Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Medium is the Message: B2B Marketing, Social Media, and Conversation Context

Ever since Marshall McLuhan published his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, we have been familiar with the phrase "The medium is the message". The medium in which a message is delivered has as much of an effect as the content delivered in that medium.

Today's world of social media needs to be viewed in a similar light. The medium in which a message is delivered is as important to consider as the content of the message itself. As today's marketing organizations consider how to engage in social media forums, not considering the context of the medium being used can lead to a significant change in the overall effect on the message being received.

Social media sites are best compared to social functions in order to understand this effect of context. Like social functions, each social media context has a certain "vibe", which guides the conversation that is accepted.
If you think of this in light of social functions, it becomes clear that certain conversations are appropriate in certain social contexts, and not others. Business meetings are intended to be direct, on topic, and have an agenda-driven vibe. On the other end of the spectrum, parties have a social vibe and only social conversations are generally seen as accepted.

The use of social media for business shares a similar dynamic. The context guides the vibe, which guides the conversations that are accepted. Content of conversations cannot be understood separate from the context of the medium in which they are held.
I wrote recently about our Facebook B2B marketing strategy, which leveraged the context of the Facebook medium to guide the message being delivered. Facebook carries a very social vibe, and our goal with our Facebook strategy is to keep our conversations relevant to that context.
In the context of LinkedIn discussions as a medium, however, "talking shop" is much more expected and anticipated, so the messaging in that medium can be much more business oriented.
If a person at a party brings up a business conversation, or a person in a business meeting tells a party story, the audience is as much influenced by the out-of-context feeling, based on the medium, as they are by the content itself. It is the same in social media. A whitepaper on best practices may contain excellent content, but it is the context of the medium as much as the content itself that influences the audience.
When exploring B2B marketing in social media, understanding this context is critical to understanding how your message is received. McLuhan's prescient observation that the medium is the message is as accurate today as it was years ago.
Many of the topics on this blog are discussed in more detail in my book Digital Body Language
In my day job, I am with Eloqua, the marketing automation software used by the worlds best marketers
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Steve Kellogg said...

Great post Steve. This immediately explains why some are having success with social media and others are not.

It is interesting that we now have to consider 2 levels of relevency.

1. Content
2. Environment

Soon, we might have to consider even more levels of relevency:

1. Content
2. Environment
3. Physical Location (where you are when you receive the message)
4. Message "experience" application (PC, mobile phone, PDA, etc.

Bottom line: No matter how many levels of relevency we end up with, it is still THE main driver that ultimately gets our message through the clutter.