Earn It.

In the late 1980s, Smith Barney ran a series of commercials with the actor John Houseman, star of the television series about a law school - the Paper Chase.

He had a distinctive and very deliberate speaking style (the agency creative director calculated that any 30 second script for John could not exceed 45 words) and he finished each ad by drawing out, even more emphatically, “Smith Barney. We make money the old fashion way. We earn it.”

John Houseman died in 1992, right about the time the financial industry stopped trying to earn customers’ trust, and started buying it instead.

Today, Smith Barney is Citi Smith Barney, and in January they announced the formation of a joint venture with Morgan Stanley to create an industry leading wealth management business.

As an example of a business model in transition - and without purpose except survival - it’s hard to beat. It’s also hard to trust.

By contrast, Fred Wilson - a New York based venture capitalist who focuses on technology driven companies - blogged yesterday about the idea of 'earned media' - media that you don’t buy but earn through customer experience and word of mouth. The concept, initially crafted by Jerry Solomon, has recently become much more potent thanks to the advent of social networking and the evolution of the cell phone and sms which creates viral word of mouth in real time.

The issue is a fascinating one. But I think the foundation is slightly different than the one they postulate. From a business owner’s perspective, the focus is not on whether you earn the media. But on whether you earn the audience.

Do they believe you, trust you, value you? Are you empathetic? Are you understanding?

If the answer is yes - regardless of the medium you choose or can afford to use - you gain their attention. And their loyalty.

The old fashioned way.