Helena Myhrman
Apr 3 · 7 min read

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Influencer marketing (IM) has become a buzzword and today it seems like a necessity in order to stay relevant for your audience. But contrary to common belief, it’s not necessary to spend money to get started with influencer marketing. Paying influencers to promote your products is just one of many ways to leverage on the influencer trend.

And to be honest, it’s not just about influencers. The term “influencer” often makes people think of well-known profiles with a huge following, but nowadays, your regular customers can promote your brand just as well.

User-generated content (UGC) and influencer marketing (IM) are not exactly the same thing although they often overlap. But the terms aren’t very important. What’s more important is knowing when, why and how to compensate your users, customers, influencers or brand advocates for promoting your brand. Because just like there’s a difference between organic and sponsored posts on Facebook, there’s also a difference between different types of influencer marketing.

Compensating your customers and influencers for the work they do is crucial in order to nurture your community and relationships. But when and how you do it depends on the context.

First, let’s just quickly break down what earned, paid and owned media is. Then, we’ll explain what paid and earned influencer relationships are and what the difference is.

What is earned, paid and owned media?

Earned media is media exposure that’s been earned through word-of-mouth. It can be real life conversations about products from one consumer to another, or consumers showing products to each other. In digital marketing, it can for example be:

  • Shares
  • Mentions
  • Reposts
  • Reviews
  • Organic posts

So in other words, when someone, whether it’s a user, influencer or another company, says something about your brand because they want to and not because you paid them, it’s earned media.

Paid media is media exposure that you pay for. It can be for example:

  • Advertising in TV or radio
  • Display advertising
  • Search advertising through Google Adwords
  • Sponsored posts in social media, e.g. Facebook posts

To put it simple, when you pay to be seen or to be mentioned, it’s paid media.

Owned media is the channels that you own. You control what content is being published, when and how. It can for example be:

  • Your website
  • Your blog
  • Microsites
  • Your social media accounts

As a brand, you’ll most of the time publish your own content on your own channels. This can be for example product images, blog posts written by inhouse writers or freelancer writers, whitepapers and articles.

Earned influencer relationships

Earned influence is any type of influence that hasn’t been paid for. It’s when people talk about your brand naturally and organically, because you’ve earned it.

This is the reason why for example a sponsored blog post or social media post isn’t earned media. If you’ve paid someone to mention your brand or your services or products, it’s not earned.

This has nothing to do with the size of the influencer, it can be a regular customer with a small following or a big influencer. Earned mentions can be for example:

  • Tweets about your services or products
  • An Instagram photo with your product
  • A blog post

Earned influence often appears more authentic and trustworthy, simply because it’s not an ad. Your audience knows that the recommendation is genuine and not sponsored. And earned influence has to be, again — earned.

When you choose to use this type of content in your own channels, for example on your website or webshop alongside product images, it’s often referred to as UGC.

Do you owe them anything? Interact, engage, thank them. Show your appreciation, comment on their posts. If you want to use the content on your own website, ask for permission first. Your customers posted these photos by their own free will and organically, so you don’t need to pay them. The content has already been created. But remember that when you ask for permission to use their content on your site, they can reject you. And be reasonable. Embedding their photos on your site is reasonable. Using them for your next million dollar ad campaign is not.

Do they owe you anything? No. They haven’t been paid and they owe you nothing. If they agree to be featured on your site, great. If not, move on. Don’t expect them to do certain things or create images that has a certain look or feel. They are the content creators and they do it because they want to, not because you paid them. This means that the quality of the content will vary. And they do it for free so you can’t require them to do anything for you.

Paid influencer relationships

Paid influence is when you pay someone to talk about your brand or products. This is the most common type of influencer marketing. A classic example is when you find an influencer, and pay them to blog about your products or post an image of themselves and your products on their Instagram. They wouldn’t have done it without being paid for it, so it’s not earned influence.

This is a quick and easy way to increase your reach and it’s a method used by a lot of B2C brands. This is the most effective way to send a message to people outside your core group of customers.

UGC doesn’t belong in this category. It’s true that it’s content generated by other people, but when we speak of UGC we often speak of earned influence. UGC is more about your customers and community whereas paid influence doesn’t necessarily have to involve your customers. Influencers aren’t always your customers, they can be your customers but they don’t have to be.

Paid influencer relationships are about paying someone to promote and talk about your brand, when this doesn’t happen organically and in an “earned” way.

Some quick tips to succeed with paid influencer marketing:

  • Do research. Don’t just hire someone to blog about your products. If they aren’t into your brand or industry, the message might come across as insincere, and that’s the opposite to what you want.
  • Think long-term. No quick fixes. Select your influencers carefully and engage them in several different posts, not just one, to build trust.
  • Work with influencers whose target group matches your. This might seem like a no-brainer, but many brands engage influencers with a completely different audience than their own target group.

Influencer marketing in owned media

There’s not really such a thing as “owned influence”, but you can integrate paid and earned influence with your owned media strategy. One way to do this is to integrate UGC on your website. You can of course showcase content from paid influencers too. But don’t just rely on mega-influencers.

Your everyday customers create content which they post in their own channels and when you display that on your own site and blog or webshop, they might share it. Why wouldn’t they, if they’re proud of being featured and part of your brand? Ultimately, you want organic shares because it’s effective and cost efficient.

Which is the better option?

Usually, the more influence someone has, the more expensive their services will be. But don’t focus only on reach. Having a few loyal customers talk about your brand in their networks can sometimes be worth more than having a mega-influencer doing the job.

Earned influence is not a way to escape from compensating your influencers. Earned influence through UGC is when people are just naturally talking about your brand by their own free will. Paid influencer marketing is when you compensate someone to mention your brand or products because it doesn’t happy in an earned, organic way.

Of course, you should always thank your users for generating content for you, and you can compensate them afterwards or host contests where the winner wins a prize.

But the difference between a reward or thank you and sponsored content is that the latter means they wouldn’t talk about your brand if you didn’t pay them. Because no one works for free. But a thank you or reward is just a way to thank your customers for wanting to organically talk about your brand.

So which is the best option then? All of them. The best way to succeed with UGC and IM is to think long-term and utilize both small and big influencers as well as customers in the marketing. Brands need both earned, paid and owned media, and you don’t need to choose.


Written by: Helena Nordh Myhrman, Head of Content at Flowbox

Flowbox Insights

In Flowbox Insights you’ll find the latest news about marketing, ecommerce trends and tips on how to succeed with user-generated content (UGC) in social media. This publication will provide you with a roadmap of what to expect of content marketing in the coming years.

Helena Myhrman

Written by

Head of Content at Flowbox and Editor of Flowbox Insights. Get in touch: helena.myhrman@getflowbox.com

Flowbox Insights

In Flowbox Insights you’ll find the latest news about marketing, ecommerce trends and tips on how to succeed with user-generated content (UGC) in social media. This publication will provide you with a roadmap of what to expect of content marketing in the coming years.

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