The Medium is Not the Message
Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “The medium is the message,” is at best a Japanese koan (ko-ahn.) You know, “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” and all that? I’m sure I’ll get a thousand ranting emails about this, but I’ve always felt koans to be a silly attempt to sound profound.
McLuhan’s koan is at the top of my list. It was originally published in his 1964 book, Understanding Media. Nearly half a century later later, his disciples are still trying to explain what he meant.
The medium is the medium.
The message is the message.
Ad campaigns don’t fail because someone chose the wrong media. Ad campaigns fail because someone chose the wrong message.
The job of the media is to deliver your message.
Your job is to give the media a message worth delivering.
Each media has its own strengths and weaknesses. And because I’ve spent the last 20 years talking about message, today we’ll glance at media:
Signage: Expensive signage at an intrusively visible business location is often the cheapest advertising your money can buy. Intrusive visibility is the quality that separates landmarks from scenery. You’re intrusively visible when the public sees you without looking for you. Do you have an intrusive location? Have you maximized your signage?
Outdoor: Billboards reach more people for a dollar than any other media and they’re geographically targetable. In other words, you can reach specific pockets of your city with them. Their weakness is that they become invisible after just a few sightings in the same location, so be sure to move your boards every 30 days. Additionally, the average driver is unwilling to look away from the road for longer than eight words. So if you can’t sing your song in eight words or less, billboards aren’t your best bet.
Direct Mail: Like billboards, direct mail lets you target geographically and in theory, psychographically as well, assuming the right member of the household sorts the mail. The problem with direct mail is that most of it gets thrown away unopened. And the costs of printing and delivery have skyrocketed.
Television: Television delivers the highest impact of any media, but unpredictable viewer habits make it difficult to reach the same viewer a second or third time within seven nights sleep. If your message needs repetition, television is even trickier to schedule than radio. And the cost of production is extremely high for an ad that won’t embarrass you. But if you’ve got the cash and it’s not the off-season (summertime,) TV can be a powerful ally.
Radio: Sound is neurologically intrusive and radio feels like a friend. The problem with radio is that most ads are written in such a way that they’re easily ignored, so your ad will need to be presented repeatedly to the same listener. This need for repetition makes scheduling easily botched. Most campaigns are scheduled to reach the largest possible number of people. Consequently, these schedules deliver too little repetition. Be careful you don’t make this mistake. The good news is that radio is the great equalizer. Unlike magazines, television and direct mail, radio ads don’t require a big budget to be world class; radio requires nothing but word skills and imagination.
Newspaper: Newspaper ads need a visual trigger, a picture of your product. This trigger will attract the attention of customers who are consciously in the market for your product, but those who aren’t in the market will fail to see your ad. Consequently, newspaper ads often deliver immediately identifiable results, but these results fail to get better and better over time. In the short run, newspaper wins. In the long run, TV and radio win.
Yellow Pages: Like newspaper, the yellow pages reach people who are consciously in the market. But while newspapers promote products, the yellow pages promote services. The highest goal of a service business is to be the name that immediately comes to mind when the public needs your services. This can be accomplished with Radio, Television, Signage or Billboards. But if your budget doesn't permit you to win customers before they need you, make sure you sing loud in the yellow pages.
Magazines: Perhaps the ultimate tool for psychographic targeting, magazines ads tend to be expensive. Another downside is that most are delivered with very poor frequency, often just once a month. But when your message fits the readership, magazine ads can be awesome.
Internet: The advantage of the internet is that it lets you reach the whole world. The disadvantage of the internet is that you’re competing with the whole world. How will you drive traffic to your site? If your small business has the ability to drive traffic through mass media, a website is often the perfect half step between your advertising and your store. Let your prospective customer get to know you online.
It’s worked well for me.
Roy H. Williams
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