beyond paid media, you’ll need to figure out what conversations your audience is having that you should be a part of organically. Keyword research you have already done for search will help, as will a careful review of question sites like Quora.

3. Get Involved in the Conversations Your Competitors Have Joined

Like competitive analysis in search, which can reveal a great deal about competitors” strategy, careful analysis of the social conversations in which competitors are involved can reveal a great deal about both the what and the how of their social strategies.

It’s a simple way to see what conversations they deem important. The way they engage in these conversations (voice, tactics…) will tell you how they do so. This can spark ideas for how you can start to engage with your audience.


To be sure, paid social media has a place in the marketer’s toolbox. And, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, marketers must evaluate the right mix for themselves based on their vertical, budget, and a host of other factors.

But, given the growing consumer inattention and mistrust of paid media, you would be well served to step back from the day to day to ask yourself if you’re at all uncomfortable with the degree to which you are dependent on paid media on your social networks. If the answer is “yes”, consider starting with some of the strategies outlined above to join the conversations on social networks where they are happening: in organic social media.

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