What’s the point of online communication?

April 13, 2009 at 11:02 PM 2 comments

In 1968, a scholarly article said that in a few years we’d “be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.”

To put this in perspective, 1968 was also the year that introduced us to the Sci-Fi computer legend HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey — a machine that could communicate all by itself.

In 2009, neither prediction has come true, and communicating THROUGH a computer can be as much of a nightmare as dealing with HAL himself (not to spoil the ending, but  HAL turns out to be a ruthless killing machine — literally).

So where do we stand with communication technology?

global-connectionsCommunicating via the Web using chat, skype, e-mail, discussion boards, wikis and countless other mediums offers the convenience of an instantaneous connection across the globe. People can connect like never before for next to nothing. Companies can reach out to audiences that were never before in reach, and consumers have the ability to choose from a wide variety of sources never before available.

The downfall is the quality of this connection, and how effective the communication really is. You may have heard the old proverb that a service can be “Good, Cheap, Quick — choose any two.” Online communication is certainly the latter two, but generally lacks the first characteristic: quality.

So what’s the point of communicating online?

As mentioned above and highlighted in some prominent literature of the last decade (The World is Flat, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and others), the answer is convenience.

The Internet opens the playing field of a formerly restricted communication marketplace. From a PR perspective, this a goldmine for forming relationships with key publics. We can communicate in more ways, with more tools, and to more people than ever before.

In 2009, though, companies need to be aware of when to use the Web to communicate, and when not to. Let me share a couple of recent experiences, just to prove my point.

Experience #1

Two weeks ago, I was hunkered away in a library cubicle like a good-little-grad-student, when I remembered a question I had about my cable bill.

I navigated to the cable company’s Web site and found their “Chat Online” feature, figuring I could find my answer without disturbing others in the library with a phone call. The result was a 35-minute exercise in patience, futility and ultimately aggravation.


My simple request for billing information could not be supplied,  and when I asked for a price quote, the representative (we’ll call her “Karen”) took nearly 15 minutes to produce the information. It took me another ten minutes to solicit all the necessary details and clarification from Karen, who was so slow to respond I can only assume she typed using the “hunt and peck” technique.

The next day, I settle the issue with a ten-minute phone call.

The difference here is fairly clear-cut. On the phone, the representative on the phone was able to react to my tone of voice and I was able to cut him short when he started pitching me services I wasn’t interested in — two things that are difficult in a chat-based interface.

Experience #2

Later that week, I had a slightly better experience using Kent State Library’s “IM a Librarian feature.” I was having difficulty using one of the reference tools offered by the library and was stuck at home without the assistance of a librarian. After exhausting all my efforts in the online help pages, I turned to the virtual librarian for help (a great feature that eased my frustration and saved my opinion of the organization as I mentioned in an earlier post).

Though it took me a bit longer to work with “IMaKSULibrarian” to find a solution than it would have if I was actually F2F with a person at the reference desk, the online help actually worked. The chat interface also offered capabilities that a phone call wouldn’t have, including hyperlinks to useful pages and the correct spellings of passwords. I chalked this one up as a win for communicating online.

blank-stareThe moral of the story:

It isn’t news that communicating with someone F2F is better than between screens. The Web has afforded us the opportunity to open infinite communication channels, but it’s important to control how we use them.

Though two-way communication online can be helpful, it can also breed aggravation.

Remember that frustration is the enemy of public relations, and alienating a target audience through an idle chat window is essentially the same as sitting across the table from them silently with a blank stare.

Global Connections image courtesy of ontmeetup.net

Homer Simpson image courtesy of photobucket.com


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I’m serious about this: Usability affects PR Tossing my cap and blogging for fun

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chris  |  April 14, 2009 at 1:38 PM

    An update with an additional example — this one from Twitter:

  • 2. Francine Smith  |  June 9, 2010 at 11:20 PM

    Hello. The Global Education Centre, South Australia, is a not-for-profit organisation (ngo) that provides educational resources for Australian teachers. We are currently producing a new resource (in the form of a CD-Rom) with a 10 lesson unit of work helping teachers explore the global opportunities and challenges presented by Global Information Society with their students in the middle-secondary years of school. We would very much like to use the lovely image shown on this blog page with the following url:

    Hence, this email with the following questions: Is this your own image, and if so may we reproduce it, and under what conditions?
    If it is not your original image, I would be grateful to know whom to contact for this permission.
    For further information about the Global Education Centre, please see our website: http://www.global-education.asn.au
    With sincere thanks for your assistance,
    Francine Smith
    Education Officer,
    Global Education Centre,
    Level 2, E.D.C.,
    4 Milner St.,
    Hindmarsh, South Australia
    ph: 08- 84635989

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