“So how come social media is not free when all you have to do is open a Twitter account and start a Facebook page?”,  is not an infrequent question asked by some eCommerce and other business owners who are starting to consider the idea. They see just about everyone else online are using social networks – including industry competitors!

Except of course, it’s not free! Firstly, the services will be required of online marketing experts who know how to properly integrate a personalised search and social policy and update company marketing strategies.

Secondly, in today’s multichannel and platform environment, the consumer expects two way interaction. Brand identity trust, credibility and ranking have to be earned before engagement proceeds. Not for nothing is social described as ‘earned media’.

It clearly distinguishes itself from the traditional ‘paid media’, in which one-way advertising and marketing messages are ‘bought’ to broadcast and persuade the one course of action to be followed by a customer without options for interaction and feedback.

The customer experience of website, brand behaviour and social presence dictates online reputation and the likelihood of further content distribution. In other words, media exposure has to be now earned from consumers instead of just being paid for like a commodity. Social link building is the engagement principle in action via word-of-mouth, shared content and comment across blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, etc …

Earned media is a personal media. It was born out of the often frustrating attempts to use search engines returning pages with spam links high in the returned page rankings, which led to site content unrelated to the search query. In the new era of SoLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile) users are more likely to quickly connect with trusted family and friends, rather than believe the hyped-up sales messages from a remote and unresponsive brand.

Therein, lies the nub of earned social media. It also explains why it can take time for a business presence to find social leverage in network spaces set up mainly for person to person connection without an eCommerce agenda. It was hardly likely to stay that way of course, and social networks have evolved to enable business to engage -  for example, as a customer service tool - but at a more informal level. It still takes much hard work, listening and experience for business to get it right, gain trust and receive useful and valuable responses.

Ultimately, the key to succeeding at social media is to know how to develop an integrated policy, which enables an individual voice to speak through both traditional paid and earned media, and to drive each other within their distinct channels. This requires knowing the community audience and creating the right content they want to see and read, and delivering in the right way – simply and clearly.

Remember - the secret to social is earn it not turn it away!