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Will the message ever trump the medium?

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I recently spoke on an American Marketing Association (AMA)/Bite Communications panel in San Francisco with a stellar cast, including Bill Wohl of HP, Paul Burrin of Citrix Online, Will Valentine of Visa and moderator Brad Berens of DMG Events.

The conversation was dominated by—surprise!—the role of social media in our communications strategies.

We live in an age where the number of active Facebook users (750 million) dwarfs the largest online news site, Yahoo (73 million unique monthly visitors), by more than 10 times.

And we’re entering an age where mobile will become the predominant way we consume media.

That got me thinking: Everyone is so focused on the medium. Will we ever see a shift to the message becoming more important than the medium? And can we ever get to a point where the message is so interesting that it transcends all media—and renders them unimportant?

The late social scientist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message” in the mid-1960s. His big idea? That the way information is delivered in a society is at least as important, if not more, than the content itself.

Clearly, we marketers embrace McLuhan’s postmodern charge. We are hyper-fixated on “how” we communicate a message—from the precision of our 140-character tweets, the calculated frequency of our blog posts, the snarkiness of our viral videos, to the visual impact of our infographics, and more.

It makes sense. We are early in the revolution of social media. This is a new technology that marketers must master and agencies must guide their clients through. Each wave of technical innovation has been the shiny object that requires our focus, as new communications, measurement and monetization platforms continue to pop up.

But at what cost and for how long? Based on the adoption of most technologies, I would say we will be fixated on social media for the next decade. 

That’s assuming you already have “what” you want to communicate. If not, wouldn’t your organization benefit more if you re-allocated the time spent thinking about social media back to Marketing 101, such as: understanding your customer segments and their needs and buying behaviors, and then coming up with compelling, targeted messages? That would properly relegate social media to one of many efficient, downstream message distribution channels at your disposal.

Focusing on the technology of a medium dumbs down the discussion of marketing. Ultimately, it’s easy to understand how Tweetdeck works and what social media monitoring tools can do for you. However, it will always be more difficult to define a value proposition and a compelling reason for someone to buy. 

We collectively may be participating in the conversation that most people can participate in. But what good is it if the conversation is not the most important to driving business?

I am a huge supporter of social media and leverage it in our marketing mix. But its top-of-mind status begs the question whether the medium should be more important than the message. I think if our focus was on the message, our marketing might actually be better. However, it is difficult to envision this shift until we embrace a post-postmodern marketing world.

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