Earned media remains the most influential way to shape brand opinion and drive content sharing, according to the new Stories in Motion study from WE Communications and YouGov.

The study surveyed 1,000 respondents per market in the US, UK and China, revealing that earned media rates top in each market (62% in China, 47% in the US, 44% in the UK) when it comes to influencing brand opinion.

Additionally, earned media rates are highest amongst respondents when asked what source of news and information about a brand they would likely share when seeing something positive about a brand — 54% in China, 40% in the US and 25% in the UK.

"We’re witnessing a paradox of earned media," said WE Communications international president Alan VanderMolen. "In places like the US and UK where the space for earned media placements has gotten smaller and more competitive and in China where social is growing exponentially, earned media still rises to the top in terms of consumer influence. The key for brands to take advantage of the power of earned is to ensure it is not isolated. It must be deliberately amplified and complemented with other types of branded content across devices, platforms and channels for full impact."

According to the study, on average consumers are interacting with four devices per day, but how they use them varies greatly. Smartphone usage dominates in all three markets; however, content consumed through laptops and TVs also sees peaks of consumption (especially morning and early evening).

Multiplicity is also seen through the volume of different platforms and channels that consumers traverse throughout the day. The research shows the smartphone is the primary driver of this motion, mostly accessing news and retailer sites through to social media and chat/messenger services. Deeper, more intentional searches that are generally closer to the point of purchase are being done in the evening on laptops.

Intentional searches are shown to have the greatest impact in shaping behaviour, brand preference or purchase (vs instances when consumers discover branded content for which they didn’t intentionally search.) Both positive and negative information discovered through intentional search has the greatest impact on driving a consumer to purchase. In the US, 52% see positive information as motivating, in the UK 44%, and in China 51%. In the US, 40% see negative information as discouraging, in the UK 36%, and in China 51%.

The research also shows that in all three markets, content that contains product information encourages sharing and also engages the consumer to try, buy or recommend. (In the US, 46% of respondents say they’ll share content that contains product information, in the UK 47%, and in China 50%. In the US, 58% say that product information that has engaging content will most likely mean they’ll try, buy or recommend the sponsoring brand, compared with 60% in the UK and 56% in China).

Content that is designed to generate an emotional response from the audience (i.e. laughter or enjoyment) will have the greatest impact, including driving shares in particular through unintentional searches. In the US, 26% of people are likely to share funny/entertaining content, in the UK 31%, and in China 18%.

When pushing branded content through social channels, the data show clear lines for what does and does not resonate with consumers. Only about 5% across all three countries feel most comfortable engaging with branded content in social. The exception is content that is amusing or entertaining, where the study reveals a relatively strong propensity to share this type of content.

Willingness to share branded content using a less public platform (i.e. email, in-person, or direct messages) is significantly higher (48% in the US, 49% in the UK and 49% in China). The message, says WE, is clear: 'Entertain me on social, sell to me when I am searching.'