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What Does “The medium is the message” Mean for Customer Experience?

It’s just five simple words. The medium is the message. Most of us send dozens of messages every day, in email, Twitter, Facebook, and SMS. And we all know that, along with TV, radio, theater, and print, those are all examples of media.

After that, all that remains in the medium is the message is the most common verb in English and two instances of the same definite article.

Yet despite its simplicity, Marshall McLuhan’s most famous utterance is widely and persistently misunderstood.

McLuhan would have it no other way. The iconoclastic professor from Edmonton was the master of misdirection, provocation, and the willfully obtuse. He proudly described his own style as “mosaic.” And as with a mosaic, it’s tempting to get distracted by a familiar-looking shard or fragment and lose track of the greater meaning of the new assembly.

The most common error (especially among those who [sadly? mercifully?] have had no exposure to McLuhan), is to read the sentence literally. The medium is the message = the medium is irrelevant, because it dissolves into its message(s). If you want to understand a medium, look at its content.

The corresponding error is just the opposite: the medium is all that matters, and the content can be largely ignored. If you want to understand a medium, pay no attention to its content. For example, people like to say that what’s written in Tweets is “obviously” irrelevant, and what matters it the nature of the innovation itself – the 140 character limit, the live, transient news stream, etc. (Even the first line of the Wikipedia article for McLuhan’s adage is misleading on this point. And here’s a classic example from a blog on B2B marketing.)

Both errors fall prey to McLuhan’s mosaic style because they cling to the familiar meaning of medium and message.

The easiest way to see what McLuhan was really getting at is to recall what is probably his second most famous pronouncement:

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Well, except there’s a slight problem. Marshall McLuhan didn’t write that line. It appeared, rather, in a 1967 article about McLuhan by his Fordham University colleague Father John Culkin. Still, it’s an eminently McLuhanesque formulation, and it unlocks the secret of the medium is the message, when we simply shuffle the two phrases together:

We shape our tools – this is the inception of a new medium – and then our tools shape us – this is the “message” of the medium.

In other words: The message or meaning of a medium (which can be any human creation, from the printing press to electric lights to weapons to toothbrushes) is nothing more or less than how it changes us.

(And the medium is the message, in the strictest sense, because there is no sensible way to understand, evaluate, and compare various media other than by reading the impacts and effects they have on us.)

This is your brain on digital

For McLuhan, such changes are the “psychic and social consequences” of a medium. They affect “the scale and form of human association and action.” They can amount to an “intensification or amplification of [a human] organ, sense, or function.”

And guess what is happening today?

  • The area of the brain that controls thumbs is larger in people who use touchscreens daily.
  • Young people have objectively less memory capacity than their parents and grandparents. Not, as the alarmist would have it, because “Google is rotting our memory,” but because the “net-citizens” have rewired to include the internet as a function of their own memory.
  • Microsoft scientists have determined that the human attention span is now less than that of fish sticks! (Or, maybe it’s less than that of Goldfish – I wasn’t really focusing when I read the piece.)

And then there’s this.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 11.24.13

More broadly, if we consider the combination of the internet plus social platforms plus connected smart devices to constitute our current (and ongoing) media shift to ubiquitous computing and information abundance, then I would venture that the message (so far) of the medium of ubiquitous computing is something like this:

Consumer has changed from a noun to a verb — from a kind of thing to a state of being. These new consumers are voracious, insatiable, omnivorous — and what they consume is content (information, entertainment, instruction, diversion, etc.).

This message – the transformation or evolution in what consumers are, how they act, and what they desire and demand – is the source of their “empowerment,” the dawn of the “age of the customer,” and the force behind the imperative for customer experience management (CEM).

From the organism to the organization

But if the medium of ubiquitous computing has turned buyers into consumers of information and experiences in this sense, what does it mean for sellers? What happens when we turn from the organism to the organization? Can a company “get” the message of this new medium? Which again, following McLuhan, would mean not receiving the communication but rather acting, behaving, and perceiving in a significantly different way.

For businesses, in other words, the message of the new medium ought to find expression in new kinds of business models – different ways of capturing value from customers, and so different ways of identifying, understanding, and serving customers. (As always for DCG, “customer” also means prospects, as well as constituents, students, members, and other groups served by organizations.)

