Two Terms Marketers Need for Today's Media Landscape

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We thought that the Internet would bring with it a whole wave of new media disruption. We were unprepared for just how massive the disruption has been.

You needn’t look any farther than this one staggering statistic to understand the change that has been afoot in the past short while: Google‘s advertising revenue is larger than that of the entire print industry’s revenue. In the past short while, we have seen the rise in new ways for advertisers to connect with consumers like never before. You can’t throw a marketer down a flight of stairs these days without hearing the terms, real-time bidding, big data, retargeting and native advertising tumbling off of their tongues. It has become so pervasive that it’s beginning to make social media, mobile marketing and plain-old digital advertising seem somewhat antiquated. With this, we’re seeing an increasing amount of media budgets shifting from traditional channels to digital advertising. So, where do you, the business leader, place those ad dollars? Do you spend them with the latest and greatest shiny object? Do you stick to your traditional guns? Do you sprinkle it around in the hopes of hitting the jackpot on the advertising table of roulette?

It is time to create a media model that transcends these divergent ways that consumers are connecting brands.

What if we tossed away the terms we have used to date? What if we forgot all about traditional media, social media, mobile marketing, banner ads, QR codes and more and simplified the media creation process by simply asking if the media is active or passive? Passive media is any form of media where the consumer can’t physically do anything with it, except for consume it (newspaper, television, radio, etc…). Active media is any form of media where the consumer can physically engage with it (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc…). But there’s a hook to this (there is always a hook, isn’t there?). We can’t just look at one aspect of the experience to see whether it is active or passive, we have to look at all four quadrants to find true equilibrium that will drive success.   

Quadrant #1: The Consumer. When is the consumer active or passive with the media channel? Do all consumers want to tweet, share, chat and create when they are engrossed in a TV show late in the evening, or are they most comfortable sitting back and watching the drama unfold? We live in a world where television broadcasters are pushing at a feverish pace to make what was a very passive media channel (sitting back and watching) into an active one (adding widgets, encouraging tweeting and more). Understanding how the consumer best connects to the media is core to understanding what type of advertising they will best engage with. So yes, you can tell TV show viewers to follow along on Facebook, but how many of them simply want to watch the TV show and go to bed?

Quadrant #2: The Media. How do you think Google – as a search engine – would be performing if the sole form of revenue was driven by banner advertising on the search results and not the contextually relevant format of AdWords? In fact, banner advertising is a very simplistic and non-active type of media. Online publishers replicated the print model by creating these little boxes that resided on web pages that had content on them back in the mid-nineties. The model was simplistic: "we have content on a web page, why not put an ad next to it like we do with magazines and newspaper?" While banner advertising still generates billions of dollars in media advertising, the truth is that it is a very passive advertising format that was simply copy and pasted over to the a very active new media (the Web). We could talk about how "interactive" these banner ads are (or were promised to be), but the analytics don’t lie: banner ads couldn’t perform any worse. Over 99% of banner ads fail to generate any kind of click. They are passive forms of media that are pasted into very active digital channels.

Quadrant #3: The Channel. Are you the same person on Google as you are on Facebook as you are when you are reading this post on Harvard Business Review? Digital consumers are not only different, but are both passive and active in the digital platform depending on which channels they are using. When you are doing a search on Google, you have a very different intent and mindset than when you’re on Facebook and connecting to friends or catching up with acquaintances. It becomes abundantly clear that you’re also in a dramatically different media mindset as you read these words than when you’re creating a board on Pinterest. Understanding how these channels operate and which types of advertising matches the consumer’s intent is critical to building a successful advertising campaign.   

Quadrant #4: The Platform. Is the platform an active or passive one? Think about digital books as a medium. Do readers really want links, embedded video, extended audio interviews, sharing capabilities and more? Will they, intuitively, turn what has traditionally been a very passive medium into an active one, simply because book publishers feel they are competing for attention with everyone from YouTube to Twitter? As we watch the "smartening" of the television, it will be interesting to see just how many viewers truly deep dive into the myriad of new ways that television is hoping the viewers will. Most newer televisions are Internet enabled, but what is the true number of households that actually connect their TV sets to the Internet and engage with channels like Netflix and beyond? According to eMarketer, nearly one quarter of US households now have a TV connected to the Internet, so we’re about to find out just how active this typically passive platform can become.

It’s not a zero sum game when it comes to active and passive media.

As with all things, understanding the quadrants and then matching your marketing to best meet the needs of the consumer will be paramount for success. That being said, it is not a zero sum game, and the ways that consumers engage with different forms of media is not an absolute. While some will claim that Twitter is useless unless you’re constantly tweeting and retweeting, there is a large user base that is simply interested in following celebrities (these people are very passive in an active channel). And, for every person who watches The Voice while building up a hearty Doritos stain on their jammies, there is a ever-growing segment that will tweet, share, chat and follow every move that that Team Usher makes (these people are very active in a passive channel). So, instead of worrying about social media marketing, mobile marketing and more, why not sit back as ask yourself these questions: when are our consumers active or passive with our brand? Is our advertising active when they’re active and passive when they’re passive? Are the channels that we’re advertising on active when the consumers are active or passive when they are passive and more? And, lastly, is the platform – in and of itself – a predominantly active or passive one? From there, you can truly start to better understand what a proper advertising mix can look like and you will also be better at defining which opportunities could potentially work against the others that are woefully flawed.

Active media. Passive media. Active consumers. Passive consumers. The world of media continues to change.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Harvard Business Review. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


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