Understanding that the Medium is the Message Matters More Than Ever
Since 1964, when Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "The medium is the message" in his most well-known book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, folks have scratched their heads over and argued about the meaning of those words. It's quite simple really: What McLuhan is telling us is that the characteristics of a medium influence how the message is received and understood.
McLuhan is known for his visionary interpretation of the effects of technological communication on society. Forty years ago, he predicted electronically connected media would eventually produce a huge global village. With Web 2.0 and mobile devises that do everything but make our lunches, McLuhan's prediction is coming to fruition. In my mind, he is more relevant today than ever.
For marketers and other communicators of messages, we need to go back and reread McLuhan with a new understanding. That simple phrase written during a moment of genius tells us that all recipients of a message have a relationship with the medium carrying that message. Furthermore, we need to understand that relationship. Otherwise, our message fails to deliver the impact necessary to create the corresponding action necessary for our marketing or communications to succeed.
With the coming of social media and the rising importance of web sites to commerce, I have been thinking a lot about how our business communications needs to fits those mediums. With Television and radio before it, newspapers and magazines, direct mail and e-mail, we have studied and learned how to shape the content so the medium's influence and that content work well together. When we achieve that purpose, the message is received and understood as was the desire of the advertiser or marketer or publicist or public relations professional or business communicating the message. The message and the medium are in sync in terms of how they influence the recipients.
For example, a super bowl ad is being carried by television and it enters our living rooms because we choose to watch the football game. If the ad fails to be at least as visual, interesting and surprising as the medium, the message will be lost on most viewers. We would ignore a print message by itself; but put that message into the mouth of a well-known spokesperson or in the context of a good story that moves us to watch, and the ad has a much better chance to move us.
That is what made the Pepsi ads so many years ago with Mean Joe Green exchanging his game jersey for the little boy's Pepsi so relevant and successful. We knew Joe, or we thought we did. But the ad surprised us by showing us a softer side of the muddied, tired and seemingly defeated football player. And the little boy's concern for Mean Joe and his reaction touched us. The same can be true for NASCAR. TV is the perfect medium to bring us both the race and the advertising, whether the ad is painted on a driver's car or features the sport during the commercial. It works because it is in sync with the medium bringing us both the race and the advertising.
But what works on a web site or in social media? The medium in both instances seems to be the same: It is a screen attached to our computers or a mobile device. But is it? Is the relationship we have with our desktop or our laptop the same, and doesn't location play a role in that relationship? And wouldn't our relationship with our PDA or our phone be different, as well?
McLuhan would tell us we need to study those media to understand how to shape the message. I don't think we are doing a good enough job of that yet. We spend lots of time talking about the content, but I think we do so without knowing enough about how our readers or viewers relate to the media itself. When we argue that content must have value, everyone can agree. But I think McLuhan would argue that what has value when received on a desktop is quite different from what has value when received on an iPhone.
I think we must immerse ourselves in understanding the relationship created between the new medium and its audiences. It should matter very much to those of us shaping content for those media. I am one marketer that is going to invest far greater time in understanding those relationships, and I promise to share them with you.
Tags: Marshall Mcluhan, Global Best Practices, Marketers, Social Media, Pepsi, iPhone, Global IT News, Mean Joe Greene, NASCAR, PDA, messages,