Bewley Merrett

Some might believe that earned media did not exist before the rise of social media channels such as Facebook or Tencent. However, the notion of brands using media to earn their consumers’ trust and respect is really not new at all. People have been talking about brands for as long as those products have existed! Admittedly, it has always been difficult for marketers to manage those conversations and ensure that the brand is always mentioned in a positive light, while the reality is that we often tell others about a product when we have had a negative experience with it. The management of brand stories developed into a full discipline, public relations, which began its growth about the same time as paid media did, in the early 20th century.

Today, brands rely much more on the digital conversations than those that occur in person and face to face. Thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok, every time a person likes a brand, shares content about it with their friends, sends a tweet, or pins it to their favorites, the marketer can not only count those measures but also monitor if those actions lead to a future sale. Because of the reliance of marketing influencers on social channels, many consider that they are under the earned media umbrella.

Despite the fact that brands look to social media to earn consumers’ appreciation, the reality is that nearly three-quarters of conversations about brands still happen face to face. That is why many companies are interested in directing their ad messages to opinion leaders, hoping that if those people have a positive view about their brands, they will in turn talk to their friends and acquaintances and convince them to adopt the same affirmative opinions toward the brand. Offline influencers are estimated to represent about 10 percent of all consumers, but are much more likely to talk to friends and family about their opinions (and brands).

Small business or entrepreneurial use of influencers is largely off the radar due to the fact that much of it is unpaid. A small business might contact others on LinkedIn and ask for a repost from someone with a large following or a comment from someone on Facebook. The other approach frequently employed is to provide samples in the hope of a good word.

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The technical rise of influencer marketing must be in part associated with the possibility and attractiveness of online information cascades. These occur when something such as information or an image is passed along. In social media, the interest is more technically on the number of new participants over time. This is of interest to marketers who seek new customers. Work on cascades is, however, difficult to predict, and guidance from studying them suggests a strategy of having several starting points for a cascade. Interestingly, from a strategy perspective, researchers suggest that hiring an expensive influencer with a large following may be a more costly, and potentially less effective strategy, than hiring several ordinary influencers that hold an average or less than average influence.