Is earned media spent? (Column)

Social media pay-to-play, internet shrinkage and eroding net neutrality are eroding the power of the share

With content withering on the social vine, marketers need a renewed push on paid distribution

Patrick Thoburn is co-founder of Matchstick Inc. in Toronto

Earned media for brands has had a great run these past few years.

Viral promotions have created instant audiences on Facebook. Stream stories published by social media users have carried brand content across platforms. PR has effortlessly pushed messages out of traditional media into blogs and communities. With its seemingly infinite scale, the “share” has become digital marketing’s holy grail.

However, a combination of social media pay-to-play, internet shrinkage and eroding net neutrality are effectively gating content and eroding the power of the share. Audiences can’t share content they don’t see, and what they don’t see is increasing.

Social media pay-to-play

Today, as has been well-documented elsewhere, brand content is reaching audiences on social platforms with decreasing efficiency. The latest estimates that brands on Facebook reach just 1% their audiences organically is disheartening to those who invested to acquire audiences and are now learning that they were only renting.

Pay-to-play is the new reality in social. Without paid promotion, most content withers on the social vine. The average tweet is said to live for just 18 minutes, after which it expires unless it re-enters the stream via promotion or a share. Facebook and Twitter are not alone in this, and furthermore, who can blame them? They are public media companies, with advertising revenue growth targets to meet and valuable, engaged audiences.

Audience consolidation

As it matures, the internet is shrinking. The Cluetrain Manifesto forecasts that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy,” but consolidation of audiences among just a handful of powerful internet players is increasing. Google, Facebook and Yahoo now control the greatest share of web traffic. By some estimates, Google alone is responsible for more than 40%. In the U.S., Facebook alone surpasses the reach of the four major television broadcast networks. The internet is becoming less a vast universe comprised of a thousand points of light, and more a confined system of a handful of major planets. Brands that don’t want to pay to play with the major digital media companies have little alternative in order to message at scale.

Net neutrality

Internet service providers in the U.S. have recently been given license to charge media companies for premium bandwidth, a cost that surely will be passed back to advertisers in the future. The resulting erosion in “net neutrality” (a term coined by the Canadian academic Tim Wu) will make it harder for internet users to access some content as easily other content. Media companies that can or are willing to pay for an internet fast lane will be able to drive visitors to their content. This emerging trend is likely to create a smaller internet defined by the ISPs, where the winners get seen and the losers recede into the background.

What brands must do

For marketers, the path forward may feel like familiar territory. A renewed emphasis on paid distribution will be necessary, or we run the risk of no one seeing the content we publish.

Native advertising is a promising innovation that will reach audiences with shareable brand content. BuzzFeed and others have proven the model’s efficacy, though it remains to be seen how audiences of more traditional media brands will respond.

The old division of labour between content creation and amplification is blurring, and ensuring social digital content producers and publishers are working in close convergence with media planners will be essential to ensure that digital brand content is promoted responsively and efficiently.

Emerging features like the erosion of net neutrality must be closely monitored, as they will reshape the landscape further.

The power of digital earned media has been diminished by a collision of factors — maturing social media platforms, internet traffic consolidation, and impending net non-neutrality. To respond, marketers must capitalize on new paid media offerings like native advertising that heighten the possibility of audience sharing. Marketers must also facilitate greater agency cooperation. The free and easy ‘share’ may be in the past, but it is still worth striving for, and with new strategies can still be achieved.

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