In the digital marketplace of the 21st century, the lines between paid, owned and earned media have become blurred. This study will determine their interdependencies through the case of


This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 290,182+ people.

When a company’s business growth depends on the scalability of its leads funnel, marketing spends become crucial. In digital marketing, leads are basically generated through multiple brand campaigns that drive sales.

By making both direct and indirect contact with the targeted customer base, there are three fundamental channels through which influence, or reach, can be accelerated:


Money and efforts are invested into campaigns such as TVCs, newspaper or magazine advertisements, sponsored Facebook ads, promoted posts and tweets. The budget for each is determined with discretion.

For instance, if a TV ad is to be run, then spends need to be attributed to buying weekly or monthly spots across GEC (General Entertainment Channels), news and other channels. The pricing has to be monitored according to the cost per lead (CPL), as well as the volume of leads generated.

The big creative ideas, that bolster these campaigns, are most significant while establishing brand authority in the market.

Lead generation is fuelled by this overall process of, what is called, ATL (Above The Line) advertising.


These include the company owned properties, such as the website and social media channels. The term owned implies the control the company exercises as a brand within the public domain. This is done through various platforms that initiate, direct and maintain interaction with its customers. All the content must, therefore, cater to the needs and aspirations of the target audience.

The customer has to be at the heart of the product.


This channel of communication directly corresponds to the other two in that it is generated by their combined influence. The media earned through both owned assets and paid advertising is responsible for the company’s reputation in the public sphere. It is equally modulated by collaborative work between the company and a PR agency, a co-branding partner, or another major influencer.

Press releases form an essential part. They not only validate the customer’s faith in the brand, but also foster better recall for the product, and its value in the market.


In the age of social media, it is safe to say that the paid, owned and earned framework is somewhat obsolete if it treats each of the three as independent of the remaining two. We now need to conceive of a new media framework that identifies the points of convergence between, for instance, paid tele and FB ad campaigns, and the warming up of leads through owned channels.

Paid promotions are on the rise for a reason.

Nike’s brand strategy, for instance, showcases the exceptional blurring of boundaries between fully paid ads and promotional posts leveraging organic reach. For particular kinds of youth-centric, inspirational content, aligned is the idea that a video that goes viral with a share/subscribe button can achieve upto 15X reach overnight, even without anticipation.

While driving influence for lead generation, digital marketers need to constantly track and measure the success of social campaigns. Leveraging owned media with contests can be extremely effective in doing so. The emphasis largely lies on creativity and innovation.

But most companies in the public domain seek higher visibility through user numbers alone. What they risk overlooking is the retention of an engaged user. And that depends on the deepening of content, aligned with consistent strides in product innovation. No amount of money or advertising can buy this.

Earned media (PR; word of mouth) will, as explained earlier, depend on the cumulative effect of paid and owned channels. It won’t, however, stand its ground without steadying the product’s engagement rate.

Take Netflix for example. The platform’s rise from a local mail-order DVD rental service to a global streaming giant can be attributed as much to user experience as to the diversification of original content beyond borders. It is evident that engagement (read bingeing) trumps all. And this should be a major learning for startups with large depths of fields — targeting massive reach.


The Indian primary and secondary online learning market is valued at USD 1.6 billion by 2021. Founded in 2013, the e-learning app, Toppr, caters to over 2.5 million students today. Over 150 million questions have been practiced, and over 1 million doubts have been solved on the platform.

The product offerings are as follows:

Learn: 3000+ hours of video lectures, and unlimited practice questions

Test: All India test series and previous papers

Doubts: 24X7 expert assistance on chat

Students can register for free and have unlimited access to all the modules during the trial period. Once that expires, they can upgrade to a paid subscription of their choice. Typically, the minimum duration of a subscription lasts until the end of an academic year.

The company is contribution-margin positive. They project 20X growth in junior grades, and 15X growth in the senior grades subscription by 2021.The year-on-year growth has been 5X over the last 12 months, with a quarter-on-quarter revenue growth of 50% for the past seven quarters.

