The Medium is the Message

The title of this post was a term coined by Marshall McLuhan back in 1964.  And it may be the most interpreted and misinterpreted expression of modern times.  In its simplest definition the phrase means that the medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.  So the phrase should really be “The Medium is Part of the Message” or “The Medium Influences the Message”.  While these may be more accurate, they lack the simplicity and elegance of “The Medium is the Message”.

No matter how we want to split hairs about the phrase, the medium we choose to communicate impacts how we communicate.  For example, you can use a variety of media to communicate a key message about your company or product.  Here are a few examples and how they impact the message:

Advertisement – Headline and image must grab attention and limited copy must motivate to act.

Billboard – An image and headline to convey the message.

Brochure – Extended space communicates more detail for those who are engaged.

Commercials – Time limit to generate interest, communicate the message and motivate to act.  Use of sound impacts message.

Direct Mail – Must interest the recipient to open and engage.  Longer space to communicate a number of benefits and motivate to act.

Public Relations – Less control of message but viewed as more trustworthy because it has been independently verified.

Web Site – Landing page must speak to viewer’s interest as defined by a search term or link.  If landing page engages, more detailed pages can provide deeper information.  Audio/visual can be used.

So you can see how one message would be communicated in different ways depending on the medium used.  The important point is that you should stick to your key message regardless of the medium used in order to reinforce the message.  Changing messages based on the medium is a mistake because it confuses your market and you lose the leverage of your marketing spending.

Using a variety of media helps you communicate with your audience based on the medium they prefer.  Some people are more aural and will react to a radio or television commercial or to a web site that uses audio/visual.  Others need to read, but a short message is all they need so a magazine ad appeals to them.  Others read, but want all the information so a brochure or four-page direct mail letter interests them.

What about the idea that the medium impacts perceptions about the message?  Do perceptions about a commercial on a popular national television program differ from perception about copy on a web site?  I guess we probably make judgments, consciously or subconsciously, about the message based on the medium.  A national commercial translates into “big-time company”, where anyone can put up a decent web site for very little money.   And despite the knock on mass media for lax fact checking, most people put higher value on press coverage than an ad or commercial in the same publication or program.

I think these perceptions also depend on the quality of the execution of the message.  A well-produced commercial for a wine delivers more positive perceptions than a local liquor store’s low-budget commercial that it carries the same wine.

So almost 50 years after McLuhan coined the phrase, marketers are still finding truth in The Medium is the Message.

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