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Passive vs Active Marketing: The Right Approach for Your Business

Everybody wants their marketing to be as effective as possible, and when presented with the notion that all marketing is either passive or active, it’s natural to assume active marketing is best. If only it were that easy.

Let’s begin with a simple question: What’s the point of marketing?

The accepted wisdom is “To create awareness, attract and retain customers, build a strong brand, differentiate from competitors, and ultimately drive business growth and profitability.” Of course, not all of the above is true for every type of business, but we can simplify the point of marketing to ‘attract new customers’.

It may seem straightforward to attract new customers, but marketing must elicit a reaction and receive a favourable response for it to be truly effective. And a positive response means they are sufficiently affected by what they’ve seen to be compelled to do something about it, i.e., make an effort to contact you.

Do you think only active marketing can invoke such a response?

“You can’t expect to just write and have visitors come to you – that’s too passive.”

Anita Campbell

Passive or Active. Which is which, and why should you care?

Passive marketing involves creating circumstances where potential customers are naturally drawn to the business. It focuses on building brand visibility and credibility over time through methods such as search engine optimisation (SEO), content marketing, public relations, and social media engagement. The goal is to attract customers organically, without direct outreach or aggressive promotion. Passive marketing strategies are typically less expensive in the short term and prioritise long-term gains, resulting in a stable and sustainable flow of leads.

In contrast, active marketing is more aggressive and direct. It attempts to boldly grab the attention of potential customers in a far more direct and to-the-point way, typically by actively reaching out to them through methods like cold calling, direct email marketing, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, or event sponsorships.

Active marketing gives marketers a high degree of control, allowing them to target specific audiences and tailor their messaging accordingly.

While active marketing often requires a significant upfront investment, it can yield immediate returns if effectively implemented.

Put another way, passive marketing waits for people to respond in their own time, while active marketing invites a conversation.

What does marketing look like?

If we think about the mechanics of marketing, i.e. what marketing actually looks like in physical terms, we think mainly about advertising in its many forms (newspapers, magazines, flyers, billboards, paid social media, Google or Bing ads, etc.), promotions and offers, TV and radio, email newsletters, direct mail, and so on. But are these passive or active?

The majority would probably say anything static is likely to be passive, and anything live and dynamic is likely to be active, but it’s not quite as black and white as that.

The huge roadside billboards we see are mainly used by retail giants whose deep pockets allow them to indulge in costly brand awareness campaigns. Who remembers the ‘A Mars a day, helps you work, rest and play’ ads? No drama, no call to action, just a reminder that Mars bars exist – a subconscious nugget that might make you buy one next time you fancy something sweet. It is a long-term view designed to stop you from forgetting about them.

You may also think about the multitude of car manufacturers using billboards or full-page newspaper and glossy magazine ads to remind us of their brand and products, with slick photos of cars taken at night using a slow shutter speed to reveal trails of white and red lights as it winds through city streets. It’s all designed to play to our emotions and desires in a way that we might respond to sometime in the future.

However, if a seemingly passive medium conveys a shocking or controversial message that forces people to react, is that still passive marketing?

Controversial billboards

In 2022, the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department in Texas, USA, commissioned a series of static billboards with a message that shocked its residents and caused widespread outrage.

The billboard’s message was, “PAYING FOR SEX? Get tested for syphilis.” Controversial, it might be, but it created a hugely positive reaction. Appointments at the Health Department increased by 40% – 50%, and cases of syphilis were reduced by 12.5% over the year. You can see the news report in the video below.

Another highly emotive example was Protein World’s ‘Beach Body’ campaign in 2015, which it used to promote its weight loss products. You may have seen the posters in London Underground stations. The campaign billboards asked the question, “Are you beach body ready?” And if the question itself wasn’t controversial enough, the poster was primarily a photo of bikini-clad Australian model, Renee Sommerfield, sporting what she/they considered a ‘beach body’.

Not surprisingly, the campaign caused a lot of negative reactions. See some of the reactions from a US news channel in the video below.

While 19th-century circus owner Phineas T. Barnum’s assertion that “All publicity is good publicity” is not always true, the above examples highlight that whether marketing is passive or active lies not in the medium but in the messaging.

Paying for Sex?

Are You Beach Body Ready?

Getting the most bang for your buck

One of the challenges in understanding passive marketing vs. active marketing is our perception of it because it depends on who you’re talking to.

