McLuhan 2.0 : channel planning is the story

McLuhan’s famous quote, “medium is the message”, is often cited in reference in our line of work, as if it had been perfectly assimilated and integrated in our way of working and thinking. However, our global approach to digital content, and more precisely to social networks, says otherwise, implying that the meaning of this sentence might have been taken at face value, as it was meant for mass media (especially TV).

Mass media, Copy-TV and Community Management

We all know of strategies we had trouble deploying on different digital channels, thus begging the. question: how was the channels’ articulation designed?

It’s a habit in our job to put the “strat” and “crea” front and center, and to push the social-media/community-management to the back burner (only to pay dearly for that afterwards, by the way); the role of a CM or social media manager is often reduced to orchestrate and implement a strategy that’s been devised upstream.

We’ve all been breast-fed by mass media, with this peculiarity: most of those media still offer very narrow formats.

The matter of the channel or the format is then integrated in the strat/crea reflection, because we already know what a 30-second TV commercial slot or a full-page ad is. We just have to “fill it”, and filling it well, that’s what talent is about.

Another specificity of mass media: their formats are by essence “parasitical” (push), ie displayed in spaces dedicated to commercial messages. The question of a narration that would be designed outside of the formats isn’t often asked; narration is calibrated for commercial space, and reserved for brand communication. The advertisement grammar in mass media is a well-oiled machinery.

What I’ve noticed is that Copy-TV often remains the first and foremost step of this reflection. It’s not rare to hear creatives in big agencies formulate a concept by describing scenes in a film, even though the brief describes a digital content, for example. It’s a well-installed habit in Copy-TV…

Nevertheless, digital channels make this line of reasoning complicated, if not inefficient.

Digital content, and social networks in particular, is more often than not described from the media perspective. They are perceived as additional channels, ie channels to supplement broadcasting. Of course, we’ve all heard about “conversations”, “engagement” or “content” over the last few years, but in our everyday lives, I notice a persistant reflex to consider social networks as simple relay channels, with a sacro-sanct KPI: reach.

The problem doesn’t come from seeing them as relay channels, but from the fact that we seldom take into account each network’s inherent culture, its referents, its codes and customs in the initial phase of reflection. Very often, once the concept has been imagined, relaying it will suffice (I’m exaggerating a bit, but not by much).

The same problem goes with online media along the concepts of editorial partnership or native advertising: the reflection is once more calibrated for a certain amount of “media power”, for a name, a brand, because we’ve struck deals with certain agencies, etc. And once again, we underestimate the culture and customs of the users of the media in question. We underestimate the predominant editorial culture while attempting to push a culture of advertisement. The claim of our campaign must absolutely be “the story we want to tell”, all the while knowing that our desire to make our claim “a subject” is a losing battle. Examples to the contrary are extremely rare: one of the few I know is #LikeAGirl (and that’s basically because in this case, the claim is an already existing expression in popular culture, #tip).

So we underestimate the fact that the articulation between all those media and social networks must be thought and “designed”. Let’s imagine that our concept is a jewel: the channel planning will be its box. We absolutely must think about the jewel and the box as an item. We must build the box that will best fit our jewel. If adapted, it’ll raise the jewel’s value, and vice versa.

“Make It Shine”: the impossible mission of a CM

Let’s go back to our Community Manager, or, more to the point, to our Social Media Manager. He/she is the key to creating our box (channel planning). The current process only dictates a slight amount of reflection in advance, and that’s a shame. Some ideas are carved to correspond to mass media culture, and once our CM has his/her hands on it, we expect him or her to know how to “make our idea shine”, without realizing that the idea wasn’t designed to take public reactions or channel articulation into account. The culture of the idea as a self-sustaining object is ill-adapted to social networks, or more widely to digital content.

On the other hand, we sometimes have ideas that only rely on a dynamic. With a weak dynamic concept, the heart of the reflection here is to get internet users’ participation, first and foremost. We’ve lost count of all the “photo contests”, quizzes and other various games that can lay a very potent dynamic to the service of a story, but are too weak because they are imagined as mere dynamics, and not much else.

In both cases, we “in fine” compensate with medium – and PR, thanks to our faithful network of lobbyists, mainly composed of fellow coworkers, friends of said coworkers, and friends working in various specialized media.

And in both cases, nothing works autonomously or self-reliantly: “crea” and channel planning must work together, and be designed together.

Rethinking the conception process

Of course, there are exceptions that justify the rule. However, the main trend, as I observe it on a daily basis, still serves to illustrate what I’ve just described.

Habitual. working processes still favour silos, and in my view, it’s a shame. A good articulation can only be born from synergies, and only real collaborative work – from the beginning – can make it all work.

If creatives have enough talent for good ideas or good implementation, social media managers and community managers can also demonstrate their talent, but most of all, they have the ability to determine the feasibility or pertinence of a project in future interaction with end users and the public.

Silos are therefore inefficient and counterproductive, as is a chronology of various interventions. From my perspective, the Disney Method could be the perfect example of a successful creative process, by including all the participants (planners, project managers, creatives, community managers, etc.), but this could be the subject of a future article.

Meanwhile, I think we should rehabilitate the concept of internship, and send all the directors (whether partners, in Sales, Creation, Planning, etc.) to act as Community Managers for a couple months, three at most. Because that too is important: the only way to really comprehend cultures, codes, public consumption, and how important they are to a good digital strategy, is to practice them. It’s a wonderful opportunity to consolidate strategic and creative talents, by offerring them a complementary competence, one that’s key to this business.

Because, as opposed to mass media, whose space were dedicated and didn’t need a specific practice as a target, digital and social networks are only made of usages, production of cultural codes, target behaviours. You have to be in the target’s shoes, and be immersed in its cultural codes, to devise a clever strategy, and creative ideas.

If we accept that “medium is the message”, then maybe it’s time to rethink our way of writing the message.

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