Did you click on this article because of the adorable puppy picture? Earned social media depends on understanding what captures and holds the attention of both members and advocates in your social networks. My own network is pretty fond of puppies, so please: share away, folks.

Finding influencers is the first step in any good brand advocacy program; engaging them enough to be advocates so to grab the brass ring of earned social media is the second step.  My cohort, Marc Cowlin, just wrote a piece on the difference between brand ambassadors and a brand advocates (the short version: ambassadors are compensated, advocates are organic), and the advocates are the folks that we in social media marketing can find and target by creating compelling content that speaks to them.  In the past 18 months or so, we’ve come to call this “content marketing.”

Content marketing is a growing field not only in marketing circles, but as a democratic process enabled by the features and functions on our personal social networks.  As marketers, being successful with our content will both increasingly rely on and enable brand advocacy.  This article will explain how – and why it matters.

The Law of Diminishing Returns: Paid vs. Earned Media

In taking an editorial pass of a blog post with a colleague one day, we got to talking about the law of diminishing returns in paid media.  She, being an MBA with a pretty incredible knowledge of economic theory paired with a great facility for charts and graphs, drew me a nice graph on the board illustrating this.  This was a nice, relatively simple graph that would make sense to most people.

I, unfortunately, am not one of those people.  They say that women are visual learners, but I’m a right-brained creative who has trouble with the sorts of data visualizations most commonly associated with business analytics, and I (somewhat consequently) don’t have an MBA.  This is why I enjoy infographic marketing so much: tell me a data-driven story with a pretty picture and some words, and I’m with you.

My colleague, realizing that I was more attuned to the nice scheme of the three trendlines (ooh – a rainbow!) than putting together what they were telling me, translated.  She explained that, in paid media, your returns are ever diminishing: you pay for placement, but throwing more money at that placement is going to become less effective the more you spend, and eventually it’ll raise the average cost the piece of content.  By contrast, in traditional earned media (e.g. an article written about you in the newspaper), the returns are increasing.  More earns actually lowers the cost of the content you created.

Social Networks Enable Attuned, Viral Word-of-Mouth & Earned Social Media

Even more so than earned traditional media, the increasing return of earned social media is supercharged due to the exponential viral potential of that piece of content.  Social media is a channel on which things can “go viral,” both quickly and/or unexpectedly.  Call it word-of-mouth, going viral, or engagement, it all means the same thing: content gets shared with one’s social network, and the payoff is earned social media.

Social media is dependent upon social networks, and those networks are made up of people who are uniquely attuned to the other people in their social networks.  That attunement is what makes the social share so powerful.  While the Wall Street Journal can give you a community targeted by demographics, your Facebook friends are paying attention because they know you, and you’ve built up a level of trust with them.  If your Facebook friends and Twitter following have come to rely on you for sharing interesting content, you’re more than an online influencer.

You are a media outlet.  You’re just not selling ad space.  (Yet.)

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A typical sales funnel stops at the purchase, but an ideal customer journey ends in advocacy. Relationship marketing disciplines typically touch customers at the top and bottom of this funnel.

Content Marketing Leads to Brand Advocacy Leads to Earned Social Media

The democratization of content marketing has led to a schism between traditional and social media in distribution, but a partnership in content: those of us who have cancelled network television and prefer Spotify to the FM dial might actually find out about major world events from our social networks, and this is very often a share off a traditional media source.  The power of word-of-mouth to inform us of the events happening in the world once only accessed by our local news stations or a phone call is increasing as our social networks cater to creating online influencers, and this is why finding influential brand advocates is so important.

As social media increases in its influence to inform and engage us, earning it becomes more important and more difficult for brands.  The good news is that the more people share your content, the more people are pushed into the top of your brand awareness funnel, and – MBA or no – even I can understand that the more of anything dumped into the big end of a funnel means that more comes out the small end.  I even had one drawn by my awesome designer to illustrate it, for those of you who enjoy such visualizations.

On Social Media?  You’re a Content Marketer.

Content marketing really isn’t so different than what you’re already doing on your own Facebook page: you figure out what your friends like by throwing stuff out there and seeing what resonates.  In my case, pictures of my toddler dressing up my pit bulls in bows and other girly festoonery is always a winner in terms of closed-network engagement (on-page comments and likes), but articles about social media, news and politics written both by me and others are what get the shares.

That last is most likely because sharing a friend’s pic of her kid breaks basic etiquette.  These pictures are on a closed network; that’s a no-no.  But as a brand you don’t have that problem, so understanding not just what your online community appreciates as a whole, but what the influencers in that community appreciate as people, is crucial when you’re throwing a piece of content out there and want the payoff of earned social media.

The people who share, comment and otherwise engage their online communities personally are the advocates whose endorsement of your brand has the power to take your content viral, to millions of people much more attuned to pay attention to it than they are to notice a billboard on the freeway.  We intentionally look at the Facebook activity feed, and we follow people on Twitter who give us the sort of information we want.

As consumers we have, already, chosen our media outlets on our social networks: they take the shape of friends, colleagues and celebrities whose curation skills we trust to entertain or inform us.  As brands, our job is simply to make sure that we put the right content in the hands of the right people.  Remember, earned social media doesn’t have a diminishing returns problem: quite the opposite.  Yes, it takes work, the same way that walking into a party full of strangers and making a good impression is work.  But it’s work worth doing.

Or, as my colleague so nicely put it:

“Earned media is earned: you don’t pay for it, but it’s not free.”

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