For example, SEO might be considered active marketing because it delivers results in the form of content on a website that is directly related to the search terms and phrases entered into a search engine. But is that really active? What if nobody searches for a given phrase, and therefore, no content is delivered? Granted, this is about the mechanism, not the message itself, but if the mechanism isn’t even presenting the opportunity for the message to be delivered, how can it be active marketing?

What about pay-per-click (PPC), e.g. Google Ads? Is it passive or active?

Well, arguably, it’s passive because, again, if a search isn’t performed, the content will never be seen. But that’s not always the case because Google’s algorithm likes to show ads that are close enough to the search terms, not always specific to them. Google reasons that it’s in case the searcher misses out on something they might need. Of course, in reality, this is Google simply finding every opportunity to present an ad that encourages a click. The clue’s in the title, ‘Pay Per Click’. However, cynicism aside, PPC is more active than passive in delivery but could be passive or active in its messaging – and the latter is up to you (or your PPC consultant) in terms of how you write the content for the ads.

“As you’ve noticed, people don’t want to be sold. What people do want is news and information about the things they care about.”

Larry Weber

Passive or Active messaging?

Not every message you put out there needs to be intentionally active. Ideally, you want your messaging to create a response, and you want that response to be to contact you. That is, after all, the point of your marketing campaign.

However, without being controversial, objectionable, or politically incorrect, your messaging will need to be compelling in some other way in order to drive people to respond. And the reality is that’s not always possible, nor would it be practical, because we tire very quickly of adverts pushing an agenda rather than being creative and engaging with their messaging.

A simple demonstration of the difference between passive and active marketing is in how you craft the messaging:

Beauty products – passive wording:
“We have a range of premium skincare products. Our gentle formulas are designed to nourish and rejuvenate your skin, providing a luxurious and indulgent experience.”

Beauty products – active wording:
“Unlock radiant and youthful-looking skin with our unique skincare products that are scientifically proven to deliver visible results. Take charge of your skincare journey now.”

Cars – passive wording:
“Our latest family saloon is luxurious and elegant with its sleek design, advanced features, and superior comfort created with exceptional craftsmanship. It’s a driving experience like no other.”

Cars – active wording:
“Feel the adrenaline rush with our new, high-performance sports saloon powered by cutting-edge engine technology. Get behind the wheel and experience precision and unmatched driving dynamic with the thrill of pure performance – book a test drive now.”

“I am all for conversations, but you need to have a message”

Renee Blodgett

A step-by-step guide to creating active marketing content

If you’re in unfamiliar territory, how do you know if you want to create active marketing content, and if you do, how do you go about doing so?

Step 1: Define Your Objective
Clearly define the objective of your marketing content. Are you aiming to generate leads, drive sales, increase brand awareness, or promote a specific product/service? Clarifying this objective will guide your content creation process.

Step 2: Identify Your Target Audience
Identify and understand your target audience. Determine their demographics, interests, pain points, and motivations. This will help you tailor your content to resonate with them effectively.

Step 3: Craft a Compelling Message
Create a compelling message that directly addresses your target audience’s needs and desires. Highlight the unique value proposition of your product or service, and clearly communicate how it solves their problems or fulfils their desires.

Step 4: Use Active Language and Call-to-Action
Use active language in your content to create a sense of urgency and engagement. Use action verbs and persuasive phrases that inspire readers to take action. Incorporate a strong and clear call-to-action (CTA) that tells readers exactly what they need to do next, such as “Sign up now,” “Buy today,” or “Call for a free consultation.” Above all, don’t be afraid to ask.

Step 5: Choose the Right Content Format
Select the content format or delivery mechanism that aligns with your objective and resonates with your target audience. It could be a well-crafted sales letter, a persuasive video script, an attention-grabbing social media post, or an impactful email campaign.

Step 6: Highlight Benefits and Unique Selling Points
Emphasise the benefits and unique selling points of your product or service. Clearly communicate how it can solve problems, improve lives, or fulfil specific desires. Use compelling storytelling** techniques to illustrate real-life scenarios and demonstrate the value your offering brings. For the storytelling technique, I’ve included a section below on the StoryBrand® framework, developed by Donald Miller.**

Step 7: Implement Emotional Appeal
Incorporate emotional appeal in your content to connect with your audience on a deeper level. Tap into their aspirations, fears, desires, or dreams to create an emotional resonance that motivates action. Use storytelling**, testimonials, or relatable scenarios to evoke emotions and build trust.

