How to Strengthen Your Brand with the Earned, Paid, and Owned Media Model

8 min
EPO Media Model
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Contributing Author

The Internet is a noisy place. There are approximately 4.33 billion active Internet users around the world, and experts predict that digital advertising expenditures in the United States will increase by approximately 85% by 2023, from $108 to $201 billion.

When you are building a brand, it can be difficult to break through the noise of content, conversations, and promotions appearing on digital feeds. This is an especially critical challenge for nonprofits as more and more donors are going online for their charitable giving.

A brand is not static, nor is it invulnerable. Brand building is an ongoing process. A brand must be protected and nurtured. Without it, people will have a difficult time finding your nonprofit. Building a brand can take years, even decades, but that very same brand can take much less time to be undermined.

Below, we’ll discuss how your nonprofit can use the earned, paid, and owned (EPO) media model to help build a strong brand identity that is recognizable and easily found across all digital channels.

Traditional Ways to Build Brand Awareness

Traditionally, nonprofits build brand awareness through direct mail, advertising, fundraising events, and other analog means of communication. For example, the Muscular Dystrophy Association was best known for the Jerry Lewis telethon that aired every Labor Day Weekend for decades.

That single fundraising event created an awareness for the cause in every American’s mind that could not be duplicated. Today, a 24-hour televised fundraiser might not have the same impact given all the marketing channels and entertainment choices available.

Methods like this are still viable ways to build a brand today, but as more of our lives move online, digital technology offers other opportunities that are quicker, more targeted, and potentially less expensive.

As the importance of daily digital technology use grows, smart nonprofit brand managers should search for fresh ideas to have in their digital marketing and communication toolbox in order to build awareness for their cause and remain top-of-mind with existing supporters.

The Earned, Paid, Owned (EPO) Media Model

When planning your digital brand strategy, it’s helpful to think in terms of the EPO Media Model, which we’ll explain in the sections below. You’ll also get ideas your nonprofit can put into action to strengthen your brand identity to go along with each seciton.

Owned Media

Owned media are digital channels your organization creates and controls. This includes your website, donation pages, blogs, email campaigns, e-newsletters, and social media channels. On each of these channels, you control the content, its implementation, and the budget. Here are some branding ideas to elevate your owned media to new levels.

Create a Closed Facebook Group

Use this Facebook group to engage with supporters and collect stories, suggestions, questions and other insights about your nonprofit or their experience with your organization. This can help you understand the perspective of your supporters and how they perceive your brand.

Once you’ve collected their insights, you can assess your brand communication strategy and target new audiences who might not yet know of your nonprofit.

Build Awareness with Content

Generate and offer free usable content on your website or in an email campaign to broaden awareness of your mission (i.e. infographics, e-books, or impact reports). This content could be repurposed from your annual report, e-appeals, or client testimonials.

Make sure to include information that is easy to consume and inspires action. Don’t forget to collect emails when distributing the content for future messaging as well.

Host Virtual Events with Purpose

Schedule virtual events like discussions, Q&As, webinars on Zoom, or live broadcasts on social media that highlight a program or a cause to educate and inspire those who watch. Include an actionable and compelling appeal to support your mission. You can also record your virtual event so that those who can’t attend can view it later on your website.

Download the Free Virtual Events Toolkit

Add a New Channel with a New Message

Differentiate your organization from others by starting a new channel, like a video feed or podcast focusing on a new angle for your cause. This could be advocating for legislation that will help the people you serve or telling impactful stories about your mission.

Include strong calls to action and offer ways for your audience to engage with you via comments and message boards. Promote the new channel on your existing digital channels to build your audience and increase engagement.

Social Media is Still Important

Keep your social media channels strong with steady and consistent posting. Always engage with followers who like, share, and comment on your pages. Above all, create and use consistent and memorable hashtags on all channels and social media content.

Free Download: The BIG Guide to Social Media

Earned Media

Earned media happens when external sources like donors, volunteers, media, and social media followers organically share your content, speak about your cause, or otherwise talk about your organization either online or in person. In the age of influencer marketing and online review sites, earned media on digital channels can be incredibly impactful. Consider these ideas to help strengthen your brand through earned media channels.

Encourage Online Sharing of Your Mission

It’s important to ask for what you want. That means adding calls to action that encourage the sharing of our mission online, like “Join me in serving people in need” social media badges or sharing buttons on all digital platforms and in emails, including memorable hashtags.

Get Noticed by Media

Advocacy is an excellent method for gaining media attention, and it also helps the people you serve. For example, you can offer to testify on a piece of local or state legislation that will directly impact your beneficiaries, which can get you noticed by the media.

You can also offer media channels a quote for an upcoming story, pitch impact data to news agencies, or create targeted PR strategies. Get creative with the way you engage the media in your area, and beyond.

