Communications 101: Four Main Elements


I graduated from college in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications. My studies included the standard array of courses including Advanced Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communications, Intro to Marketing, Persuasive Theory and Organizational Communications, to name a few. As a student, I sort of enjoyed the material I was studying but, like many, I didn’t fully appreciate it until well after graduation, when I was working full-time and my livelihood depended on it.

In one of my earliest courses (the ubiquitous “101”), a professor introduced to a basic concept of communication, namely, every communication has four main elements: a source, message, channel and receiver. Of course, the concepts include a lot of nuance; not every communication element always functions as well as it could or should and there’s usually “noise” that interferes at different stages. However, this is generally how communication goes.

Once you learn it and see it, it’s easy to appreciate the profound simplicity contained in it. You’ll look back and think, “How did I not see this before?” Instead of dwelling there, just think through the elements and your staff’s (or company’s) approach to marketing communications. This simple communication theory is more than a way to analyze your marketing — but it’s not less. So let’s take a look at each and see how it applies to the marketing you do.

1. The Source

a business, the business itself can be a source. Your company’s marketing communications are words, images, etc., emanating from the business. Easy enough, but consider the people in your company behind your company’s communications.

Ultimately the buck stops at the general manager, CEO or whoever’s in charge. Yet the communications were likely produced by a team that may have included a marketing manager or a sales director. Attaching the actual people of your company to the actual communications of your company can bring both responsibility and reward: When the company does well because of its communications or marketing efforts, then the rewards or recognition can be applied personally. Perhaps the general manager rewards the efforts of the marketing manager. Likewise, when the company’s marketing falls short of expectations or goals, someone’s got to own it.

The point of considering the source isn’t mainly to find a place to pin blame or reward (at least not yet); rather, it’s to recognize all communications come from something or better, someone. Or a group of someones. Or a person who’s in charge of the group of someones.

Daily goal: Look at company communications and determine how many sources are involved in creating and maintaining it. Are all communications running through a single funnel or filter to ensure they’re consistent?

2. The Message

Every communication has a message. In marketing a business, the message is the content or meaning of the communication coming from the source. It may be informative, persuasive, entertaining or all three. It may be the content of an advertising campaign, the point of a sales pitch, or a plea for a customer to return after a poor experience. It can be as simple as, “We’re open for business!” Or more complex — as in, detailed financial statements shared with investors. Your company website is filled with messages about your company, your company’s products or services, and more.

Probably, you’re communicating many messages at once — one for new customers, one for current customers and more. In any case, the people who work for the business should be well-versed in the messages of the business — even if they don’t have a hand in creating those messages. And the people to whom those messages are directed should be able to quickly understand them.

Businesses are, of course, complex organizations and are hardly ever described as simple. But it’s a good exercise to pause and contemplate your company’s messaging, asking yourself if it’s as simple as it could be, as targeted as it should be.

Daily goal: Take a look at one company message across the spectrum of communications the company puts out every day. Is it the right message? How could it be improved?

3. The Channel

Every communication has a channel. In marketing a business, the channels are means by which the company (the source) broadcasts its messages. Channels include the more high-tech such as television, magazines or online/digital, but also the simpler — like spoken or written words. There’s also plenty of overlap. Interpersonal communications such as sales calls include non-verbal communication such as facial expressions or gestures. In fact, how you dress communicates something. How you decorate or keep a store communicates something. You get the idea.

Back to the high tech: Your company website (or Facebook page or other social media outlet) is a channel which contains a message from a source. It’s probably not your only channel but it’s probably your main channel. As your 24/7/365 marketing machine, it should be, with the assumption you’re running a year-round business that needs to market itself throughout the year.

Daily goal: Thoroughly examine one channel where your company markets itself. Does the channel effectively get the message from the source to your intended receivers? How has the channel changed over time? Where will it need to be in a year from now?

4. The Receiver

Every communication has a receiver or, at least, an intended receiver. It’s the person the source is trying to reach with his or her message, using one or more channels. If the goal is to grow a business through sales, you of course need to know as much about the receiver as possible, including how they’re affected by message and channel. Some marketing professionals encourage you to think very hard about the intended receivers and their preferences, proclivities, and patterns. As you research and learn these things, you create personas to help readily identify how your marketing communications need to adapt to reach them.

Maybe one of your intended receivers is someone who is technically savvy, often on their mobile phone, and able to make on-the-spot online purchases. This is a persona. Another receiver may be someone who is a strict researcher, needing lots of data and time — and an interpersonal communication — before making a decision. (Another persona.) And yes, this is an advanced form of simply knowing your audience.

Depending on your business, your company (the source) may determine a lightly persuasive sales pitch (the message) contained in a printed brochure (the channel) will be the best way to influence the target audience (the receiver). Or it may be an aggressive and engaging Instagram campaign is the best plan. Or it’s in-store events with local subject matter experts that seems to be more effective.

In any case, planning the message and deciding which channel will carry it will be much more focused and fruitful if you actively consider the person who will be receiving it.

Daily goal: Find a receiver of your company’s marketing communications and ask him or her what is memorable or helpful about it. Ask how it can be improved or whether it should even continue. If the person you’re talking to is the intended receiver, then you’d do well to listen to his or her preferences.

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