Step 8: Incorporate Social Proof
Include social proof elements in your content to establish credibility and trust. This can be in the form of customer testimonials, case studies, industry awards, or influencer endorsements. Social proof helps reassure potential customers that your product or service delivers on its promises.

Step 9: Test and Refine
Launch your active marketing content and track its performance. Monitor key metrics such as click-through, conversion, and engagement levels. Analyse the results and identify areas for improvement. Refine your content and messaging based on data-driven insights to optimise your future marketing efforts.

Testing your marketing campaign against a rubric

Clarity of Objective

Does the content clearly align with the defined objective?

Target Audience Relevance

Does the content resonate with the identified target audience?

Active Language and call-to-action

Does the content use active language and incorporate a strong and clear call-to-action?

Communication

Are the benefits and unique selling points effectively communicated?

Emotional Appeal

Will the content evoke emotions and connect with the audience on an emotional level?

Social Proof Integration

Are social proof elements effectively incorporated to establish credibility?

Overall Effectiveness

How well does the content drive desired actions and achieve the defined objective?

Engagement Metrics

Once your content has had time to generate results, question if the key engagement metrics (click-through rates, conversion rates, etc.) are meeting your expectations.

Regularly assessing your content against this rubric will help refine your active marketing efforts and optimise your content creation process over time.

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”

Seth Godin

Making use of the StoryBrand® Framework**

Developed by Donald Miller (storybrand.com), Storybrand® provides an approach to storytelling specifically tailored for businesses and their marketing efforts. It centres around clarifying the messaging to engage and connect with the target audience effectively.

Here are some key elements of the StoryBrand® framework:

  • The Character: In StoryBrand®, the customer is the hero, not the brand. The brand plays the role of the guide or mentor who helps the hero achieve their goals or overcome their challenges.
  • The Problem: Clearly identify the problem or challenge that the hero (customer) is facing. This problem should resonate with the audience and create a sense of urgency.
  • The Guide: Position the brand as a knowledgeable and trustworthy guide who can provide a solution to the hero’s problem. The guide offers a clear plan or framework to help the hero achieve success.
  • The Plan: Outline a simple, step-by-step plan that the hero can follow to overcome the problem. This plan should be easy to understand and actionable.
  • The Call to Action: Clearly communicate the next steps that the hero should take to engage with the brand and benefit from the offered solution. This call to action should be specific and easy to follow.
  • The Success Story: Provide examples of how the brand’s solution has transformed the lives of previous customers. Share success stories and testimonials to build trust and credibility.
  • The Brand’s Identity: Clarify the brand’s identity, values, and unique selling proposition. Differentiate the brand from competitors and highlight why the hero should choose the brand over others.

The StoryBrand® framework aims to simplify and clarify messaging, making it easy for customers to understand and engage with. It focuses on positioning the company as the guide that helps customers overcome their challenges and achieve success.

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”

Dr. Seuss

Creating a Marketing Campaign: Passive and Active

Choosing which approach to take doesn’t have to be set in stone, nor does it have to be all-encompassing/campaign-based. It’s perfectly acceptable to mix and match passive and active content and styles throughout your campaign, but it would be wise to increase your results tracking to see over time which style works best for your particular business.

However, to give you a feel for what’s involved in building a passive or active marketing campaign, here’s a quick reminder of the difference and the high-level steps to carry out:

Passive Marketing Campaign

Focuses on creating brand visibility and credibility over time.

  1. Content Strategy Development: Create a comprehensive content strategy that aligns with the target audience’s interests and pain points.
  2. Content Creation: Produce high-quality and engaging content such as blog posts, articles, videos, or infographics that provide value and establish credibility.
  3. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO): Optimise the content for search engines to improve organic visibility and attract relevant traffic to the website.
  4. Social Media Engagement: Establish an active presence on social media platforms, sharing valuable content, responding to comments, and engaging with the audience.
  5. Thought Leadership and Guest Blogging: Position the business as a thought leader by contributing insightful articles or guest blogging on reputable platforms within the industry.
  6. Public Relations and Media Coverage: Leverage public relations strategies to secure media coverage, press releases, or feature stories that enhance brand reputation and reach a wider audience.
  7. Email Marketing and Lead Capture: Implement lead capture mechanisms, such as offering gated content or newsletters, to build an email subscriber list for ongoing engagement.
  8. Analytics and Performance Tracking: Utilise analytics tools to monitor website traffic, engagement metrics, and conversions, allowing for data-driven optimisation and continuous improvement.

