Achieving a balance between paid, owned and earned media strategies is an ever-evolving skill. Every time you think you’ve mastered it, audience preferences change. The balance shifts again.

Most communications professionals would say we’re in the midst of a major shift in media mix effectiveness. As consumers turn to social media for everything from education to entertainment and more, the channel’s role in a successful integrated marketing strategy expands.

Now, social strategies apply to more than just owned media. In fact, they can and should play a role in all three media buckets. In this article, we’re sharing how social media can take every aspect of your integrated communications strategy to the next level. Plus, we’ll give you the metrics you need to prove it.

Defining paid, owned and earned media

Before we get into where social fits in your paid, owned and earned media strategies, let’s do some level setting. Use this section as a cheat sheet to reference while rethinking the role of social media in your integrated communication efforts.

What is paid media?

Think of it this way: if you paid for the placement, it probably falls under paid media.

A Google paid search listing for Sprout Social.

When it comes to paid, you pay for both social media ad space and reach. These two elements combined help communications professionals be highly intentional about who they’re reaching and how. Whether you’re targeting a search ad around brand keywords or running a print ad in a popular trade publication, paid media gives brands more control over how they reach new audiences.

Paid media examples

  • Print, radio and TV ads
  • Paid search
  • Display advertising
  • Paid social
  • Sponsored content

What is owned media?

Owned media is the content that you create and distribute on channels you control.

Owned media is essentially free to publish. It also gives you full control over your brand message, from planning to launch and beyond. The only downside is that growing an audience for an owned media channel takes both time and effort. Owned strategies are a long game that pay off in reach and flexibility.

Owned media examples

  • Your website
  • Blog properties
  • Social channels
  • Email marketing campaigns

What is earned media?

Earned media is any external promotion that your brand earns organically.

Earned media coverage of Sprout Social's best time to post data.

Unlike paid or owned media, you can’t control the outcomes of your earned media strategy. You can pitch journalists and request reviews from customers but at the end of the day, whether or not they respond is up to them.

Earned media examples

  • Media coverage
  • Reviews
  • Search engine results
  • Social media shout outs

Where social media fits into the paid, earned and owned media mix

Social’s most obvious role in an integrated communications strategy falls under owned media. As you think through how social media can impact both earned and paid media strategies, try to expand your view of the channel beyond your own handles. That’s where its full potential lies.

Social and owned media

Social doesn’t just amplify your communications strategy. When used creatively, it can transform your entire process.

Many brands realized this throughout 2020, including the NAACP. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they took a traditional approach to PR: share a pitch, follow up, rinse, repeat.

A Timeline of the traditional public relations cycle: draft a press release, release it to a news wire, pitch to journalists, follow up, repeat.

In the wake of multiple crises, they began experimenting with what they called “social media relations”. Instead of relying on placements in digital or print media, they began making statements directly from their Twitter account. This approach allowed them to act faster and in a more distinct voice, which clearly resonated with their audience.

A chart showing the NAACP's follower growth by year. In between 2019 and 2022, they more than doubled their followings on Twitter, Instagram and Youtube

Brands no longer have to go through third parties to reach a wide audience. You can attract the exact audience you want on social, then use that owned channel to broadcast the messages that matter most for your brand.

Social and paid media

Paid social is a brand awareness powerhouse.

We all know paid ads guarantee reach through advanced targeting features you can’t get from traditional advertising. Plus, in-network brand survey tools provide timely insights on how people are responding to your awareness efforts.

Beyond that, paid partnerships with creators and influencers can drive a measurable return on investment. Collaborating with someone who shares your brand values can get your business in front of new eyes through a friendly face.

Social and earned media

Back in the day, communications professionals had to go through media publications to reach a wide audience. Now, creators and influencers have audiences that are comparable to even some of the largest magazines, and they’re eager to talk about the things they’re loving.


testing the bissell little green machine pt.2 #fyp #foryou #bissell #cleaning

♬ Aesthetic – Xilo

Take Bissell’s Little Green Machine for example. The classic carpet cleaner has been on the market for more than 20 years, beloved by a niche but loyal audience. Then, in 2021, #CleanTok elevated the product to explosive fame. The hashtag #LittleGreenMachine currently has over 73 million views and sales of the product have more than doubled in a year.

Creators are building audiences that rival traditional media outlets and brands need to take note. Adding aligned creators to your public relations distribution processes can help your brand get in front of a more engaged, brand-receptive audience.

How to measure paid, owned and earned media performance

Key performance indicators largely depend on the tactics at play. That said, there are overarching trends on what to look for in each media bucket. Here are some reporting tips, plus sample metrics you can use to measure performance:

A venn diagram depicting the traditional digital marketing mix of paid, earned and owned media. Photo credit: Codesign

Measuring paid media performance

Tracking paid efforts typically comes down to measuring ROI. On digital channels, this is a straightforward process. When it comes to traditional advertising methods, things are up for interpretation.

You can’t meaningfully track how many people saw a print ad or a billboard beyond estimations. One way to get around this is to include a short link or hashtag alongside your IRL advertising efforts. This can give you a more solid ground to report on.

Pro tip: If you use a branded hashtag campaign in print advertisements, you can use Sprout to track how the hashtag is driving engagement across social.

Outbound hashtag performance data found in Sprout Social's Instagram Business Profiles Report.

Metrics for tracking paid media performance

  • Cost per click
  • Cost per impression
  • Conversion rate
  • Customer acquisition cost

Measuring owned media performance

Measuring owned media largely depends on the channel you’re reporting on. For example, there are dozens of social media metrics you can track. However, if you want to measure how performance is trending over time, rely on benchmarking.

You can benchmark against your industry and direct competitors but if you want to set more meaningful goals, benchmark against your own historical performance. Comparing your month-over-month performance will provide the most meaningful insight on how you’re tracking toward goals.

Metrics for tracking owned media performance

  • Website: Traffic, new users, bounce rate, search rank
  • Email: Open rate, clickthrough rate, bounce rate
  • Social: Audience growth, engagement rate, impressions, reach

Measuring earned media performance

The goal of earned media is to ensure sentiment around your brand is positive. You can monitor this holistically using a sentiment analysis tool or you can break it down by source.

For example, you can use a review management tool, like Sprout, to monitor your performance on review sites like Glassdoor, Google My Business, TripAdvisor or Yelp. If your goal is to build your reputation online across these platforms, decide on the average star rating you’d like to reach. Then, create a filter that shows all ratings below that goal. You’ll get meaningful insights on what’s going well and where there’s room to improve.

A screen recording demoing Sprout Social's review management features.

Alternatively, if your goal is to secure media placements, try setting a goal based on how many placements you’d like to earn per quarter. You can even adjust this goal to plan for seasonality by setting a higher placement goal during peak months for your industry and a lower one when things tend to slow down.

Metrics for tracking earned media performance

  • Placements in target outlets
  • Sentiment data
  • Hashtag growth
  • Media impressions
  • Review site averages

Let social support your entire media mix

You’d be amazed at how your earned and paid media strategies can thrive once you let social out of the owned media box. Rethink the role of social media in your integrated comms strategy to reach audiences who can benefit from your brand’s message.

When you’re ready, report on your efforts using this social media analytics template. Use it to share the channel’s impact to key stakeholders so you can share the full story behind your strategy.