Empower Your Volunteers

Empower your volunteers to become brand ambassadors in any way you can. For example, you might build a volunteer speakers bureau and send them out to share your mission with local community groups and organizations. No matter what you do, make sure to train each volunteer on your brand standards as well as public speaking before you send them out.

Fundraise the Neighborly Way

Peer-to-peer fundraising is the ultimate earned media tactic. The most well-known fundraisers are the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure and the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. These yearly fundraisers are known and participated in throughout the entire world.

In fact, 46% of survey respondents in Classy’s Why America Gives report say they choose to donate to a cause if a family member or friend asks them to. In addition, 50% state that a friend or family member being personally affected by a cause would motivate them to give.

This is the power of peer-to-peer fundraising. When done well, an online peer-to-peer fundraiser can build positive awareness for your organization as well as considerable funds.

Free Download: Understanding the True Financial Potential of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

Media Doesn’t Mean What It Used to Mean

Don’t just limit your media outreach to print, broadcast and radio outlets. These days, many people consume their news online. Develop relationships with targeted digital sources as well and include them in any news releases you send out.

The traditional media companies often employ digital reporters for their online properties and there are other media companies that are completely digital. Other news sources include blogs, social media channels and podcasts. 

 Sometimes even nonprofits have to pay to play. Paid media occurs when you pay for marketing or advertising. In the digital realm, this includes search engine marketing, retargeting, affiliate marketing, social media ads, and sponsored content.

When considering paid media, remember that branding is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistency and repetition are key. If you don’t have the budget, don’t waste your money. Here are some ideas on how to be strategic with paid media.

Be Strategic with Your Funding

Ask corporate supporters to partner with you on a digital advertising campaign that is mutually beneficial for both parties. For example, Lutheran Social Services, the organization I work for, partnered with a local auto dealer to promote a capital campaign for one of our programs.

The dealer funded a three-month integrated ad campaign that included email, display ads, social media ads, website takeovers and television spots. The campaign not only helped raise funds for a new building, but also created a more detailed awareness of our program and the cause. This partnership reached more people than we would ever be able to reach on our own.

Get Found on Google

Take advantage of your Google Ad Grant. Google gives eligible nonprofits $10,000 of search advertising per month. The rules and restrictions can be challenging to navigate, but if you spend the time in doing your research on the program, finding the best keywords, and setting up the right parameters, you can basically set it and forget it for at least a quarter. If done well, your results will be a consistently better search position for your organization and your cause, and you don’t have to pay a cent.

Free Download: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Google Ad Grants

Build a Strong Video Presence

If you struggle to find the ROI in creating videos, the YouTube Nonprofit Program can help you connect with supporters, volunteers, and donors. Eligible nonprofits can leverage this program to share their videos with some of the one billion viewers on YouTube every month.

Benefits include the Link Anywhere feature where you can direct viewers to an external landing page. The program also helps you optimize your videos and use YouTube’s production resources. YouTube also provides built-in fundraising tools. Save your digital ad dollars for other projects with this free resource.

Hyper-Target Your Ads

Engage a new audience with Facebook lookalike ad targeting tools. Use existing followers as your base or use social listening to discover new targets. For example, our organization could use the 51,000 followers on the homeless shelter’s Facebook page as the base, target Facebook users who “look like” the demographics of our existing followers and serve them targeted holiday giving ads at Thanksgiving to increase awareness for the issue of homelessness in our community as well as raise donations.

If we observed through comments and direct mails that many of the followers on that homeless shelter page was not aware that we also operated a food pantry, we could use a similar lookalike targeting practice to publish ads highlighting that program’s Facebook page in order to build a following there.

Follow Your Supporters with Targeted Ads

Retargeting is an effective brand building tool that is based on the Rule of Seven. This rule claims that it takes an average of seven impressions of a brand to convert. The more a person sees a nonprofit’s message, the more likely they are to decide to donate.

Retargeting requires placing a pixel or cookie on a viewer’s browser when they visit your website. That pixel is then tracked as the viewer leaves your site and browses other pages. An ad is served to that viewer on any site that is in your ad campaign’s network. As with any branding effort, retargeting takes time. Don’t expect immediate results. You are reminding viewers why they were interested in your mission and ultimately building loyalty and inspiring them to action.

Make Use of the EPO Media Model

The EPO media model uses a holistic and integrated approach to build a strong online brand, but that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in every area. Choose your methods wisely and play to your personal strengths and the strengths of your nonprofit’s team. No matter which of these new ideas you choose to help strengthen your brand, make sure to calculate your expected ROI and keep track of your results.

Pam Georgiana, MBA is the Vice President of Engagement for Lutheran Social Services in Ohio. She is a marketing strategy professional with more than 20 years of experience in experiential and relational marketing, communications, and branding. She is passionate about identifying trends, brainstorming innovative engagement ideas and creative brand messaging and turning them into impactful strategies that change the world.


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