Of course, we’re surrounded by radically new business models, driving radically new businesses – Uber, Airbnb, iTunes, AWS, Bitcoin, etc. But a properly McLuhanesque analysis would rather analyze the established and legacy businesses – i.e., that which existed before and where change can be noticed and measured.

Among established companies, the evidence for real change is mixed, at best. On the one hand, there are hundreds of success stories and examples of customer experience excellence.

But on the other hand, such accomplishments may be outliers and exceptions to the rule: Three major international surveys have shown that consumers are growing less satisfied with the experiences they are offered. Despite all of the effort and expense, CEM is stuck in neutral, if not actually going backwards.

(True, the existence of those disruptive new businesses and models has increased customer expectations and raised the bar for everyone. But that change in the rules of the game cannot be used to excuse failure.)

CEM and “the old stereos”

Why is it so hard to make and sustain improvements in customer experience? Why are so many companies – indeed, virtually ALL companies – “reliving the past” rather than getting and being “future ready”? (As the title of one Accenture report has it.) Why do organizations persistently, and seemingly necessarily, “play not to lose” rather than “play to win”?

McLuhan may provide the answer in this video clip from an interview in 1960. He says:

When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. . . . We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.

Fitting old things into the new form (or, as Rishad Tobaccowalla puts it, trying to put the future into the containers of the past) – this has been, I suggest, the predominant practice for CEM to date. (And when I say “for CEM,” I mean for us – vendors, service providers, analysts, and practitioners – as customer experience management professionals.)

In the name of customer experience management, we’ve digitally supercharged marketing while hardly questioning, let alone transforming, the underlying assumptions about the goals, purpose, and KPIs of marketing. (Managing the brand, generating leads, moving prospects down the funnel.)

We’ve created a digital advertising ecosystem that hardly anyone understands and which even the IAB admits is user-hostile.

We’ve turned the internet into a platform for “harvesting users” (as Horace Dediu put it in 2013) and processing “behavioral surplus” (as Shoshanna Zuboff explains in an astonishing and astonishingly neglected new essay). And we use all of this data and all of these insights to drive more conversions or purchases and then declare that we’ve “improved the customer experience.”

In short, we’re deploying sophisticated new tools and practices, but we’re fitting and filling them with the old things. We’ve got the new form, but we’re not getting the form’s message.

Describing our reliance on “the old stereos,” McLuhan noted “We can’t help that. This is normal . . . .” But this is another McLuhan head fake – because Marshall McLuhan himself obviously could help it, and all of his work on media is an attempt to teach the rest of us that and how it is possible to break free of this “normal” constraint.

In fact, he sets the challenge for us in the next few sentences. Instead of trying to fit the old things into the new form, we should ask what the new form is going to do to all of the assumptions we had before.

Interrogating those assumptions will open up and illuminate the new territory, the new environment, that is being created by the medium of ubiquitous computing. But on this journey, we can also draw on Peter Drucker’s rather old – perhaps timeless – questions: Who is the customer? What does the customer value?

Lucy vs. Lucy

Always-on access and information abundance have allowed consumers to evolve into something like Lucy, the title character played by Scarlett Johansson in the 2014 film about a woman who develops superhuman abilities. But as CEM professionals we’re still largely treating them like Lucy, the small-brained, ape-like proto-human, whom we believe we can distract and manipulate with “personalized” email offers and discount coupons delivered “at the right time.”

Hi Lucy! We noticed you were recently looking at bananas on In appreciation of your patronage, we’d happy to offer you a 5% discount on your next purchase of 10 bananas or more! This is a limited-time offer! By the way, Licy, Australopithecus afarensis like you who looked at bananas have also enjoyed gingerroot and termite larvae!

Shifting CEM out of neutral and finally making progress from the customer’s perspective, rather than in terms of KPIs and success criteria defined by the old media, requires that we as customer experience professionals fully acknowledge the message of the new medium – and that means that we embody it in our behaviors, practices, and business models.

(As one example, it could mean becoming “trusted advisors” in the sense recently sketched out by John Hagel. This and other business transformations will be explored in Part II of this article.)

Until and unless that shift takes place, Marshall McLuhan would understand why we cling to the old forms, and his judgment would be concise:

You know nothing of my work!”


P.S. If you’re at all interested in McLuhan and/or his work, the can’t-miss read is Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!


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