Implementing change series: Combine active and passive strategies for high-impact results

Implementing a new project, cultural change, movement, etc. is never easy. But one thing that can make it easier is to define each of your strategies as either active or passive.

Dog actively chasing a ball
“photomarathon15” by Delphine Savat, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Implementing a new project, cultural change, movement, etc. is never easy.  But one thing that can make it easier is to define each of your strategies as either active or passive.

Passive vs. Active Strategy

Most of us are familiar with the line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” This is the classic example of a passive strategy; they build the place for people to enjoy, but they make no effort to encourage people to come. The idea is, if it’s there and people want it, they will find it. While it makes for an inspiring movie, it’s only partially true when it comes to implementing change with results. These types of passive, or indirect strategies, do help support the overall strategy, but they must be mixed with active strategies as well.

An active strategy is much more direct; if you do this action, you can expect a specific result related to your goal directly from that action. For example, in a business, if your goal is to increase sales, branding marketing (image ads, corporate sponsorships of community causes) would be passive to making a sale, while sales representatives asking for purchase, coupons, special sales offers etc. are direct/active strategies.

Examples: Politics and OER

One example that I think can hit home for everyone right now is politics. Instinctively, we all know that complaining about politics or debating with our contacts on social media isn’t going to lead directly to change. We may change a mind, eventually, but that isn’t going to solve the larger issues.

  • Holding a demonstration or protest: Most people would think that this is active, but, since it usually won’t lead to changing someone’s mind or changing an outcome, it’s passive
  • Calling your elected representatives and asking them to vote a specific way on a bill: Active
  • Venting on Facebook: Passive
  • Donating to an organization who will directly go and advocate for change: Passive for you, but active in the sense that you are financially supporting someone else to directly ask for change (which you may not be able to do on your own)

In my work for Rice University’s OpenStax, I consult with colleges and universities to encourage faculty to transition to Open Educational Resources (OER), including free textbooks. As part of this process, each school writes a strategic plan that includes specific strategies they will complete to encourage faculty to adopt. 

The question I always ask them is: Does this strategy involve you directly asking faculty to adopt an OER? If the answer is yes, then you have a active/direct strategy, if the answer is no, then you have a passive strategy.

  • Having a display of OER textbooks on the campus. The faculty will see them and look at them and consider adopting them: Passive
  • Going to a faculty member’s office and asking them to pilot an OER:  Active
  • Hosting a faculty panel discussion about OER: Passive
  • Having a sign-in sheet at the above panel and following-up with each attendee afterward individually to ask them to adopt an OER: Active
  • Offering grants in exchange for adoption: Active

Combining Passive and Active Strategies for Results

The key is not to eliminate passive strategies, the goal is to mix both passive and active strategies in a way that creates momentum.

For example, this blog post is a passive strategy, but if I send it to people so they know the difference between the two types of strategies and then use that to help them incorporate both into a strategic plan, that creates momentum. If the protest/demonstration you hold drives PR and traffic to your website, you can use that traffic to ask them to sign-up for more information, sign a petition, etc. thus turning that passive strategy into a way for you to move forward with more resources and support.

The most important thing is that you identify and consider your combination of passive and active strategies and plan for effective results.

Where is the “break” in your campaign or initiative?

A chain with a link that is broken
“Las cadenas se cortan por el eslabón mas débil / Chains break by the weakest link” by Hernán Piñera, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Previously, I discussed measuring marketing/initiative success based on outcomes, not actions. So what if your campaign isn’t successful? How do you find the “break”?

The best way is to compare to previous data and industry standards.

Previous data

Previous data is your data from previous campaigns.


  • During your last three sales events, percent of people who walked into your dealership purchased a car.
  • Percent of people who click on your web ad who then come in to purchase a car.
  • Percent of the faculty you invite to a workshop who attend the workshop.
  • Percent of the faculty who attended a webinar and then adopted an OER textbook.
  • Last year, you upped your gym time to x hours per week and lost x inches within x months.