Activities might include:

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO): This involves optimising your website and content to rank higher in search engine results. This can help attract more organic traffic to your site.

Content Marketing: Creating and sharing online material (like blog posts, videos, or social media posts) intended to stimulate interest in your products or services without directly promoting a brand.

Public Relations (PR): This includes activities to improve your company’s image and build relationships with the media. It may involve press releases, feature stories, or managing online reviews.

Social Media Engagement: Instead of using social media for direct promotion, many companies use it to engage with their audience, answer questions, and build a community. This can indirectly lead to increased brand awareness and customer loyalty.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM): While SEM can involve paid advertising (active), it can also involve activities aimed at increasing visibility through search engines more passively, like SEO.

 

Active Marketing Campaign

Involves proactive outreach and direct communication with your target audience.

  1. Goal Setting: Clearly define the campaign’s objectives, such as increasing sales by a certain percentage or generating leads.
  2. Target Audience Identification: Identify the specific demographic or target audience for the campaign, ensuring a focused approach.
  3. Message Development: Craft a compelling and persuasive message that resonates with the target audience, highlighting the unique selling points of the product or service.
  4. Channel Selection: Determine the most effective channels to reach the target audience, such as social media platforms, email marketing, or paid advertising.
  5. Campaign Execution: Implement the campaign by deploying tactics like direct email marketing, social media advertising, or targeted online ads.
  6. Monitoring and Optimisation: Continuously track the campaign’s performance, monitor key metrics, and make necessary adjustments to optimise results.
  7. Lead Nurturing and Conversion: Follow up with generated leads promptly, providing additional information, personalised communication, and incentives to encourage conversion.
  8. Evaluation and Analysis: Assess the overall effectiveness of the active marketing campaign, analysing key performance indicators and identifying areas for improvement.

Activities might include:

Direct Sales: Direct outreach to potential customers through cold calling, in-person meetings, or direct mail.

Paid Advertising: This includes pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, display ads, sponsored posts, and direct advertisements on social media platforms.

Telemarketing: Similar to direct sales, telemarketing involves contacting potential customers through phone calls.

Email Marketing: This usually involves sending promotional emails to a list of people who have shown interest in your products or services.

Trade Shows and Events: Participating in industry events, exhibitions, or hosting events can provide direct interaction with potential customers.

The distinction between active and passive marketing isn’t always clear-cut. For instance, a company might use social media platforms for active (paid ads) and passive (community building) marketing. The best marketing strategies often involve active and passive tactics tailored to the company’s specific objectives and target audience.

Passive and active marketing vs. outbound and inbound marketing

If we accept that passive marketing is putting content out there and hoping for a response, and active marketing prompts a response and invites a conversation, you may feel this is not dissimilar to the terms Outbound Marketing and Inbound Marketing. They are often compared with active and passive marketing, and although they don’t align perfectly, it’s worth having a reasonable understanding of both.

Inbound Marketing is a term that HubSpot CEO and co-founder Brian Halligan coined in the early/mid-2000s, and it refers to attracting customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to their needs. It’s about ‘pulling’ customers in by providing value and building relationships. Inbound marketing methods include content marketing, blogs, events, SEO, and social media. Though not perfectly, this approach aligns closely with passive marketing strategies.

Outbound Marketing is the more traditional form where a company initiates the conversation and sends its message to an audience. It’s about ‘pushing’ products or services onto customers through direct advertising, telemarketing, direct mail, and trade shows. This approach aligns more with active marketing strategies, with the key distinction that outbound marketing can often be more interruptive, while active marketing strategies can be both interruptive and permission-based (like email marketing to a subscribed audience).

In Summary:

Passive and active marketing campaigns offer quite different approaches to engaging with your target audience and achieving your marketing goals. By carefully considering your objectives, target audience, and available resources, you can design and implement a marketing campaign that combines the strengths of both approaches whilst remaining completely flexible.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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