2013 was the year of paid social. 

2014 will be the year of earned social.

First Dates are Hard

Brands embraced social media in 2013. According to a survey by Vizu, a Nielsen company, almost two-thirds of advertisers increased their paid social media budgets in 2013. That behavior from brands has pumped up the market caps of Facebook (up $44 billion in 2013) and LinkedIn (up $14 billion) and Twitter ($21 billion as I write this).

This was Marketing’s first real date with social. It was a little awkward.

Most marketers are using social to extend their broadcast strategy. They’re buying ad inventory on social channels, and filling it with traditional marketing content -- banner ads, video, etc.

That’s not very social.

Social networks are unique in enabling many-to-many communications. Traditional broadcast media are all about one-to-many. The marketer (the one) communicates to the audience (the many). In social, it's the audience (the many) who communicate with each other.

The Power of the Community 

In 2014, marketers will embrace the opportunity to earn their social, not just buy it. Earned social is when a brand leverages the muscle of community members -- employees, customers, partners and fans -- to communicate on its behalf.

The change is already underway. Most brands now offer employee training on social. Industry leaders like Prudential, Allianz, GE, Audi, LexisNexis and many others are taking it to the next level, implementing technology to empower all their employees to market effectively on social networks.

The arithmetic is irresistible. Pay-per-click advertising costs (conservatively) $2-$5 per click. By contrast, an employee sharing a URL on LinkedIn generates 10-12 clicks per share -- at no cost. That means that 20,000 employees can engage the market far more cheaply and effectively than 20 people in the Marketing department.

Search engine optimization (SEO) provides a near-perfect parallel. In the early days of the web, brands bought lots of ad inventory (mostly banners in those days). When search engines came out in the 1990s, brands realized that optimizing their websites could earn them free traffic.

Most brands now invest in a combination of paid and organic search. I expect social to play out the same way: earned and paid social will co-exist and support each other.

Earned social will always be special in its ability to generate a level of trust that paid advertising cannot deliver. As Forrester analyst Zachary Reiss-Davis put it recently, “No one likes to hear a marketer talk.”

In 2014, they’ll start to get their wish.

Editor's Note: To read more from Michael see HR + Social = Like