Industry standards

Most industries, especially trade organizations, publish industry standards and research studies that show data comparison points.


  • Health experts say that if you cut x calories every day, you will lose x pounds in a year.
  • A national statistic shows that x% of faculty who attend an Open Educational Resource workshop and write a public review of a book will adopt the book they reviewed.
  • Auto industry statistics say that x% of people who walk in the door will purchase a vehicle on that day.
  • Email campaigns have an average of a x% click-through rate.

Comparing data to find the “break”


  • Previous car sale weekends drew in x number of people and industry standard is a closure rate of x%.
    • The number of people coming in was higher than previous data.
    • The close rate was lower than industry standard.
    • So the break is your closure rate.
  • In the past, x faculty have attended your Open Educational Resource conference, and x% of faculty who attended adopted OER.
    • The number of faculty who attended was down this year from previous years.
    • The percentage of faculty adopting was the same as previous years.
    • So the break is the number of faculty attending.
  • You’ve increased your workouts, which has worked in the past, and you’ve cut back your calorie count as industry statistics have suggested.
    • The break could be either your diet or your workouts, or something else.

A word of caution

Just because you find where your “break” is, doesn’t mean the reason for the break is easy to identify. You need to do a lot of research to find why the break happened.

For more information on this, read Addressing the Question: Measuring Advertising ROI.

From the above examples:

  • If more people walked into the door for your car sale event but less people bought, there are a number of potential reasons:
    • Your advertising campaign attracted the wrong type of people, such as non-buyers.
    • The economy is uncertain, so the industry standard closure rate isn’t accurate currently.
    • Your sales team is new and not at the normal closure rate yet.
    • The computer system to check people’s credit scores went down, which significantly slowed the sales process.
  • If you have fewer people coming to your Open Educational Resource workshop, but the rate of adoptions amongst those that do show is still good, there are a number of potential reasons:
    • The workshop was on a day with competing events going on.
    • The way you marketed the workshop didn’t work.
    • Bad time of year for the workshop.
    • Another initiative (and meetings surrounding it) are the priority right now.
  • If you increased your workouts and cut your calories but are still not seeing a reduction in your waist, some potential reasons are:
    • Not enough variance in your workouts (only doing cardio, doing the same thing every day).
    • There’s “hidden” calories, such as in sauces, that you aren’t factoring into your daily caloric count.
    • Your calories are down, but they are mostly from processed foods (high sodium, sugar, etc.).

Measure marketing/initiative success based on outcomes, not actions

S - specific, significant, stretching M - measurable, meaningful, motivational A - agreed upon, attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented R - realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented T - time-based, time-bound, timely, tangible, trackable
“SMART Goals” by Aaron Davis, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the biggest mistakes we often make with marketing campaigns and initiatives is we measure actions, not outcomes. In order to be successful, we need to clearly define our goals and then clearly define what success is, based on outcomes.


If your goal is to impact a large number of your students by utilizing Open Educational Resources vs. expensive textbooks

Not success*:

  • Number of meetings held
  • Number of people who attended a workshop
  • Having an event or display


  • Number of students no longer paying for a textbook that were before
  • Percent of student body no longer paying for a textbook

If your goal is to sell cars

Not success*:

  • Number of phone calls into the dealership
  • Web traffic
  • Test drives
  • Advertising budget amount spent
  • Click rates


  • Car sales

If your goal is to become thinner

Not success*:


  • Inches lost
  • Reduction in clothing size (although brand sizes vary heavily)

* The items listed under “not success” are useful, they will help you accomplish your goals, but when you are asked “What did you accomplish?” or “Was your initiative successful?,” you shouldn’t respond with these as your answers. For example, if someone asks “Did you reach your goal of becoming thinner?” it doesn’t make sense, or answer the question, to respond with “Well, I went to the gym three times this week.”