I’d like to share this little anecdote to help understand a few things about the concept of ‘message’.
Many years back, I was at a relative’s place one afternoon, chatting with a few relatives in a room.
One of them, this lady, went into another room for something.
Two minutes later, as we were still laughing and chatting, we heard her scream:
“Is it a lizard?” I shrieked.
“Is it a cockroach?” screamed my cousin.
“Did you drop something on your foot?” reacted my aunt.
“Did you spill coffee?” shouted another relative.
“Did you fall?” asked yet another, in a horrified tone.
We all responded almost simultaneously.
Yes, I am scared of lizards. My cousin is scared of cockroaches. The relative who asked if the screamer had dropped something on her foot, had herself injured her foot in a similar accident earlier. The fourth relative had prior experience spilling coffee. The fifth one had earlier sustained a severe injury from a bad fall.
Basically, we all tried to understand what the scream meant, based on our own fears or experiences.
And then we learned, the lady in the other room had screamed because she saw a cat!
The Reader-Response theory
On realizing it is actually a cat, I smiled and remembered Wolfgang Iser’s ‘Reader-Response’ theory in literature that I had studied in university.
Meanwhile, there is a famous quote on misunderstandings in human relations, circulated on social media, “I am responsible for what I said, not what you understood.”
Anyway, going back to the Reader-Response theory, as the name suggests, it means that the meaning lies not in what Shakespeare or others said in their writing, but in what the reader understood. And what a reader understands or how s/he experiences the novel or the poem depends to an extent on various aspects surrounding the reader – for e.g. their reading comprehension, their past experiences, their knowledge, likes, dislikes, and so on.
This brings us to the question, SO, WHAT IS THE MESSAGE?
Is it the medium?
Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message”, is generally interpreted to mean that the medium influences how the message is received. That is to say, for example, if the same message is conveyed through different media such as print or a painting or a video, it would result in meanings and experiences for the end user that are not totally identical.
Is it the messenger?
There are other schools of thought that consider the messenger to hold the key to the message. That is to say, it depends on who is saying it. If a pathological liar you know (or a politician) says something, you may not believe it. But if your trusted friend or your favourite football player says the same thing, you might readily believe it.
Is it the messaged?
According to Reader Response theorists, the receiver’s interpretation of a message is as important as the sender’s intention. It is for this reason that people differ with respect to their reactions to a novel, a movie, etc. Some would have liked it a little, others would have found it boring, and yet others would have liked it so much that they recommend it to others.
Which of the three is relevant for marketing?
The messenger, the medium or the messaged?
Well, in my opinion, all three!
In practice, marketers generally lay stress on the messenger or the medium.
What also needs to be considered is how the user is going to understand your message or respond to your medium or react to your messenger.
The User-Response theory
In the marketing context, we may adapt the Reader-Response theory as ‘User-Response‘ theory, and keep it in mind while sorting our message, medium and messenger.
It needs to be understood that different users will have different preferences, limitations or past experiences that will influence their response to your messaging, messenger or medium.
The Reader-Response theorists give an interesting analogy:
If a tree falls in a forest and if no one is around to hear it, did it make sound?
Likewise, if a book is written, and no one has read it, does the book exist?
The same holds for marketing or product medium. For example, if people in a said region largely use iOS and you create an Android app, how many will use and experience it, though you might have designed it for the best of user experience?
Again, for example, a celebrity endorsing your product could mean different things to different users who like or dislike that celebrity.
We might want to create experiences for various media that our prospective users likely use.
For example, going back to the operating system example mentioned above, instead of restricting to one device or OS, we may want to take a pluralist stand and create experiences for multiple devices or OS.
Likewise, while crafting our message, we may want to use emotional intelligence to understand the different ways in which a message is likely to be understood, misinterpreted or distorted by different users. Then, choose our words with care, so that the key portion of the intended message is driven home, and not impacted by differences in user-response.
That said, the goal is not to control user-response, but just to make sure the key messaging is not lost in transit.
Because in marketing communication, we are not responsible for just what we said, but also for what the user understood. A balance between the intended and received message is desirable.