Is the Medium the Message?

Mar 4, 2016

THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. That seminal phrase, first spoken by Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, has become a timeless representation of media engagement.

Many have tried to decipher its meaning, but it might be more elusive than we think. Analysts have pointed out that when McLuhan spoke of "the medium" he wasn't referring to television or radio, but how electronic media can become "an extension of ourselves." In the same way that a hammer extends our arms, making it possible for us to do something we couldn't achieve before, a medium – at least by McLuhan's definition – extends our reach and capabilities in a new and metamorphic way.

"When a medium is put into action, it affects everything, from interpersonal dynamics to attitudes and public sentiment."

The "message" of which McLuhan spoke is a tricky point, too. Most think that by message he meant content: a TV show, a radio ad, a book. In fact, it's more likely that he was referring to the change brought about by a medium — say, that hammer. When a medium is put into action, it affects everything, from interpersonal dynamics to attitudes and public sentiment.

Think of it like this: what's being communicated isn't as important as the way in which it's being communicated.

The Internet didn't exist in its current form when McLuhan wrote the book "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man." Remarkably, his ideology and writings don’t just hold water today, they are eerily prescient. The question now is this: if a simple hammer is a medium for change, is the smartphone the true embodiment of this principle?

Mobile Shaping our Lives

Mobile devices are an extension of ourselves. There's really no other way to look at it. The utility they provide, from maps to shopping, banking, and general communication, has expanded our capabilities perhaps more than anything that came along prior. Mobile is influencing language, the way we talk to others, and how we engage with both people and brands. In other words, mobile technology has completely altered the way we function and exist — and it's creating new behavior and opportunities for the world at large.

What this all means is that a consumer's reaction to mobile content is as important as what it promises to do for them. As marketers, we're preconditioned to create compelling offers. We've been trained to select platforms and formats based on their ability to effectively convey our messaging. We gravitate toward technology like programmatic, as it allows us to match offer to audience and produce dynamic, uber-relevant campaigns.

Think about the vast amounts of data now available to advertisers. Whereas once marketers relied on very limited measurement tools to determine who saw their ads in offline media channels, we're now able to pinpoint our perfect audience wherever they are, and distribute highly personalized messaging. That puts even more of an emphasis on the advertising offer. With the power to customize messaging at our fingertips, we often focus on providing value above all else.

But in order to really bring about McLuhan's brand of change, which when we're talking marketing comes in the form of engagement, we have to consider how consumers will respond to not only what we have to say, but the medium with which we say it. Will our content provoke an emotional reaction? What impression is likely to stay with prospects after they've seen an ad and moved on? These considerations are just as important as the ad content itself, particularly when it's transmitted through a mobile device.

That's because smartphones are increasingly perceived as an intimate and irreplaceable part of their users' lives. For many, they're the primary means of accessing digital content, social media, video, and much more. Mobile devices have gone from a convenience to being impossible to live without. According to one study conducted for Motorola, 60 percent of Americans — and 84 percent of 18 to 29 year olds sleep with their phones. What's more, 17 percent of women said they would rather give up their best friend than go a week without their mobile device.

As their reliance on mobile devices has grown, consumers have also adjusted their expectations of the medium. Now, they naturally look for information and messages to be on point. They've seen enough precision-targeted ads to know that mobile marketing can be contextually relevant, deliver real value, be additive to the information they actively sought, and complement their current wants and needs.

Tribes and Traditional Media

Sometimes, those needs include belonging to something bigger than themselves. Another aspect of McLuhan's discourse has to do with the idea that electronic media can create a new kind of tribal society, much the same way that spoken stories and the early reproduction of written content did in years past. He coined the expression "global village" to describe this phenomenon.

When you think about mobile media's ability to capture critical moments in our society, whether it's a news story that breaks on Twitter or an event that's live-streamed on Periscope, it's plain to see that mobile technology can contribute to building modern-day tribes.

"Mobile advertising that helps to create an experience, rather than merely incite an action, can turn consumers into advocates."

The marketing opportunity here lies in brand tribes—activating them, and feeding their desire for information. If we can create branded content that offers greater insight into a company, its heritage, its values, and its philosophy, we can energize and rally fans. Mobile advertising that helps to create an experience, rather than merely incite an action, can turn consumers into advocates. Those ads can greatly extend a brand's reach and positively influence its ideal audience.

That isn’t where mobile’s transformative influence ends. Back in 2014, Forbes reported that the simultaneous use of a second screen with TV is “the new normal.” Increasingly, that screen belongs to a smartphone, so not only is mobile modifying how consumers communicate with each other, it’s altering traditional consumer spite of the fact that it’s been deeply entrenched for decades. Due in large part to its constant close proximity to users, mobile is proving to be the more powerful medium. The content it delivers is immediate and interactive, and provides value far beyond entertainment.

