This pandemic has led to what political writer and film director Julio Vincent Gambuto termed “the great pause.” Massive, global health, economic, social and educational impacts of COVID-19 have forced people to reassess their society’s operating values and, in most places, acknowledge massive inequities. Months into the catastrophe people in the United States, Canada and around the world took to the streets to protest the unjust deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and what they irrefutably represented: systemic racism so ingrained that police officers murdering Black people is a regular occurrence. These protests, spontaneous yet woven into the previously marginalized Black Lives Matter movement, drew tens of thousands of young people of every race (and many of their elders) out of isolation despite the terrible risks of being infected by and transmitting a debilitating or deadly disease with no vaccine or treatment.
The main work of Black Lives Matter is to demonstrate and communicate how racism exists within all parts of a system. The excellent work they and their peers are doing can enlighten us in Canada, as well as abroad, on issues of race relations and how to begin addressing them for the betterment of everyone.
In order to explain systems and how they relate to media, I turn to German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) whose work, many believe, offers the best description and analysis of contemporary society. Luhmann asserts that a system, be it a machine, organism, psyche or society, is composed of elements (parts) that actively work together to produce something.
Social systems are of particular importance to the media industry. The parts within a social system are people; what keeps them working together is communication. Communication is the firmware of a social system and the oil in its gears. Applying design thinking to Luhmann’s theory, I posit that communication is the dissemination (and arguably the reformulation) of ideas from one person to the next. Whether broadcaster, content creator, advertiser or agency, we actors in the media industry are all in the business of communicating ideas.
Using Information and Communication Technology (ICT), broadcasters, narrowcasters and digital platforms create social systems that include, along with them, the element of audience members. Audience members, brought together by choosing to consume the broadcaster’s content, work within the system by opting in and out of aspects of content and advertising in ways that impact the entire system. And folks, size matters in this case: the larger its audience, the more highly valued the content and the organization that delivers it. The larger the audience, the more opportunity an advertiser has to sell their product or service. The increase in opportunity creates an increase in value.
Content (what we call the ideas shared within media-communication systems), how it’s produced and by whom have been our industry’s main focus for far too long. True, we have also paid close attention to the technology used to distribute content, online or over the air, and on the broadcasters and digital platforms responsible for creating and distributing content. But isn’t it ratings, impressions, reach, and the size and composition of an audience what determines the content’s, the platform’s and the distributor’s worth? Yes, content, technology and organizations are important, but maybe the great pause is making clear an imperative to flip our perspective on its head, and look for guidance to our audience members and the world in which they live.
If you will permit a spiritual analogy, the path to enlightenment requires transcending self. In other words, not solely to be focused on self but rather, to focus on the world around you and your connection to it. To rethink media, as the title of this column proposes, maybe it’s time to look at the world around us and our connection to it.
The great pause has revealed irrefutable truths about our lives and the world we all inhabit. As we emerge from it, we in the media should think carefully before we rush to communicate “back to normal” messages. Programmed and lubricated by the ideas we distribute, our social systems are worthy of a media industry that flips its focus away from itself and toward its audiences and their world. Let’s use the lens of systems thinking to visualize our industry and organizations and to find the next levers of innovation.
Here are some practical questions to get you started. Before you pull answers from prior knowledge, be open to reviewing those that might emerge from the busy-ness and biases that infected us all before the great pause pried open our eyes.
- How well do you know your audience beyond simple demographics? Do you know the scope and depth of its composition? The breadth of its needs?
- How well do you know your advertisers’ business objectives, styles, challenges and aspirations?
- Who are the people in the systems you inhabit (audiences, labour, vendors and advertisers)? Think beyond age and gender to geography, socio-economic obstacles, opportunities, political leanings, access to basics (like food, clean water, health care and technology), personal/cultural/generational values and aspirations.
- What were you communicating pre-COVID? What are your audience members communicating to each other, and to you, now? What are the best programming and lubricant (ideas) you can infuse into your social systems now? Think beyond your organization’s needs to your audience and your connection to them as you examine the messages, quality, source, production, impact and implications of your content.
- How do you communicate? Think broadcast, ICT and device. How does your audience communicate?
- When do members of your audience communicate? Think above and beyond day parts to find segmented patterns and trends.
- Where do they communicate? Go beyond location to specific venues and their associations: kitchen, family room or bedroom? Office, classroom or outdoor café? Public transit or private vehicle? Hiking trail or backyard deck?
- How have your audience members become parts of this particular system? Why are they here? Is it by default, common interest, peer pressure, self-image or aspiration?
If you’re finding this article a tad bit esoteric, I’ll demonstrate a practical application of systems thinking within the media industry.
A media system reliant on advertising dollars has two actors with different products but similar needs:
Actor A is an advertiser who needs to generate revenue by selling inventory (product or services).
Actor B is a broadcaster who needs to generate revenue by selling inventory (advertising spots).
Actor A has a limited budget and understands that by advertising they will make people aware of their product and generate sales.
Actor B determines the value based on their rating or the number of impressions they can deliver.
Actor A’s goal is to get the maximum return on their media investment. In order to do so, they must advertise on a communication channel that has the highest probability of delivering their message to the greatest number of people who are most likely to purchase their product.
If the connector among elements of a social system is communication, then actual conversation is key.
By applying systems thinking, Actor B can communicate better with Actor A. A conversation between the parties can clarify and prioritize Actor A’s needs. Actor A is not in the advertising industry, yet they need to sell products of interest to certain people. Actor B, who is in advertising, can open a communication channel between Actor A and prospective buyers. Once Actor B understands this, they can pitch and measure the right audience making sure that Actor A’s message comes across well and to precisely those most benefitted by hearing it. The net results include a stronger bond between Actors A and B, built on trust and credibility, and a social system strengthened by communication highly attuned to its audience.
This is how we approach Customer Success at StatsRadio.
It’s easier to destroy an audience than it is to sustain or build one. Communication allows elements within a social system to work well together. Lack of and misleading communication throws a wrench in social systems, isolating and freezing its elements. At a micro level, disinformation and secrets break up marriages and teams. At an organizational level, they create fiefdoms, fuel power struggles and distract everyone from their shared purpose. In a sales pitch, they either result in no sale or worse, buyer’s remorse. From a media perspective, miscommunication and misinformation eventually lead audience members to turn the dial (to use a dated yet effective media metaphor) – to another station/channel or off.
At a time when the distribution of information is fast, continuous and overwhelming, and, as per the United Nations, we are experiencing both a pandemic and an infodemic, how can you use your communication powers to serve your social systems well? Take this great pause as a long-overdue chance to ask yourself, “How can I protect and grow my most valuable asset, the well-being and trust of my audience and advertisers?”
Want to know more about StatsRadio’s sales process or how system thinking can help you solve organizational or sales problem? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.