Five years ago, while on a trip to the UK, I read a feature article in the Guardian newspaper, which investigated the extent and nature of diversity in Britain. I was amused to see the kind of angst that the Brits were experiencing around diversity.
We live with far greater diversity in South Africa; we are the Rainbow Nation, after all, and, generally speaking, I think we cope with it far better than many other countries do.
Diversity has implications for all kinds of things, but communication is one very obvious field that is deeply affected by differences between people. Good communication brings people closer together. The opposite, well, it either gets missed completely, or leads to greater fracturing.
Cartoon aliens are often drawn with antennae – critical for receiving and sending signals – on their heads, and I think it’s helpful to think of communication in terms of signals that need to be sent in a format that will enable them to be received. Of course, communication is not (or shouldn’t be) one-way traffic, so it’s also about opening channels for listening.
As the old idiom goes, we have two ears and one mouth because we must listen more than we speak.
In the days of old technology there was just the one, booming voice, broadcasting rather than communicating. ‘Digital’ in all its forms has changed this, by allowing mass customisation of communication.
We have become adept at consuming media, and we’re training our children to be even more proficient at it. Handing our iPhones to toddlers to keep them quiet while they play with apps is just the next instalment in a long-running series in which a purple dinosaur stars alongside myriad make-believe characters.
We’ve become accustomed to consuming media in a video format that allows fast forwarding (or ejecting). Indeed, the internet is consumed in timeframes lasting seconds, as we flit from one site to the other. The bottom line is that the audience just does not have the patience to trawl through acres of text (at 1000 words, this article is about 950 words too long for most internet users).
If any player has had its cheese moved, it’s mainstream media. And, it’s ironic that the internet, that vast repository of ‘content’, has been responsible. They’ve all, dutifully, gone online, but haven’t yet found a reliable way of turning online distribution into the same kind of cash as their traditional channels.
They’re understandably gun shy about spending more money on digital, but they all need tablet and smart phone apps. Somehow, we’re more willing to spend money on apps (or magazines on app) than we are on the website versions of that content.
Therefore, my first prediction for communications in 2012 is that we’ll see more mainstream media release apps with rich features (and, no, Zinio doesn’t count as ‘rich’). Vanity Fair is a great example of a publication that has done it well.
Facebook has been with us since 2004, and Twitter since 2006. Many companies are talking about social media, most of those talking about it are using it in some form, but very few of them are using it well.
The first reason why they’re doing it badly is that they’re not using it as an opportunity to listen. It’s not rocket science that you’d want to catch disgruntled customers (or employees) before their rants go properly viral. Rather turn the recovery into a great service experience that goes viral.
The second reason they do it badly is that they mostly spew marketing messages that mimic above the line campaigns.
2012 is an opportunity for brand owners to follow the Twitter stream for mentions of their brand (and competitors’), and to bring another dimension to the relationship that the market has with their brand.
Of course, platforms like Twitter are also a way for us to disintermediate mainstream media, by curating our own news service. Mainstream media, then, is no longer valuable for breaking the news, but rather for the expert comment on that news.
Cast your mind back to your company’s year-end function. Try to remember what you saw people eating. Most likely, there was every variation of omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, dietary allergy, dietary intolerance, and religious prohibition visible. That is diversity in action.
Communication is no different. Some people are happy to read, others need pictures, and most people are totally at home with video.
Many will continue to communicate as before, but savvy communicators will take care to include video and graphics. Explanatory animations can be particularly effective.
Tablets and Smart Phones
One of the reasons why social media are so powerful is that messages are sent and received on a device that we have with us for almost every waking moment. It’s a device that – generally – cuts across age, race and income boundaries. And, it enables us to add pictures or video to the message.
The multi-layered communication that our diverse audience demands (i.e. text, video, graphics etc) needs to be delivered. Apps for the various smart phone and tablet platforms are going to play a critical role in communications in 2012, and beyond. I’ve been doing some work with Brainshark, which offers a great deal of promise as a delivery mechanism for video content to tablets and smart phones.
Alongside this is a variety of apps (Flipboard is a prime example) that enable us to individually shape the flow of news, information, and comment that is most relevant to us.
Regardless of how we like to consume our communication, most of us produce our interpersonal messages in text form. For many of us this is in a second (or third) language. Without cues from body language or verbal intonation it is very easy for communication to get ‘lost in translation’.
One of the tricks to successful communication is knowing when to stop that bout of email tennis, and to pick up the phone. Or, better yet, sit down face-to-face.
For all the technology that we have at our disposal, we remain human. Face-to-face contact, or live conversations remain the best way to close the gaps created by diversity.
OK, now that I’ve had my say, it’s time for me to listen. You can leave comments below, or connect with me on Twitter (@OscarFoulkes).