In the last 20 years the technology and culture of communication have changed with profound impact on both business and personal life. New media and new behaviors have emerged, many of them quite aggressive. All of us need to learn to use the new tools and to bear in mind that, despite temptation to exploit new ways to grab attention, relationships must be built on rich and trusting communication.
The telephone, once the main mode of long-distance communication, is in serious decline: 55% of Americans have opted out of land-line phones, and many people no longer answer their phones if they don’t recognize the caller.
Successive waves of internet and mobile messaging have taken over: first email, then cellphone texting, social media (Facebook, Twitter), over-the-top text messaging (Facebook Messenger, iMessage), and recently visual, evanescent chat (InstaGram, SnapChat).
These new communications modes are “store and forward”: they lack a real-time connection to the recipient, although the back and forth can be quite lively. And information is abstracted to written words and pictures (which are usually posed or filtered), losing the genuine emotion one can hear in human speech.
The new media of the 21st century carry a huge quantity of marketing messages. I see three important patterns.
1. Marketers put numerous messages where they are hard to ignore and often annoying: robotic calls to telephones that outnumber legitimate calls, SPAM that swamps legitimate emails, or ads that pop up over content or replace every third paragraph. They are struggling to get our attention and electronic messages are very cheap, so they resort to carpet bombing.
2. The echo chamber effect is strengthening. We hear more from like-minded sources (friend groups, politically slanted media) and less from broadly oriented sources, like the evening news and metropolitan newspapers of the past. The ads and search results we see are filtered based on the profile the platform provider has built for us.
3. There are many wolves lurking in the modern media woods: scammers, phishers, cyber-bullies, and publishers of fake news and scandal. We need to bring a healthy dose of distrust to any source we do not know well.
21st century media often strikes me as a race to the bottom: Users improve their ability to ignore SPAM and distrust is rising, so those with something to sell respond with messaging that is more provocative, more manipulative, more intrusive, and higher volume. They probably justify this on the basis that there is no alternative. Where does this lead?
Kai Ryssdal, the host of the Marketplace radio broad/pod cast, recommends a book on 21st century communications: Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide To Online Etiquette, From Social Media To Work To Love. The author, Victoria Turk, is a senior editor for Wired in the UK. Her book is a calm, sensible, and amusing discussion of how we can communicate effectively and respectfully in the midst of all the noise. It focuses on communication with friends and colleagues; however, the principles are valuable with customers, too.
It’s hard to give advice on communications etiquette: I’m concerned that my views will be taken as idiosyncratic, old-fashioned, or even peevish. Reinforcement from a European [technically still true], female, millennial journalist is quite helpful. What follows are a selection of Victoria’s thoughts that ring right to me and are relevant to business, interspersed with some thoughts of my own.
Email has come to be a huge time drain and intrusion into personal space. But we can’t let it pile up: Victoria recommends that we clear unread email every day by responding, deleting, or sorting for later action.
Therefore, she urges that we make concision and clarity our guiding principle when writing email: assume your recipient is busier than you are, get right to the point and be clear what information or action you are requesting. Victoria talks about “emailing like a CEO” by writing very brief, action-focused emails: a few words or, in the case of Jeff Bezos, frequently just a letter or a “?”. Of course, we can’t all be Jeff Bezos.
She warns against using ruses to get attention and recommends use of “urgent” only when your recipient would agree your message is truly urgent and important. The more you mislead your recipient, the better the chance that s/he will delete your next message unread.
And, of course, kill “reply all”. This really means using it very thoughtfully. There are a few situations where “reply all” is quite useful. Too often it fills up mailboxes with stuff on which recipients neither need nor want to spend time, and it can create a chain reaction of “reply alls” leading to exponential SPAM.
Instant Messaging is designed for quick, short, back-and-forth messages, not for essays or data dumps. Senders expect a quick response. In my experience some people and many businesses use messaging like email because typically it is noticed faster: another push to grab the recipient’s attention. Doing that debases the value of texting. Your recipients will not appreciate it.
The Telephone appears to be disliked by many younger people; however, it has unique ability to enable nuanced communication. Victoria sees it as the best tool for conversations with emotional content or situations where you don’t know how the other person will react and need to be able to shape your message in real time. But she warns that telephone calls are intrusive: they come out of the blue and interrupt whatever is happening, especially if the call goes to a cell phone. She urges that calls be arranged in advance unless someone is dying, even then it’s better to text first. If I do make an unscheduled call, I always ask the recipient: “Can you talk now?” That gives him/her an easy way to say “Let’s set up a call later”, making my call less intrusive.
Voicemail: Victoria states categorically that there is no excuse for leaving voice mail. Amen to that, but technology is changing the dynamic. AI-based voice recognition now enables services like Google Voice to reliably transform voice mails to emails. Callers can leave a voice message explaining their intent which immediately arrives in email. Then recipients can call back or arrange a call later.
Don’ts. These are a few other things Victoria urges that we avoid:
· Writing an email of more than five [normal length] sentences.
· Putting more than six words in the subject line of an email: Remember that most are read on a phone screen that will cut off a longer subject.
· Leaving the subject line of an email blank. Recipients expect a subject line that helps them prioritize emails for reading.
· Ending a message with “thanks in advance”: It implies that the recipient has no choice but to do what you are asking.
· Inviting people to join your professional network on LinkedIn.
· On messaging platforms that tell the sender if a message has been read, reading messages and then failing to respond (“leaving senders on read”). It’s like putting down the phone in the middle of a call.
Kill Reply All has a clear over-arching principle: Be polite and considerate of your communication partner. This may seem obvious and platitudinous, but I observe that many business communicators don’t honor this principle, and the situation is getting worse as players rush to find new, aggressive ways to grab attention.
Early in my career several sales trainers taught me that customers buy from people they trust and like. If you annoy, badger and mislead people, they won’t trust or like you, and they probably won’t buy from you long term. Deceptive messages and ads may get some short-term traction, but they are slow poison for your business.
I also learned that profitable businesses are built on sustained customer relationships, and customer relationships are built above all on trust. Communications that show you respect your recipient’s time and want to earn their attention will build your success.