What is paid media? Defining the essential distribution channel for your brand marketing strategy

Ghost Works brand journalism

This article is the second in our series on defining the terms of content marketing. First, we covered owned media, the most important channel in a brand marketing strategy. Next up: paid media.

 What is ‘paid media?’

Paid media is spending money on platforms to distribute marketing messages, promotions, and other branded content. An investment in content distribution is the next stop after content creation. Except in the rarest cases, just creating the content isn’t enough. A comprehensive distribution strategy is necessary to get this content out into the world. Platforms are reducing organic reach, making it nearly impossible to get enough traction on a piece of content without some form of paid amplification.

The transition to pay-to-play platforms

Organic reach used to be much easier on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The platform sprints and devised to provide user attention to brands, so the brands got used to the power of the platform. Once the platforms became deeply ingrained in the global conversation, organic reach dropped in favor of paid placements. This trend continues, with organic reach no longer guaranteed.

Today, outside of owned media channels, paid placements are the only way for brands to have some control over which audiences see their messages.

Strategies for paid media

There’re three ways to leverage paid media online, each of which leverage another company’s audience to bring attention to your brand: sponsored content, social media ads, and search ads. We’re not including public relations or influencer marketing here, as there’s not a direct correlation between the money spent and results. Paid media should have robust analytics supporting each initiative.

Sponsored content. Paying a publisher to distribute your content has become quite popular in the past two years. As publishers seek to offset decline advertising revenue, new outlets for content distribution have emerged. For a price, most publishers will share branded content with their audience. Price varies tremendously, depending on audience size as well as audience demographics. Publishers have become quite sophisticated in audience segmentation so that messages can be hyper-targeted to specific demographics. The greater the segmentation, the more valuable the content placement.

There’s a caveat when it comes to sponsored content: Many publishers will only distribute brand journalism that has been created by their own internal studios. These in-house content studios approach commercial content with the editorial familiarity of the publisher’s brand. There’s also another benefit: the internal content studio has a closer take on the types of content that resonate with the publisher’s audience, including which mediums and topics get the most engagement. You’ll have to decide whether these insights are worth the markup these studios charge when compared to independent agencies or freelancers — in our experience, working with an internal content studio will cost at least 20% — and up to 50% — more than working with independent agencies or freelancers.

When considering whether to go with a publisher’s content studio, an independent agency, or a mix of freelancers, think first of your budget and then of your audience. If your budget can support it, a publisher’s content studio offers both content creation and distribution. This is handy but also limits your distribution somewhat — you may not have enough money left to distribute elsewhere. Independent agencies can provide a full-service approach that places content in a variety of channels — but have more overhead. A mix of freelancers takes a lot of management time but can provide the greatest value, as well as provide more specialization since you can select the best freelancers for the job. When making the next budget, we recommend trying out the options to see what works best for your organization. You may want to make the decision on a per project basis or stick with what works over time.

Social media ads. As we saw above, social media is mostly pay-to-play. While this is unfortunate for those who have invested a lot of resources in developing a large community, the upside is that content amplification becomes much easier. You just have to pay for it. These platforms have simplified targeting so that each message reaches the segment of your audience most interested in that message.

Budgeting for this can be tricky, as the average cost per click shifts every quarter depending on commercial interest. You also have to decide — or better yet, experiment — on how to bid on your audiences. For most content amplification opportunities, we recommend cost-per-click versus cost-per-impression. The goal is to bring your existing audience to your content, thus increasing the content’s impact through more engagement. Take time to experiment: test how different combinations of ad formats, targeting, and ad creative impact your costs and engagement rates.

When investing in social media ads, we recommend taking advantage of custom audiences. Most platforms allow you to upload emails and contact information that can then be used to target existing audiences on these platforms. Whenever there is an opportunity to craft unique audience segments, take it. Yes, there’s some time investment that seems intimidating at first. Even so, it’s really the only way to see a consistent and repeatable return on the investment in social media advertising.

Search ads. Search doesn’t work for every brand. Since search is a place where consumers express specific interest, some brands might not feel that the investment is worth it. Even so, we recommend experimenting with the power of search to drive traffic to blog articles, white papers, and existing branded content. This can be an unusual approach in a brand marketing effort, as its usually the product marketers that rely on paid search. Nonetheless, many brand marketers overlook the power of targeting specific questions on search engines. If you can identify 3 to 5 common questions related to your brand’s industry that prospects often ask, Then you should create content around these questions — and send traffic to them via paid search.

If you’re not confident that your brand is showing up at the top result for a branded search, you may want to purchase related search terms. Be careful though: This can end up costing a lot of money with little result. We recommend testing a period with these branded search term ads to benchmark against a period without. Then you can be sure that you’re investing you’re limited paid media dollars effectively.

For display ads, be sure to include graphics that are attractive and appropriate to the targeted audience. By honing in on what works for each of your audience’s segments, you’ll save money and you’ll reduce the risk of alienating your audience through serving irrelevant creative.

“Marketing used to be a creative challenge but it’s a data challenge now.”

Provocative words from HSBC’s former head of marketing in EMEA Philip Mehl. While creativity — and intelligence — still hold away, data is the third pillar of a smart brand marketing strategy. Data is especially influential across all of your paid media strategies, as clever use of data lowers cost, increases relevance, and generally improves results. This is especially true when the focus is on segment-level conversion rates. Now if only there were an extra hour in the day…