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Technology is now enabling brands to scale engagement by re-igniting consumer interest and trust through their paid media.  Approached thoughtfully, this fuels an opportunity to extend engagement by enabling and encouraging social sharing and other earned activity.

In the same way that offering content to an audience through paid media publishing drives engagement, earned media depends on friends sharing something they find interesting, clever, or valuable.

This prompts those friends to share it with their friends, and so on, moving outward in ever-expanding circles across networks, like ripples across a pond. In both cases, success does not happen overnight, and most often not by accident.

I often think about what social marketing expert Ted Rubin said about the virality of a message: if it were like a fire, then given the choice, you'd want to place it in an easy-to-catch environment – like a dry forest on a windy day.  

For the last two years, I’ve seen firsthand that the online landscape can be like a bone-dry forest primed for a good spark. But too often, I’ve also seen advertisers think they can start a forest fire with flint and a prayer.

In my mind, a well thought out strategy is essential for creating that good spark, and execution is how you keep feeding the flame. The strategy employed must be strong enough to get things going – it must take into consideration how people are likely to interact with a brand’s content and what is considered sharable.

Because the vast majority of viral online events happen as a result of a serendipitous confluence of factors such as the news of the day, pop culture trends and the web zeitgeist (and of course cuteness), “planned virality” is an oxymoron. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take specific steps to significantly increase the odds that your brand, product, or message will generate earned media and engagement. And yes, that often leads to sales.

Therefore, to make something a candidate for virality, you need a message or offer that possesses one or more of these factors. Beyond that, how do you stoke earned media?

It isn't initially about choosing the right platform or medium. That comes later. It’s more about starting with a clear, measurable objective – a true end point – then plotting a course that leverages the power of social behavior, which in turn can be amplified using the right platform and medium.

One tried and true approach is pretty simple: produce a well-targeted offer that includes incentives that allow friends to take action to their mutual benefit. Then comes the execution in terms of both platform and channel selection.

Just like the strategy piece emphasizes a social spark, the execution piece needs to include a well thought paid media execution in order to achieve greater scale in earned media. Paid media helps spread the message in obvious ways (e.g. display ads targeted to the right audience) and gives the small flames a place to grow into big fires in earned media – the kind that are hard to put out once started.

So how are you going to go about igniting earned media? Will you try the lighting in a bottle approach? Or will you work backwards from a measurable objective, using the right combination of strategy, medium and platform to ensure your success?


Todd Parsons is the Founder and CEO at Aditive.

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