Stream, Don’t Publish

If there’s one constant of the digital age, it’s speed.

And not just in terms of processing power. For most of us, an extra gigahertz or two doesn’t make much difference. No, the real trend vector is communications itself is speeding up at a Moore’s Law-like rate. From letters to phones to faxes to email to IM and RSS, the speed at which we communicate is increasing exponentially.

What does this mean for corporate communications? What does this mean when connecting with customers and prospects? Basically, as people communicate more quickly (and have access to information more quickly), expectations for speed from every communications channel increases.

Think about past work life. In the mists of time, it was unusual something had to be somewhere overnight. Occasionally, an extraordinary situation called for expensive courier service, but that was rare. Then, Fred Smith realized a hub-and-spoke package-delivery system would allow mass distribution of packages anywhere in the world overnight. Sure, it was more expensive than the mail, but people were (and are) willing to pay a premium for convenience.

Life sped up.

With email and the Web, expectations for speed increased again. You can’t beam physical objects over the Net, but you can send documents. Over the years, people have become comfortable with email. Nearly instantaneous, email increased expectations once more.

What changed? Companies realized email allowed them to quickly and economically reach large audiences of prospects and customers. E-mail newsletters flourished. Spam became the problem it is today. As the communications channel’s value became more apparent, increasingly more of us began to use it, bringing us to the present… sort of.

Why “sort of?” Although people’s speed expectations changed, most companies’ internal processes haven’t. One major truism of the Internet age is though technology changes quickly, people change slowly. And nowhere is the slowness of change more apparent than in corporate communications departments thinking about using email.

Based on the masses of email newsletters I get, most companies still consider them the electronic equivalent of the finely-crafted, precious newsletters they’ve always published (or attempted to). These communications come on a regular basis and contain huge amounts of information finely written, spun, and edited by people whose job it is to create such content, in much the same way publications were made in the days when they were printed.

Because of processes necessary for most companies to create these newsletters, they’re often infrequent (monthly or, Heaven forfend, quarterly), out of date, and basically irrelevant by the time I get them. Result? I delete ’em, or put ’em in the “to be read” folder that never gets read.

Go back to speed expectations. Ignoring large, infrequently published newsletters makes sense. How do you use email? If you’re like most, you email others with quick, almost telegraphic-quality bursts of information, not finely-honed treatises. For most of us, this is what works best. It takes advantage of the medium: quick, short communications that help us deal with issues (or communicate information) rapidly.

Too long or too infrequently published e-newsletters don’t make sense. They don’t fit the expectations most have for the medium. On the other hand, if you think about the e-newsletters you do read, they probably follow a format much like personal email: fast, to the point, easily scannable, relevant, and timely.

For many savvy marketers, most of this probably sounds like a review. It is. There’s a reason I’m going over all this. We’re in for another bump that’s will make e-newsletters still more irrelevant.

It’s probably safe to say e-newsletters (and many types of email marketing) are in danger of becoming useless due to spam and inbox clutter. Many of my ClickZ colleagues have written plenty about why RSS makes sense as a way of cutting through the clutter. I agree but am beginning to think perhaps the focus on RSS is more a symptom than a cause. The move to RSS (and other faster communications, such as IM) may be indicative of a larger trend that will affect how we communicate.

Immediate features that differentiate RSS (and perhaps IM and blogging) is the fact it’s opt-in. These communications channels place control in the hands of users. Rather than providing an open, catch-all bucket for data (like email), RSS provides a direct link that can’t be spammed and (most important) a timely channel that’s updated as content’s added. RSS is more a data stream than a publication. “Publishing” an RSS newsletter is, for the most part, unnecessary. You stream headlines as they’re written and posted to the site.

That’s the vital difference.

It’s time we thought of communications as streams rather than publications. As with every new medium, many approach the Internet as simply a faster, rather than a different, way to deliver information. This isn’t to say this approach is wrong or stupid. Early radio aped live performance, early TV aped radio, and the early Web looked a lot TV or print. In most cases, new media have to look back and extrapolate from there. Only over a long time do unique aspects become apparent and used by communicators.

E-newsletter are (for the most part) electronic versions of print publications. Times are changing. Speed and delivery expectations are changing. In an always-on, always-changing world, old publishing methods are becoming irrelevant and ineffective.

The lesson from the rise of RSS and the power of blogs is we need to consider a new way to work and communicate. Our customers are already there. Think of your outbound communications as ongoing streams of information, not publications. You can start building better links to your customers by communicating with them in a way they’re already used to and that provides more value. The world’s speeding up every day. Professional communicators need to change to meet new expectations.

Stream, don’t publish.

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