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Marketing Online

Marketing Online

Chapter 7

Understanding the Medium

by Marcia Yudkin

"The medium is the message," wrote Marshall McLuhan in his 1964 book, Understanding Media, meaning that the same material won't have the same impact on the cover of a magazine as on a flashing neon sign. Not only does every communication medium affect our sensibilities in subtle ways, it imposes an invisible grid of possibilities and pitfalls on participants and onlookers. McLuhan's perspective explains why people who listened to the 1959 U.S. presidential campaign debates on radio thought Nixon had won, while those who watched on TV hailed Kennedy as the winner -- and why I got clobbered on CompuServe by what I thought was an utterly safe, carefully reasoned, constructive post.

Puzzled by the way several people were using the word "scam," I looked it up in several dictionaries and presented a logical dissectopm of its meaning. To illustrate a point, I made the kind of argument I used to offer in college classrooms: "If you use the word 'scam' in this sense, then it would allow you to label a scam my course where I teach people how to get published, since in fact very few people do go on to get getting published, percentage-wise, after taking the course. Obviously, I don't believe my course is a scam and no one has ever made any such complaint." What happened next mortified me. Within a matter of hours, the thread evolved into a debate assuming that my course was a scam. Like the hapless Sorcerer's Apprentice who only made a disaster worse, the more I tried to mop up the damage, the more people spun off on their own, disconnected from my original post, discussing me in the same breath as bona fide scammers.

The lesson couldn't have been more dramatic: a discussion group is not a lecture hall. I had no power to set the ground rules or the context, or to control what my audience did with the thoughts I shared. Their agenda could and did differ from mine, and while I could watch my comments being taken out of context and distorted, any protest I made about a misreading had no special claim to attention. As this example shows, the bulletin board medium can trip you up if you don't appreciate its peculiarities. Here are the fruits of my observation and experts' analyses, along with ways to up the chances that you become the beneficiary and not the victim of your efforts to schmooze.

Joining the Stream of Pieces

To exploit the potential of the medium, you must understand the following characteristics:

Local Differences

At a Chamber of Commerce luncheon people may be visibly impressed when you refer to your little law firm as a $4 million business, while at the Bar Assocation dinner, any mention of dollar figures may provoke raised eyebrows and significant glances. Similarly, the online medium is not monolithic, so that figuring out one outpost's ground rules doesn't mean you've scoped out all of cyberspace. A method of schmoozing that works perfectly well in one locale may violate the norms in another province. The members of the group may be different, or distinctive traditions may be involved. You have to remain observant. Online, Bryan Pfaffenberger illustrates this principle with the example of the newsgroup "rec.backcountry," for avid mountain climbers. "If someone dies climbing, a friend is supposed to post an obituary of a certain type, because in this group death while climbing is noble, a kind of victory," he says. "If you didn't understand this and said how terrible the death was, you'd find yourself at the wrong end of flames."

Be especially sensitive to expectations about so-called signature files. Sometimes nicknamed ".sigs," on the Internet these function as the electronic equivalent of a business letterhead. Once set up by the user, they get inserted automatically at the foot of all of his or her postings. For example:


*     Publicity/Publishing Coach         Marketing Makeovers    *

*     Marcia Yudkin, P.O. Box 1310, Boston, MA 02117, U.S.A.    *

*     Phone:  1-617-266-1613             Fax: 1-617-871-1728    *

*     *


Since professors and researchers started this tradition, on the Internet this format doesn't usually count as commercial promotion, unless you take it too far. How far is too far? Even the most staid newsgroups and mailing lists seem to tolerate four-line signatures and regard eight lines as too much, and accept a simple description of your line of business but not necessarily a brazen sales pitch like "Call IDP for the best desktop publishing in Iowa!"

However, on the commercial online services you'll have to tone down a signature like the above, or leave off everything but your name and a minimal identifier. "We had to make a rule against the Internet kind of signatures, because they were abused," says Janet Attard, a sysop on GEnie and America Online. "People were posting one-line messages and ten-line signatures." I was severely chastised on a Prodigy bulletin board for mentioning one of my book titles along with my name, although on CompuServe this was not usually considered overly promotional. When in Rome, you might say, it's safest to observe what the Romans do and follow their example, being perhaps a teensy weensy bit more daring than the norm, if you like.

Another issue on which expectations differ is the extent to which people will put up with the same old questions. Participants in newsgroups and mailing lists are supposed to familiarize themselves with the FAQs -- Frequently Asked Questions, available in standard places like "news.answers" -- and not to bother the regulars with them. By contrast, on the commercial online services a question that has come up a thousand times before will almost always receive an informative, courteous reply, although possibly a "canned" one. This difference makes sense when you consider that in contrast to the no-one-in-charge, no-one-collecting-fees-for-participation Internet, services like America Online and Delphi make money by catering to newcomers and making sure they feel comfortable spending their time exchanging messages.

Before joining in on discussions, you may want to know how long contributions remain accessible in that online region. Some newsgroups and mailing lists maintain archives of all messages, while others don't. On America Online, GEnie and The Well, your messages stay visible indefinitely, which feels spooky to me for off-the-cuff conversations. I prefer the way postings disappear sooner or later from CompuServe and Prodigy -- but you may have the opposite predilection. You may also wish to investigate the extent to which postings are screened, sifted and possibly rejected or edited. Prodigy maintains its status as a family-oriented service by filtering out messages containing profanity, the sort of thing that I've heard has created problems for some men named "Dick." Some moderated groups simply include or exclude offerings, while others may trim them in ways objectionable to the one whose name is on it.

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the global village" to describe the effect of electronically linking people all over the world. Jay Linden, an Internet provider and consultant in Toronto, calls the Internet "the world's largest, most diverse small town." Perhaps we just need to change that to "villages" and "small towns" to remind us to check out the local customs before we hang out our shingle and walk up and down Main Street shaking hands.

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