Communication Lessons From Virginia Tech

The tragedy at Virginia Tech a couple weeks ago strongly illustrates the consequences of not matching messaging to the right medium.

During the shootings, the university tried to get warning messages out via e-mail, even though it’s been well established college students don’t use their campus e-mail to communicate.

While the administration of Virginia Tech was e-mailing students, students were already communicating with one another via SMS (define), blog postings, IM (define), and plain old cell phone calls. The school desperately tried to get the official story to those who needed it as the wireless airwaves pulsed with rumors, misinformation, and speculation.

I’m not writing this to lay blame, but it does illustrate a point: all electronic media are not the same. Virginia Tech’s administration may as well have been sending smoke signals. Heck, smoke signals probably would have worked better.

Different electronic media are good for different things. An e-mail isn’t equivalent to an IM or text message. An official announcement on a Web site isn’t the same as a blog posting or Wikipedia article (in the works within hours of the shootings). A podcast isn’t just an audio version of something that could be put on the Web. What you want to say and who you want to say it to must match the medium in which you want to communicate your message.

How do you best reach your audience with your message? Begin by examining these nine factors:

  • Usage. Does your audience actually use the technology you want to use to communicate with it?

  • Place. Where is the audience you’re trying to reach? In front of a computer? On the road?
  • Length. How long is your message? Is it a short reminder or a long document that needs to be referred to repeatedly?
  • Interactivity. Does your audience need to interact with the information or just have it in possession? Is it a large database to be searched or merely a few times and dates to be remembered? Is your goal to engage your audience or just communicate some information? Do you need to establish two-way communication or just broadcast a message?
  • Timeliness. Do recipients need to know that you’re sending something now, or is the message less time critical? Are you doing a limited-time promotion or just informing your customers about new offerings that will be available a long time?
  • Content. Do you want to communicate text or send multimedia information?
  • Scope. Is this a one-to-one message or a communication you want many people to see? Should community members be able to share information among themselves?
  • Longevity. What’s your message’s shelf life?
  • Message type. Is your message official, such as policy or contractual information, or is it informal?

Based on these criteria, you can see why trying to communicate with students via e-mail during a rapidly changing and dangerous situation didn’t make sense. Students don’t really use e-mail, so it’s not an appropriate medium for this message. E-mail (BlackBerrys aside) is usually directed to a person sitting in front of a stationary computer. Many students were in class and away from their computers.

E-mail is good for moderate-length messages. In the Virginia Tech case, a simple message had to get out fast. The message didn’t need to be interactive, just communicated. It was an extremely timely message, but e-mail (unless you’re sending a message in an office environment where you know people are in front of their computers) isn’t as timely as a phone call, IM, or a text message. Content-wise, a text message had to be broadcast to a large number of people, so e-mail was fine. And as far as the official nature of e-mail, it was important for students and staff to know the messages were coming from someone in authority.

When we apply these criteria to the message, it’s apparent texting students (or even calling their cell phones) would have made more sense. College students by and large have cell phones, and they’re often not in front of their computers. The message was short and simple and didn’t have to establish a two-way link. Most of all, the messages were text-based and extremely timely…perfect for texting.

As marketers, we’re often tempted to jump on each new communications bandwagon as it pulls up outside our shops. That isn’t to say we’re all a bunch of trendy nitwits who hop on the latest thing. But understanding what medium to use is confusing, and it’s awfully tempting to give in to clients who demand the latest and greatest thing (“I need a blog!” “Why aren’t we doing podcasts?” “We need to be in Second Life!”…you know the drill) without knowing why they need it. Applying these nine factors can help you make better decisions when the next big thing shows up.

Meet Sean at the ClickZ Specifics: Advertising in Social Media seminar on May 21 at the Hilton New York.

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