Ask 10 different business people with varied backgrounds about the difference between online and offline marketing and you'll probably get 10 distinct answers. 

Us full-time marketers might have an easier time answering the question. But would our answer be enough to educate less experienced business owners, younger marketing specialists, and even other specialties like sales, engineering or product development?

Marketers spend a lot of time splitting hairs, placing labels on tactics and overcomplicating everything in the marketing world. Many of us strive to stand out by either trying something new or creating fancy buzzwords to describe shiny new toys/techniques.

Let’s step back and take an honest look at marketing — both online and offline — with the goal of piecing everything together in a rational fashion.

Online vs. Offline Channels

Marketers from all levels of experience and industries like to draw a line between online and offline marketing. And it makes sense to separate the two when they require specialized skillsets to do each right.

That’s partially why we ended up with this division today. Many of us have deep experience working with more traditional marketing strategies and tactics, including trade shows, mass advertising, in-store or point of purchase promotions and direct marketing.

The introduction of new touchpoints over the past 15 or so years have led to a diversification of skills required. 

Now we have websites, blogs, email marketing, social media, mobile marketing, search engine marketing and pretty much anything that customers access directly via the internet.

Much as we divvied up departmental structures in major corporations according to specialties or disciplines — accounting, marketing, sales, etc. — most companies have drawn a line between online and offline. After all, a print production designer and a website developer come to the table with some major distinctions in skills and areas of focus.

But is this the right way to manage it holistically? Or is it just the easy answer when we have enough job requisitions available to specialize as much as possible?

Let’s think about this from another angle …

How Customers See It

Every single one of us is not only a marketer or businessperson. We are also customers.

If you flip the lens and look at this topic from the other side, you will quickly find that customers don’t care how you reach them. 

What they do see are things like:

  • Your brand and value proposition
  • How you talk to them
  • The look and feel of your content, advertisements and other materials
  • Whether your product or service meets their needs
  • What level of satisfaction they get from working with you, your company or your offering

What do all of these suggest? That marketing is really about a unified customer experience.

Sure, you need to work to optimize the results for each tactic and touchpoint. That’s how you know what does and does not work with your target audience.

But in the end, the customer sees everything as one entity. No matter if it’s online or offline. They simply see your brand.

Integrated Marketing is the Bridge

This goes back to an old school concept: Integrated Marketing.

We talked about integrated marketing decades ago. This isn’t a new idea. But somehow over the years, we’ve moved away from it.

It’s high time we move back toward the light.

The beauty of integrated marketing, where online and offline become one, is that we focus on what matters — the customers, their needs and desires, and how our products and brand messaging suit those customers.

This isn’t about building web personas so you can force feed a sales funnel to the customers. It’s about ushering them along so they can find what they need.

Integrated marketing placed a great deal of emphasis on a concept called the customer lifecycle. Today you hear terms like sales funnel and buyer’s journey, which are valid concepts. But they aren’t new. They’re just a new spin on something we have used successfully for years on end.

If the customer lifecycle is the center of the universe, then all of the various strategies and tactics should be overlaid on top of it.

Sometimes, that calls for offline marketing. Other times, it’s online. But if you look at it as one unified experience for your prospects and customers, it changes how you will plan and execute your marketing tactics.

Aligning Online and Offline

In my earlier career, we cooked up a very simple model for mapping tactics across the customer lifecycle. I referred to it as my “Media Matrix,” for lack of a better term.

The matrix placed all of the stages of the customer lifecycle across the top row (x-axis), and all of the available tactics down the lefthand side (y-axis).

Next, we took each target audience (persona in today’s terminology) and created a custom matrix for each. In each box, we made a judgment call on whether or not a specific tactic made sense for that stage in the customer lifecycle. Some did, while others clearly did not.

When we identified which boxes were realistic, we set SMART goals in each box. This gave us a clear mission for how to use each tactic to influence movement toward a sale, and toward evangelism and repeat business for “won” customers.

It didn’t matter whether a tactic was online or offline, just that it was used the right way at the right time. This approach still works today. Try it — you'll find it is easy to do.

It's All Just Marketing

We talk a lot about the differences between online, offline, mobile and other types of marketing. In the end, they are all just marketing. 

By integrating all tactics across the board, you’ll find that your marketing efforts will be more effective, and your customers will love you for it.

Title image "Lunch Break" (CC BY 2.0) by  Nigel Burley