The most successful earned media campaigns in the Web 2.0 era have had a political flavour and appealed to audiences’ social conscience and political sensibilities: Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and Kony 2012.

I believe Fox News is right. There is a liberal bias in the media overall. The pendulum swings even further to the left if you drill down to social networking sites.

So what can the conservative corporate world take away from recent high-profile social movements, if any?

In practice, marketers planning a campaign will integrate all relevant marketing and communications channels (paid, earned, owned, traditional and social media) into a cohesive strategy. What’s interesting is there is a shift towards allocating more spend on earned media, particularly social media.

Why? Success in the earned media space is valued by marketers because buyers tend to trust recommendations made by friends on Facebook or objective articles written by journalists, more so than ads. This logic aligns with the popular Net Promoter Score research that originated from Harvard Business School early in the millennium.

Earned media has the added benefit of being relatively cheap. It generally costs less to put effort into the creation of buzz around a topic that is newsworthy, compared to buying advertising space.

Let’s use Occupy Wall Street as a case study.

Media channels are multiplying exponentially as more blogs, apps and networking sites are created. Web 2.0 is a moveable feast for marketers.

Putting digital channels to one side for a moment, earned media traditionally is positive media coverage in print media, radio and TV.

One constant in the changing media landscape is the fact that the front page of a city’s leading tabloid newspaper is a good barometer for the zeitgeist. I still think it’s often a better measure than trending topics on Twitter, a medium which is skewed to the left and younger segments. Tabloids are primarily driven by circulation targets, so they feature stories that appeal to the masses.

I was in New York when Occupy started to gain momentum. At the height of its popularity, it made front page news on successive days in the New York Post, with double page spreads in the inside pages.

The stories were naturally against the movement, as one would expect from a News-owned tabloid. (New Yorkers generally read the Post with a healthy dose of irony.) If the Post had wanted to quash the movement, it would have been best to relegate the coverage further inside the paper. But Occupy was hotter than scantily clad page three beauties. The Post milked it for what it was worth.

Occupy offered unusual human interest angles. The Post treated New Yorkers to entertaining profiles on the protesters, ordinary people falling under the spell of a social movement. My favourite was that of a mum gone wild – she had abandoned her family to shack up with a hippie at Zuccotti Park.

Then celebrities got involved – more tabloid fodder. Kanye West and Alec Baldwin joined the ordinary people, ensuring continued media coverage. Not bad for a supposedly disorganised lot. (Despite its decentralised, almost anarchic structure, the movement had a very skilled, coordinated media team who quickly mobilised protesters and produced wide-ranging materials including internal comms at Zuccotti Park.)

At its peak, Occupy garnered 10% of all media coverage in the US. It’s hard to equate the value of that much earned media in terms of paid media. A full page ad in the New York Times or Post has a six-figure price tag. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Occupy was all over the TV news and of course on social networking sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

Most businesses will not reach the dizzying heights of success that social movements have in the earned media space because, in the end, most are pushing a product, not inspirational political beliefs. However, some forward-thinking examples in the corporate world show that you can apply certain techniques that are more commonly used by social movements.

The leading brands are the few that go beyond short-term promotion. These are the businesses that have a raison d’etre beyond turning a profit. They do not seek to be different; they are making a difference. These brands can inspire. Some do take a political stance. They look like social movements. And particularly in a post-GFC world, these are the brands that customers trust.

What can brands do to win when playing the earned media game?

1. Start at the grassroots. Create a community.

PlanBig is an online platform that ultimately promotes Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s community activities, but the banks’ branding remain on the sidelines. The site focuses on its participants, who share their ambitions on the site – everything from charitable activities to personal goals and business projects.They create the bank’s earned media through their project profiles and conversations on the site.

The banks have been supporting local communities for 150 years, so this site is a natural extension of their grassroots commitment.

2. Be part of a social movement.

Last year, Credit Agricole, a social media innovator in the banking sector, launched Kam&Leo, which focuses on distributing socially responsible investment funds. Kam&Leo’s home page has prominent links to its social networking pages, encouraging visitors to join its community of likeminded investors.

Kam&Leo follows the launch of Credit Agricole’s virtual bank TooKam.com, which is probably the first bank to be completely integrated to social media. TooKam’s corporate social responsibility activities are very prominent on its social networking sites.

Credit Agricole has earned glowing media coverage because of these two initiatives.

3. Take a human interest angle.

NAB dared to be different from the others in the Big Four with a well-staged breakup. It started with a tweet that seemed to have been mistakenly sent from the @nab Twitter account. Why would NAB be tweeting about hurting someone’s feelings?

Then came a full-fledged integrated marketing and communications campaign which earned NAB positive media coverage on traditional and digital channels. Within days, NAB became the number one trending topic on Twitter across the country. Follow-up stunts such as distributing tissues outside of an ANZ branch kept the buzz going, along with paid media such as full-page ads in newspapers.

4. Deliver on your promise. Create meaningful change.

US-based Ally Bank claims to have an ‘always on’ marketing mentality. It backs up this claim with live customer service 24/7, rare in banking. What’s more, it doesn’t charge ATM fees, and will reimburse ATM fees charged by other banks. Its social media sites are full of praise which seems to genuinely come from engaged, satisfied customers. So when the bank advertises on TV, radio, print, digital media and billboards, showcasing its commitment to customer-friendly products and services, the message is believable.

An average of 1500 pieces of content are published monthly on Ally Bank’s social media channels. It’s called earned media for a reason. Positive coverage in newspapers and Facebook is earned after building relationships with influential journalists and bloggers, having online conversations with customers around the clock, and executing a well thought out strategy.

In May Ally Bank’s parent company began the process of severing itself from substantial litigation through a major restructure that includes its troubled mortgage subsidiary filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The impact on the Ally brand remains to be seen – the restructure brings to the surface unresolved GFC-related issues and risks. Ally has been proactive with damage control, and has been on message about doing what’s best for US taxpayers. It goes to show that earning good PR is not an exact science. Another case in point is the momentary backlash against Kony 2012. Any earned media strategy needs to include a contingency plan.

 

Caroline Regidor
BY Caroline Regidor ON 2 July 2012
Caroline Regidor is managing director of First Degree PR. Caroline has over a decade's experience working within the media industry and providing comms advice to leading corporates such as the Commonwealth Bank, Colonial First State, Baulderstone (part of the Lend Lease Group) and Gadens Lawyers.