Its CEO is the IITian, Zishaan Hayath, who’s made a series of angel investments in startups as notable as Ola Cabs, Orobind, Chaayos and Holachef. After initial entrepreneurial success with Chaupati Bazaar, in the e-commerce space, the man knew that at 400 million students, the K-12 market was far from saturation.

Toppr co-founder, Zishaan Hayath.

In only four years, Toppr has evolved in its application of AI as the most promising replacement for coaching classes that account for a significant portion of household spends in India. Its brand story is one worth delving into.

The company is aggressively expanding its footprint to over 20 Indian cities after a Series B round of funding last year.

At the strategic moment of hitting the 2M user mark, they collaborated with the notable ad agency, Lowe Lintas, to release a TVC themed around everyday class(room) struggles in India. Depicting the limitations engendered by a skewed student-teacher ratio, the young characters – in three different 1 minute ads – address their parents directly before being offered the aid of technology. The mobile app features right at the end, with a mysterious glimpse at the product offerings. It was featured by AdAge India as one of the top 5 ads of the week.

In terms of lead distribution, the paid ATL campaign was pertinent for the following factors:

1. Measurement of ROI
2. Number of signups
3. Cost of signups
4. Infrastructural support for increased traffic caused by signups

Immediately after the release of a TVC, 100% accuracy isn’t possible while measuring increase in signups. The ATL team at Toppr, then, decided to measure the CPL against the most recent marketing cost incurred. They came up with the solution of a 20% tolerance range for each new lead generated by the campaign. The ROI was determined accordingly, and the rest of the parameters were determined by data analytics.

The ‘classroom for one’ tagline extends the platform’s mission to personalise learning to a greater ‘education for all’.

With over 9 lakh subscribers on Facebook, almost 30K on YouTube and between 6K to 9K on LinkedIn and Instagram — the platform’s paid reach is responsible for a significant impact on its lead distribution. This is measured through dashboards that track the pixels for social media, alongside those of other owned channels like Toppr Bytes.

Through an engaged freelance community of content writers and editors, Bytes is an education news portal that attracts thousands of students on a daily basis and produces a good number of signups as well. What’s important, here, is its contribution to SEO (Search Engine Optimisations) through keywords linked within the articles.

The alignment of paid Google ads with opt-ins on owned properties like Bytes are good examples of just how the two media – paid and owned – converge and collapse into each other.

The website’s marketing pages are equally important from the SEO perspective. The traffic generated through keyword searches is crucial for signups. Recently, Toppr added multiple class and exam pages with opening sections that directly address both the student (user) and the parent (buyer). These inclusions are necessary for better engagement.

As for earned reputation, Toppr maintains strong social messaging through its social media contests and campaigns. This can often be powerful enough to create a ripple effect of positive influence by word of mouth and PR. A Diwali CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] campaign with the notable NGO, Teach for India [TFI], was covered by Times of India last year. The platform offered 300 free ‘Learn’ modules (practice questions and video lectures) to under- resourced schools in Mumbai and Pune. This is a rare case of earned meeting paid promotions. Read more about the association here: Teach for India set to introduce online learning.

Through daily updates on Facebook (leverages YouTube, Blog, Bytes and PR), Instagram stories and 8 monthly blog articles, Toppr keeps its social media audience consistently engaged. The weekly newsletter, moreover, supports this by sending out curated, exam-related content, including webinars with top ranking students. These live sessions with rankers from prestigious Indian institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology are called Toppr Talks. They’ve increased the subscriber count of Toppr’s YouTube channel by 15X in only 3 months.

The point is to create value for the TG, which consists primarily of students preparing for school, board and entrance examinations.

As long as that’s taken care, a solid marketing strategy will thereby include:

1. Paid campaigns directly impacting lead generation (TVC, SM paid promotions)
2. Owned channel engagement (website, social media and Blog)
3. Earned media (PR, word of mouth)

These three, together, contribute towards Toppr’s business growth by a considerable measure. Aligned with them are the other important growth determiners of funding, content expansion and product innovation. To understand more about Toppr’s marketing initiatives, follow their blog.

*All images are properties of Haygot Education Private Limited.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 290,182+ people.


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