Owned media: the underappreciated asset


By Tom Martin, Executive in Residence

The College of Charleston


By some estimates, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign received the equivalent of $1 billion in paid advertising exposure through his extensive free media coverage during the election season. By any measure, that’s a staggering sum. What’s also staggering is the number of positive media impressions that most companies, organizations and causes fail to receive every year. How large is that number? Hundreds of positive impressions? Thousands? Guess again. Millions of media impressions go wasted each year. Millions. Yet the solution to redeeming this valuable asset is relatively simple. It is called “owned media” and it is virtually free for the asking. So why aren’t more organizations taking advantage of it? Because many don’t even realize it exists.


Let’s start with some definitions. Until fairly recently the world of media was typically divided into two broad areas: earned and paid. Earned media meant exposure that an organization achieved through news coverage, in traditional broadcast and print media. Earned media was what Trump used so effectively to get free exposure.


Paid media, by contrast, is exposure that is purchased, such as traditional advertising, direct mail, and sponsorships. It used to be a pretty straightforward system, in which advertising agencies prepared campaigns for companies and causes and purchased the space to deploy them. Public relations agencies and in-house communication departments developed relationships with journalists, issued press releases and staged events to garner news coverage on television, and in newspapers and magazines.


But the game has changed. A third, potentially much more powerful, channel has emerged: owned media. Owned media simply means exposure that is gained through an organization’s own channels, such as its website, mobile apps and social media channels like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The owned media category has taken off in recent years with the meteoric rise of social media. Yet this category is underappreciated and underutilized by many companies, nonprofits, municipalities and other organizations.


Why is owned media so powerful? I like to describe it as the “rule of 1,000.” I teach part-time at the College of Charleston so let’s take the college as an example. The College of Charleston has roughly 11,000 students. That’s an impressive number, but the universe of potential recipients of owned media messages escalates quickly. First, add in the staff and faculty of the college, that’s about 1,700. Now add in an important group, the parents of current students, another 22,000. How about alumni? About 2,500 students graduate each year and that adds up quickly. But to be conservative let’s just add 50,000, since it’s hard to keep track of some of them. That puts the number of people who have a vested interest in the college at 84,700.


Now here’s where it gets interesting. Our individual social networks have grown rapidly. When you add up your own Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn connections, and others in your social media channels, the number for most people is impressive. Mine easily tops 1,000 and for my students and most people under age 30 it’s even higher. Take that 84,700 number and multiply it by 1,000 and you arrive at a potential owned media audience for the College of Charleston of 84,700,000! There are undoubtedly plenty of duplicates among those lists and many people don’t have 1,000 connections, but even if you discount that number by half you still have millions of potential recipients for relevant content.


Which begs the question, how do you maximize the impact of all of this owned media? The best owned media campaigns feature content that is compelling, easily understood, funny (or at least witty), and, most of all, painless to pass along. Think about the viral videos that have taken off lately, from puppies talking to their toys to babbling babies speaking their own language. They are usually short, humorous, endearing or provocative. That’s tougher for a company, brand or cause to replicate. But the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge proved that there’s nothing like a simple idea to sweep the country and raise millions.


Organizations must start by recognizing the opportunity. The channels are already there, just waiting to be used more effectively. Developing content starts with setting measurable objectives of what you want to accomplish. You may want to raise awareness, for example, but you need to understand why that matters. Are you seeking new customers or members? Or you trying to raise money for a cause? Are you launching a new product or service?


Once you define your objectives and establish clear pathways on your social media channels, the challenge is to develop content on a consistent basis that is shareable, easily digested, and most of all compelling. Every organization, from a college founded in 1770 to a small business founded last month, has plenty of stories to tell. The trick is having the commitment to tell those stories on an ongoing basis and the enthusiasm to share them with the growing universe of people in your network. The opportunity is truly endless.