This is a guest blog written by Jose de Cabo, co-founder, Olapic

Marketers have heard the mantra "content is king" so many times now they are probably saying it in their sleep. But producing enough engaging material is going to be the biggest content challenge for UK marketers in 2016, according to the Content Marketing Institute. The reality is, it's difficult and expensive to continuously create quality content from scratch. The cost of developing enough owned content to meet the pressures and demands of always on communications is simply unsustainable for most brands.

But a new content pillar is taking centre stage – earned– which is what consumers do on a brand's behalf. This takes in all of the retweets, likes, and shares of branded content by consumers and influencers alike. Brands must develop digital content strategies that enable them to take advantage of this opportunity and leverage their audience's input.

Earned content –the way around ad blocking

Earned content is more than just another social media strategy - it is the beginning of a visual dialogue between a brand and its customers, driven by an unprecedented demand for authenticity behind the power shift in marketing. Today's consumers are becoming increasingly resistant to advertising, progressively choosing to opt out of messages that feel intrusive and aggressive. The IAB, for instance, has reported that 22% of Britons over 18 are now using ad blocking software, with 48% saying that if ads didn't interrupt their browsing, they would be less likely to use ad blockers. This underlines just how much the general public is now saturated, cynical and savvy.

To add to this, consumers are also painfully aware that the perfect family of four frolicking happily in a professional ad campaign bears little resemblance to their own lives. It might be beautiful and aspirational, but the consumer is brought back to earth wondering just how those trousers will really look on them, or how that sofa would fit in their one-bedroom flat – validation they are seeking more authenticity from user-generated content in the social space.

Fuelling this consumer demand is the widespread realisation that celebrities are usually paid to endorse products, which has led to the skyrocketing value of everyday influencers. A strong influencer program can be more cost effective and productive for brands than spending enormous budget on traditional celebrity endorsements. For the likes of Kendall Jenner to post just once on a social platform on your behalf, you can be looking at well over £150,000, which can be hard to justify.

Compare this with the results of an emarketer study showing how influencer marketing in 2015 was yielding ROI of up to 10 times and you can understand the transition from paid content, to influencers, to user-generated content campaigns. Earned content is earning its own place in the marketer's toolkit and it's here to stay. Content marketing strategies are increasingly becoming about activating a brand's total online consumer base and now it's all about finding the best, smartest ways to do so.

New Balance and Lancôme – earning their place

Brands like New Balance and Lancôme have built their earned content strategies, enabling them to leverage scalable, quality and regular content they can implement in a range of ways while improving engagement levels with their community.

New Balance needed to bring social engagement back to its owned online property and e-commerce experience. To achieve this, it activated six hashtags against the "Excellence in Action" campaign that went live on their homepage and the gallery page within the website. The brand saw return visitors engage at three times the rate of first time visitors (on top of over one million impressions and 300,000 interactions). This demonstrated how content influences purchase decisions with consumers identifying with the lifestyle promoted throughout the campaign.

Lancôme is another brand that had the challenge of weaving earned content with owned content into a consistent digital experience. It launched the #Miracleonthemove campaign which encouraged users to share pictures of themselves using the new compact liquid foundation product – leading to a 4% conversion uplift. The analytics used showed that users who interacted with the #Miracleonthemove gallery were at least twice as likely to convert than those who didn't.

Treating earned content as a strategy in its own right

Earned content is now a standalone and strategic key marketing stream that should be supported with adequate resources and the right partners, as it's not as simple as lifting any pictures you like from Instagram and re-using them. Obtaining the rights to use earned content is essential and brands need to achieve this in the right way, quickly. 70% of Instagram users have given our brand partners explicit consent to use their photos when asked, so there is a crowd of more than willing people out there to help you deliver your mission of curating earned content at scale – which will be the key to success.

The consumer is now dictating how they want to be marketed to, sold to, whom they trust, and when and how they're going to show their own love for a brand. By embracing this unprecedented power role reversal and demand for authenticity, brands can build a stronger connection with their audience. It enables a relationship with legitimate brand ambassadors on a one-to-one level that gets marketers off the endless content treadmill, and ultimately drives brand loyalty and increased market share – an all-round win when done right.

For more on earned content, read What we know about earned media on