Zero paid media doesn’t suit all brands

Last summer, I enjoyed a presentation by marketing and media innovation consultant Joseph Jaffe on the dawning age of zero paid media.  Subsequently, I read his book on the topic, Z.E.R.O. Paid Media as the New Marketing Model. Persuasive as much of his argument was, I decided not to write about it here at The Hub for the simple reason that the book had been published in 2013, and was therefore arguably old news.

But the subject of earned versus paid media hasn’t exactly gone away.  Quite the reverse. What we’ve witnessed over the last two or three years has been the development of an ever more complex earned media eco-system, with brands learning how monitor and intervene in the social conversation; with the development of platforms to manage social influencers; and a crowd-sourced peer review culture which now dominates the customer journey in the B2C space, and is emerging in B2B too.

Earned content is not the same as earned media, of course. User-generated content may be free (or cheaply incentivized), but it may still require a greater-than-zero budget to be effectively deployed. Nonetheless, it seems unarguably part of the same cultural shift, and indeed we’ve covered UGC management platforms here at The Hub.

Back in 2013, to be fair, Jaffe wasn’t saying that a zero media budget was just around the corner. Rather that “in a perfect world, the optimal paid media budget would be zero. In other words, brands would not need to spend a dime on paid media, because they would have enough customers; enough word-of-mouth; enough rabid fans and advocates; enough referrals; enough partnerships with entrepreneurs, startups and technology investments; and last but not least, enough assets to activate, amplify and monetize.” Emphasis added.

But we’re certainly seeing solutions coming to market which bring that perfect world ever closer.

Does that mean a zero model is a reasonable target for every brand? One remarkable example of a zero paid marketing model is staring us right in the face: the Trump presidential campaign. And it’s relevant to consider it in a marketing technology context, because the Trump campaign has exploited precisely the eco-system we’ve been discussing: social media, user-generated content (yes, that includes his famous re-tweets), and the blogosphere. Whether the campaign has tools for managing its expansive raft of key influencers, we don’t know–but it would hardly be surprising.

The results? Well, not literally zero expenditure, of course. As of last week, it seems the campaign has spent around $24 million–less than half as much as its closest rivals in the race, and by all accounts a drop in the water compared with the Bush debacle.  Is the message, then, that all candidates should be following the Trump strategy?

Evidently not, because for one thing much of Trump’s earned media–and especially the coverage in “old media” channels like the press and TV–derives from qualities his brand exhibited long before the campaign started. His business and his personality had a high media profile long pre-existing his political adventure. This isn’t enough, of course. Ben Carson has a long list of best-selling books to his name, and a large personal following, but his campaign lags far behind competitors (and Trump- has something like six times as many Twitter followers).

What’s more, his brand lends itself–for better or worse–to social media and blogosphere recycling. It’s hard to imagine, for example, Jeb Bush’s personality and policy positions seeding social conversation and user-generated content in the way that Trump’s have (and this isn’t to make any political evaluation of the competing brands at all).

The question for marketers: is your brand a Donald Trump-style brand or a Jeb Bush-style brand? Not in terms of electoral success of course, but in terms of how natural a fit there is between your branding–and indeed product–and the zero paid marketing eco-system. Speaking in the most general terms, financial and industrial verticals might lean more to the Bush end of the spectrum than media businesses, car manufacturers or brewers.

That doesn’t mean the zero paid media eco-system doesn’t have something to offer everyone. It does, and some of the most unlikely brands have been agile in exploiting it. But the perfect world with the optimal zero marketing budget isn’t open to all.

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