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Is the medium still the message in the digital age?

Posted November 20, 2018
hands holding up a phone, letter, email and smartphone

When renowned communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he could only have imagined what future forms ‘the medium’ would entail.

McLuhan believed there was a symbiotic relationship between the content (message) and the channel (medium) used to transmit it. In other words, whether the medium is television, print or digital, its form embeds itself in the message to influence how consumers perceive it.

Fast forward five decades and this phrase still has meaning, even though the mediums have changed dramatically. For example, a mobile experience is now critical to the overall customer journey as smartphones now serve as an extension of ourselves.

The choice of medium(s) and strategies employed to communicate through them will determine how — and how_well_— consumers will respond to your brand. With this in mind, tweaking your company’s approach in both regards is imperative to future success.

Retain a human touch in the age of tech

In the digital age, we’re constantly seeing new business models emerge such as peer-to-peer networks, blockchain, social shopping and others. But, companies don’t always know how best to utilize these channels. As McLuhan once suggested in an interview, “When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos… We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what the new form is going to do to all the assumptions we had before.”

Rather than retrofitting new platforms and technologies to uphold an existing business model, companies should explore how these new mediums can help to create a strategy that improves upon the customer experience. “[Take for example] high-tech companies [which] often have no direct customer interface. They rely on monitoring through mobile apps or looking at what people are clicking on,” says David Anderson, chairman of Seattle-based management training company Lean Kanban and author of Fit For Purpose: How Modern Businesses Find, Satisfy and Keep Customers. “What they’re missing is why someone is using their product.

Innovation and embracing technology’s ability to improve the user experience is key, but it should never nudge the customer aside. Anderson suggests focusing on improving customer loyalty through new mediums of interaction. By using the wide array of new channels now available, like virtual assistants, augmented reality and conversational bots, brands are better equipped to deliver a high-touch, personalized level of service to their customers

Create a customer connection through mobile

While a human touch is essential, some forms of technology have become such a big part of consumers’ lives that their value to brands can’t be overstated.

Consider mobile devices and the intimacy of the smartphone relationship. For many people, their phone is the first thing they reach for in the morning and the last thing they look at before going to sleep. And, we aren’t solely using them to talk and chat, but to browse online. One study fromthe Pew Research Institutefound that 89 percent of mobile users go online daily and that 31 percent say they are constantly online.

According to Doron J. Fetman, founder and CEO of New York-based creative business development agency Eff Creative Group, characteristics like screen size and haptic technology can make mobile phones a completely unique medium. “Users touch and feel the icons and elements of their apps and mobile sites, and they value clear, efficient user experience choices over complexity,” he says.

When it comes to user experience, this medium has a huge impact on the way the message is consumed, and companies must take this into consideration. The way we typically use smartphones and tablets allows companies to “direct consumers to perform specific actions in a way that’s more targeted than in other channels,” Fetman says. “Users on mobile devices can be overwhelmed by choices with very little screen space, [so] the most effective mobile strategies (simplify) the user journey to a linear experience.”

This includes clearly laying out the steps you want your customer to take, eliminating confusing choices and asking as little from the user as possible. “The focus should always be on suggestion instead of information collection,” says Fetman. “When consumers no longer have questions on what to do next and are in the ‘flow of acceptance’, they feel comfortable enough to perform whatever key action the business needs them to complete.”

The medium is still the message, to be sure — but as that medium changes, companies’ strategies for engaging consumers must change as well. Understanding how consumers use each digital channel and customizing communications for every platform can earn your business the trust, loyalty and affinity you strive to generate with every message you send.

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