It is quite an unlikely headline to pop up in the news coverage of a blizzard. Yet, it was one of the most popular and viral ones when Storm Jonas hit the United States in January 2016. There must have been rats that were digging themselves out of snow, or dragging around pizza slices bigger than themselves, up and down subway station stairs even in the early 90s. So why is it news now?
The answer probably lies in how our patterns of consuming any form of content, including news, have changed in the last twenty years. And this is one weighty shift all marketers should not just notice but also own to build a winning content distribution strategy.
The evolution of content, be it news, marketing, or even entertainment, cannot be attributed to the increasing scale of content creation alone. Any form of communication is a composite entity made up of content and the medium which delivers it.
So, if it isn’t the message that is responsible for the change, is it the messenger?
McLuhan and the New Media
In 1964, Professor Marshall McLuhan’s seminal work in media theory- ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’, was published. Since then, it has gone on to become one of the keystones in understanding how media and content work in tandem. It could also help us in connecting the dots between blizzards and pizza rat.
He opens the first chapter with the following words, “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”
When McLuhan penned these words, he was dismayed by the way people were using ‘new media’. Of course, new media back then referred to television, movies, and even comics. According to him, people were focusing only on the content- the obvious part of any communication. He, on the other hand, proposed that the power to influence society and the individual rested with the medium itself. The medium could determine how its content is perceived.
Medium is the message
McLuhan elaborates with several examples: Movies, as a communication medium, are not just entertainment. Over time, they have changed the way people perceive the passage of time and speed on-screen. Railways and air travel, as a medium in the physical world, have not just sped up transportation. They have accelerated the pace of human civilization itself.
Similarly, news has evolved from a product developed and printed overnight to being 24×7. It is being constantly delivered to our homes and to our handheld devices through social media, websites, and blogs. The evolution of media has led to this revolution in content. Pizza rat and snow rat can afford to share prime time slots now.
Content and the new ‘New Media’
The definition of new media has changed since the days of McLuhan. Communication is now more seamless and technology, all pervasive. The ‘medium is the message’ thought is more critical now. There is an overwhelming amount of content waiting to be consumed and the choice of medium determines how much of it actually reaches the intended audience.
Brands have been taking to new media with much ease. Many of them are part of inspiring conversations and are building loyal communities. However, when it comes to choosing the right media mix for getting your message across, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. This is precisely because the medium you choose will also govern how your communications and even your brand personality are perceived.
You’ve got promotional mail
Let’s take a look at email marketing. Here is a medium that redeemed itself from its spammy past. It is virtually a phoenix that has risen from the junk folders to become the king of the marketing kingdom. And, it did not become king overnight. The road to the ceremonial chair was paved with much thought through personalization, segmentation, automation, and increase in accessibility. As a medium, it reinvented itself to become more relevant to its users. Today, brands and blogs do not shy away from using it to reach out to their customers.
Allow or Block
Now, look at any new technology or media that contemporary marketers are adding to their repertory. They are at a crucial juncture where people can perceive them as spammy or truly relevant, depending on the way they are deployed. Take for instance, push notifications. While emails can reach only up to your users’ inboxes, push notifications travel an extra mile and connect with people on their screens, where they are currently present. It does not require users to share their email addresses or ask for a login. All it requires is a simple opt-in and it will reach them even if they are not on your website or accessing their emails.
However, this medium is in a nascent stage compared to its marketing counterparts like email or social. Broadcast five notifications a day to all your users without segmentation or geo-targeting, you can watch them flee. But use it smartly- personalize it, send it at the right time; your brand will be perceived as agile, relevant, and proactive.
As McLuhan commented, “the personal and social consequences of any medium result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” In effect, your media mix will become your larger message- the tone of your communications and the story of your brand. The experience of your users will be defined way more by the medium they are interacting with than the content you are offering. So as you churn out more content, spare a thought for the messenger.
Illustrations by Richa Arora