The Medium is the (Email) Message

Recently I was walking through the North Laines in Brighton when a t-shirt in a shop window caught my eye. It was white, with a pink printed photograph of Marshall McLuhan with the quote “The medium is the message” over the image. This t-shirt suddenly took me back to my university days where we spent most of a term studying this exact phrase and the meaning behind it.

Where the phrase comes from

For those unfamiliar with Marshall McLuhan, he was a Canadian philosopher of communication theory, not only famous for coining the phrases “The medium is the message” and “the global village”, but he also predicted the invention of the Internet nearly 30 years before it was created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

“The medium is the message” is a phrase that puts forward the idea that the medium itself, be that text, audio, video, Facebook, newspapers, movies, telephones, iPads, television, blogs, chalkboards, walls for graffiti, or any other form of medium itself is the message, and not the content it carries.

Communication devices 2

For example, it’s your birthday and one of your friends posts on your Facebook wall saying “Happy birthday mate! Hope you have a great day!”, another of your friends sends you an SMS with the exact same message, and another sends you a birthday card again with the same message inside. Your reaction to/perception of each of those messages will be different even though the content itself is exactly the same. Therefore “the medium is the message”.

Another example may be that whispers of a corrupt politician start to surface… Someone writes a blog and posts this to their own website exposing this corruption, to which they receive a barrage of cynicism, skepticism and abuse. An hour later, the exact same content that was posted on the blog post makes its way onto the BBC News website. Suddenly interest in the story is piquing, and there is shock and belief rather than skepticism. Therefore “the medium is the message.”

How it relates to email marketing

In the past few years the way in which emails are being consumed has changed. The uptake of devices such as smartphones and tablets have changed the way in which people read their emails. These days, you cannot assume that the recipient is going to be reading the email whilst they are sitting in front of a desktop PC like before.

Why responsive design can help

With all of these different Internet enabled devices now in circulation, how can you ensure that your content is the message and not the medium… The most cutting-edge advancement in email, which is a direct result of this device/medium segmentation is ‘responsive design’. This changes the form of the email to suit the device that it is viewed on, in order to give the optimum experience on each particular device and best enable the content itself to become the message.

If you were to receive a regular email and open it on your smartphone, your phone would zoom the email out to fit the screen, making the content much smaller, and possibly in some cases illegible. The user would then have to pinch to zoom the content, scroll around in multiple directions to view the content, and may get frustrated, in which case the medium has won, and your message has been lost.

If that same email was responsive, the email structure would change to give the recipient a far superior experience. The text would be legible as it wouldn’t zoom the email out, the user would simply need to scroll vertically to read all of the content, and the call to actions would be clear. This would give your message a much better chance to overcome the medium that it is being viewed on, and ultimately give you a much more successful campaign.

What else should marketers consider?

Another thing to take into consideration would be how each medium affects the recipient’s mindset. Would someone currently in ‘work mode’ sat at their computer in the office respond to an email differently than another person reading the same email on their smartphone whilst relaxing on the sofa at home? I think that they probably would.

In this case, you could use data segmentation to find out who is opening their emails on each device type and tailor a campaign to each device’s recipients. This would help to make sure that the message in your email is not distorted by the recipient’s perception of the medium that it is viewed on.

The medium is the message, but there are ways of improving the message for different medium.