Content Marketing

Paid vs Owned vs Earned Media | Key Differences Plus Why They’re Crucial For Your Business

Itai Elizur October 26th, 2021

Updated on January 8th, 2022

Startup marketing isn’t what it used to be a decade ago.

The “If you build it, they’ll come” approach never worked even in those days, but today’s startups need to adopt a multi-dimensional marketing approach to stand a chance.

This is where paid, owned, and earned media come in.

As a startup marketer, you might be familiar with these terms. But what do they mean, and how can you build a comprehensive marketing strategy using these diverse approaches?

This is what we’ll discuss in this article.

Let’s dive in.

1. What Is Paid Media?

As the name suggests, paid media is any brand awareness or marketing campaign where you pay a third-party platform (with a large audience) to feature your product.

Television ads, social media ads, search engine marketing, influencer marketing, etc., are all different forms of paid media with various pros and cons.

For example, Facebook ads are popular among startups because they blend with a user’s timeline content and provide detailed audience targeting features.

Similarly, influencer marketing works because consumers trust the influencer promoting your brand.

Here’s an excellent example of Instagram influencer marketing.


The Content Marketing Institute surveyed 750+ tech companies in the US and found that 72% of them have allocated a significant portion of their marketing budgets for paid media campaigns.

The study also found that 83% of brands invested in social media advertising (Facebook ads in particular). hile 63% also invested in search engine marketing (mainly Google PPC Ads.)


Paid media campaigns should be a crucial part of your marketing mix because they help you increase brand awareness and generate leads for your business.

However, paid media has two main limitations.

  • Most paid media types only work as long as you continue to spend money. 
  • Consumers don’t trust ads as they used to.

The solution to both these problems lies in combining paid media with owned and earned media strategies (I’ll shortly explain how to do it.)

2. What Is Owned Media?

Owned media includes the platforms where you own the audience and control the messaging. You don’t need anyone’s permission or spend any money to use owned media platforms.

Your brand’s website, blog, and email lists (built from scratch) are examples of owned media platforms.

Similarly, your brand’s social media accounts such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. are also owned media. You control the content on them despite not actually owning the platform.

For example, let’s take a look at Asana, a leading project management tool. Asana has nearly 30K subscribers on their YouTube channel. They regularly publish product tutorials, how-tos, interviews, and other useful content that answers their audience’s questions.


Buffer, a popular social media scheduling app, is another excellent example. They use blog content to build and grow a startup from scratch.


They grew from $0 to $15M ARR in 10 years. This is primarily due to the fantastic content that established them as the go-to resource for everything in the social media and digital marketing niche.

Even today, it’s their biggest traffic and lead generation source.

Owned media platforms are your brand’s biggest marketing assets because this is where you build and nurture the relationship with your audience, offer free value to strengthen your brand image and convert visitors into customers and brand loyalists.

Research shows that brands use content marketing to achieve various objectives like brand awareness, traffic generation, lead generation, growing a subscriber base, etc.


However, owned media strategies do not produce instant results like paid media. In fact, brands need to work on building and growing owned media assets consistently for months before seeing any results.

Using paid media can accelerate your owned media growth. But sustaining it for long is hard for cash-strapped startups and small businesses.

This is where earned media comes in to make things easier.

If you get your owned media strategy right, you can leverage it to build earned media assets that establish your credibility, drive referrals, and accelerate your company’s growth.

3. What Is Earned Media?

Earned media is when independent publications, websites, influencers, consumers, or journalists positively mention your brand in their blog content, social media posts, articles, videos, or news publications without charging for it.

It acts as social proof of your product quality. It also significantly enhances your brand’s credibility resulting in more referral traffic, leads, and customers.

Think of it as positive PR without paying for it (like this article about Shopify.)


But here’s the million-dollar question – what makes a random journalist, content creator, or media company voluntarily cover your brand’s story?

It happens when you create win-win scenarios.

What does that mean? Well, nobody wants to give your brand free press. They don’t care about you or your product.

But when your brand or a story associated with it (a case study, a blog post, a new research report, etc.) makes their content more credible, they happily feature it for free.

That’s a win-win, right? You get free press, and the publication gets a credible source to back their arguments.

For example, GetResponse regularly publishes email marketing studies that third-party blogs mention to make their content credible.


But creating high-quality owned media assets (e.g., blog, email list, etc.) is not enough to build earned media assets.

You also need to promote your content using SEO, social media, and outreach to get it in front of your target publications and journalists to get their attention.

The Three Crucial Earned Media Types For Startups

As specialists in helping brands build earned media assets, we can broadly divide our earned media marketing activities into three categories.

Public Relations

PR involves various activities to spread the word about your brand to your target journalists and publications. 

This includes writing persuasive press releases with newsworthy angles that journalists could pick up for their stories.

Similarly, getting your C-suite executives interviewed or quoted by leading industry publications to build your brand’s credibility is another important aspect of PR campaigns.

Here are a couple of articles about Mailchimp’s CEO in two leading startup publications.

Remember, such coverage doesn’t happen by coincidence.



Since so many startups are competing for the media limelight these days, you need to build connections with relevant journalists and publications to get featured in the right stories.

But you don’t need to build these connections yourself. This is where our network of journalists and influencers can prove invaluable for your brand. 

Content Marketing

I briefly discussed content marketing in the owned media section earlier. But content marketing for earned media works differently.

Instead of publishing content on your site, we aim to get your brand featured in relevant articles on high-traffic websites.

In SaaS content marketing, we usually target list posts, product comparisons, reviews, and how-to’s in various top-ranked sites in your target niche.

For example, the top-ranking article for “Canva Alternatives” lists 21 different tools. If you’re a design SaaS company like Canva, you’d want your name to be featured in this list.


Similarly, any web hosting company would love to be featured in this article on starting a website by PC Mag.


Our primary goal is to mention your brand in high-traffic articles, even if it’s without a backlink (a backlink is a huge plus, of course.)

Because even getting mentioned in popular articles drive thousands of visitors to your site and immensely improves your brand awareness.

SEO (High-Authority Baclinks)

While getting backlinks isn’t our primary goal in earned media content marketing, they’re still crucial for your overall marketing strategy.

This is why we handle it separately when developing an earned media strategy for our clients.

Backlinks are the number one Google search ranking factor along with high-quality content (owned media.)

A study by Backlinko found a direct relationship between unique backlinks and search rankings.


To get backlinks, you need two things.

  • High-quality content that deserves links (aka owned media)
  • Persuasive email outreach

Once you create great content on your site, you need to identify and approach the right publications that would gladly link to you.

You might notice that the efforts entailed in getting backlinks are similar to those in getting PR. We actually wrote a blog post specifically about how you can combine SEO and PR into a bigger earned media strategy.

Getting backlinks involves various link-building strategies that our SEO experts routinely use for different brands. But, of course, you’d also need connections with the right content creators, bloggers, website owners, editors, and media companies to get links.

You can build these connections yourself, but it requires dedication and a lot of time.

Alternately, you can leverage our network of content creators who already have access to some of the world’s most influential and high-authority sites.

Paid, owned, and earned media are closely connected with each other, and you can’t properly execute one of them while ignoring the others.

This is why a holistic marketing approach is the only way forward for your startup.

Start by building owned media assets by publishing world-class content on your blog, social media channels and building your email list.

Along the way, use paid media channels to drive traffic to your owned media assets and convert it into subscribers and leads.

And finally, spread the word about your brand using press releases, link building, and strategic brand placements to develop earned media assets that build your credibility and keep driving traffic for years to come.