"Due in large part to its constant close proximity to users, mobile is proving to be the more powerful medium."

More and more, that content is also location-specific. Location-based mobile technology has allowed marketers to redesign the way consumers shop. We can guide them through stores straight to the products they seek, and mobilize buyers in real time. Geo-specific advertising fits in with the new mobile-first behavior in that it serves a tangible purpose and affects societal behavior at large. But to properly connect with modern audiences, marketers must keep their mobile content both utility-driven and interesting. It needs to be seamlessly integrated into the consumer's mobile experience.

Overall, mobile has become such a necessary extension of our lives that it feels like X-ray vision or added intelligence. Advertising, therefore, should be that much more personal and useful, or it will only intrude and disrupt the user.

The Role of “Native” Ads

The concept of seamless integration goes hand in hand with our theoretical “native” advertising of today. McLuhan wrote that, "No medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media." Mobile, combined with a truly native ad format, has the potential to add value without intruding too much on your audience.

Effectively executing on this potential is more easily said than done. In its current state, most native advertising doesn’t provide truly useful informa- tion when and how consumers need it most. Instead, it’s used as cover for the same old ad message.

"If we want advertising to add to the mobile medium in a meaningful way, we have to recalibrate our thinking and our approach."

If we want advertising to add to the mobile medium in a meaningful way, we have to recalibrate our thinking and our approach. Native isn’t the push media of days gone by, and it shouldn’t be treated that way. It can certainly take customers further down the purchase funnel, but only when the content is customized, compelling, and relevant to the consumer on multiple levels.

"Native ads, whether on mobile or the desktop, have to be communicated in such a way that they're as much a part of the medium as the medium itself."

Native ads, whether on mobile or the desktop, have to be communicated in such a way that they're as much a part of the medium as the medium itself. This is something that many marketers still struggle with. Research has shown that some consumers still aren't always clear on what constitutes a native ad, so transparency is one area in need of improvement. Another is imparting value. We need to get to the point where consumers see native advertising not as marketing in disguise, but as useful information that can enhance their mobile experience. Last year, the IAB and Edelman Berland released a guide to producing better sponsored content that was based on the result of a consumer survey. Among the findings were that brands should strive to be relevant, authoritative, and authentic when creating native ads. They should try to tell a story, and of course, pick the right partner site.

All of these guidelines are consistent with what we know to be true about modern-day ads: they resonate with consumers when they provide value. That value can come in the form of the brand's expertise and unique perspective on their market, but it can also be informative content proffered to the customer on behalf of the brand.

"Native content is primed to become another extension of the consumer."

Native content is primed to become another extension of the consumer that "the medium is the message" mantra speaks about. By educating mobile users - as Home Depot does when it tells them how to properly hang a picture, or Pantene does by offering hair care advice—brands can help them achieve something they couldn't do before. When marketers devise innovative native ads that add value to the web or mobile experience by providing information, those ads become practical for brands and customers alike.

A Medium Within a Medium?

When we talk about mobile's role in the new media landscape, we can't overlook apps. But where do they fit into the mix? One way of looking at it is that mobile apps straddle mediums; they have a lot in common with desktop sites, but offer content in a unique, medium-specific package. Another is to think of them as a medium within a medium.

"Expandable ads, rich media, interstitials, video— all of these can be used to add value to the mobile environment."

As such, mobile apps offer a new host of possibilities for engaging consumers. Expandable ads, rich media, interstitials, video — all of these can be used to add value to the mobile environment. At the same time, the utilitarian format of apps makes them feel as though they're owned entirely by the brand. To ingratiate themselves with consumers, in-app ads must deliver messaging with a similar purpose, such as facilitating an action, or making a mobile act easier. Consumers visit apps with a goal in mind, whether it's to read the news, catch up on social updates made by friends, or send a message. Shouldn't the ads they see serve their needs in a similar way?

So, is the Medium the Message?

It's been more than fifty years since McLuhan's theory was unleashed on the world. Did he get it right then? Does it apply now?

Mobile is transformative. We’ve argued it’s a medium that’s changing us by being additive to our knowledge, entertainment, and experiences. Is it singularly the message at the same time? We think so. It’s ability to shape and mold our lives, and provide information and utility, is so important that we think it’s an unparalleled extension of ourselves that challenges all conceptions of communications, media, and marketing. If so, let’s go forth and build a mobile consumer experience that has not been imagined to date.

Download your copy of The Programmatic Mind Issue #10 at