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Why the medium is not the message in the digital age.

June 12, 2020 · John Dodds

Back in 1964, a Canadian communications thinker named Marshall McLuhan coined the term “The medium is the message” in his book Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. He proposed that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be the primary focus of study. Speaking to marketing professionals about their marketing objective is, the response is often,  

“ I want to go viral on social media.”

Not only is this thinking misguided, but it is also wasteful. Media is and always has been a delivery method. Different media have different characteristics. But rather like a train traveling across America empty, or a plane landing without passengers thousands of miles from its original destination, there is no point in the delivery method if there are no passengers. In the case of media, the passengers are ideas crafted into messages.

My sprightly and razor-sharp Mother received a letter in the post yesterday from Nurse Mary at her local surgery. She wrote a heartfelt and personal note to patients of the surgery living on their own. My Mother was “deeply touched” by the message. She felt that she was not in “alien territory” anymore. She phoned the surgery, in itself not an easy task when you are partially sighted. “Hello, would you like an appointment? “No, thank you,” she replied, “I just wanted to tell Nurse Mary how much her message meant to me.”

The message defines the experience

I am sure that Nurse Mary didn’t start with a letter and then think, “how will I fill this page?” Her objective was to make her patients feel closer at a time of isolation. She executed her intention perfectly, with kind thoughts and words, softly spoken and delivered in a letter.

As organizations seek to fill their owned, earned, and paid-for mediums with “content,” it is well worth remembering what the purpose of that content is aiming to do. If you can move your audience to be “deeply touched,” you will achieve far more than most can ever hope for.

As Rudyard Kipling once said, “ Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

And that is why the message, correctly targeted and elegantly and lovingly crafted, will always be what anyone wants to receive, however that message is delivered.