The medium is the message
Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” The author of the 1964 book, “Understanding the Media: The Extensions of Man,” would have a lot to preach about in this century.
With every technological and social "advance," McLuhan said, the reality that "the media work us over completely" becomes more evident and plain. In his words, “so pervasive are they (the media) in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, or unaltered.”
McLuhan's observation that "societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication" is undoubtedly more relevant today than ever before. With the rise of the internet and the explosion of the digital revolution there has never been a better time to revisit McLuhan.
Revisit, I did, recently, right in the middle of a staff discussion about some upcoming email blasts. Conference email blasts are the quick and easy way to communicate faith-related information to the broadest possible audience. The medium is ineffective, for the most part, because anecdotal and tracking evidence reports that the percentage of recipients actually opening the emails is dismally low.
We are attempting to communicate faith-based information—something surely a most personal subject relating to our spiritual living—with a medium that is impersonal, interrupting, and easily ignored. Think about one of Merriam Webster’s definitions for blast: a sudden pernicious influence or effect.
Yet, we are dependent on the email blast because it is the quick and easy way to get content out there. The thing is, it is the response to the content that is most important, not getting the content out there. And, this medium is not getting the response we want: people interested in and engaged with our message. We rely on it instead of making phone calls or sending snail mail or having conversations—activities that take a lot more of our time, but with a higher probability of connection and engagement.
Email blasts are a social media strategy with one or more of three goals: to push program, build buzz or engage “consumers.” It just doesn’t live up to its promise for the church or any other organization. We in the church need to create social strategies, not social media strategies, to achieve clarity and quality in a world that is cluttered and noisy with more information than we know what to do with.
We should ask ourselves this: How is our church world with email blasts different from our church world without email blasts?
I’m not advocating eliminating all email blasts. They make sense to me for some communications, like the business information connected to the church—benefits enrollment, insurance, apportionments, etc. I am rethinking the email blast strategy, though, in terms of relying on it as the go-to medium for events and opportunities that relate to spiritual development, learning how to be better congregations and clergy, opportunities to have positive impact in the community: all the things that relate to the human and spiritual connections that are foundational to church in the best sense of its meaning and purpose.