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Sales Sabotage: Message Decay in Digital Communication

Topics Covered in this Article

  1. The Invisible Challenge: Message Decay Message decay is a palpable issue, even though it often goes unnoticed. In the realm of product launches or even in basic sales communications, the essence of a message can get lost.

  2. The Digital Amplification In today's digitally disrupted economy, this phenomenon of message decay is magnified. The rapid pace and vastness of digital information can often distort or drown out core messages.

  3. Redefining Communication Principles Claude Shannon has fundamentally reshaped our understanding of communication. His theories and insights have rewritten the "natural laws" governing how we convey and interpret information.

  4. The Tech Giants and Shannon's Model Companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple play pivotal roles in the current communication landscape. They act as the technical levers, or 'Lever A' in Shannon's communication model, determining how messages are broadcasted and received in the digital age.

  5. A New Era for Sales and Marketing Exciting developments are on the horizon for certain sales and marketing roles. As the landscape changes, professionals in these domains need to adapt and harness new strategies and tools.

  6. The Purpose is Persuasion At its core, the mission of sales and marketing remains unchanged: to influence behavior in a targeted manner. Despite the challenges of message decay and digital disruption, this primary goal serves as the guiding light for professionals in the field.

The Game of Telephone is a Good Place to Start

You might recall the game from your school days or from a childhood birthday party. Maybe you've even watched your own kids play it: Telephone.

The game is straightforward. Mr. Jordan, the teacher, announces, "Alright class, we're going to play Telephone." He then lays down the rules. Everyone arranges themselves in a circle. "Steve," he says to the boy on his left, "you're going to come up with a secret phrase. Once you've whispered it to the person next to you, and it has made its way around the circle, Jill," he gestures to the girl on his right, "will say the secret out loud. Let's see what happens."

Steve whispers his secret, "I wear blue shoes when I play basketball," to Julia. The secret is then passed on, whispered from one eager ear to the next. Finally, it reaches Jill. She stands, confidence beaming, and declares, "I know the secret! It's 'Barry's boots are worn and in the basket.'" The room erupts in laughter at the distorted message.

Figure 1.0 The game of telephone

Telephone Simulates a Real Problem: Message Decay

The game of "Telephone" provides an apt analogy for understanding message decay, an all-too-common issue in value communication processes. While there are various routes this communication can take, let's consider a simple progression: Product -> Marketing -> Training -> Sales -> Customers. Similarly, it could also move in reverse: Customer -> Sales -> Subject Matter Experts -> Product. In either scenario, phrases like "I told them that" or "Why don't they understand?" resonate with the frustration experienced at every step. This encapsulates just one of the many communication pitfalls in the sales process.

For clarity, I'll focus on the phenomenon of message decay as it pertains to a singular, relatable process. Consider the following "readiness" approach to a new product launch: Product Marketing -> Collateral -> Training -> Sales -> Customers.

Let's delve into the heart of the issue. Suppose the product marketer emphasizes the product's features and its market positioning. But how might this message degrade or be misconstrued by a customer who's primarily concerned with solving a problem and discerning its direct benefits?

Identifying the culprits of communication breakdown, here are five prevalent factors:

  1. Fidelity Loss: This pertains to the accuracy of the message as it's relayed. Let's say the core message from product marketers is that the product cuts costs and boosts utilization, achieved through its unique architecture. But if the customer struggles to grasp the economic benefits due to unfamiliarity with this line of thinking, a salesperson might face conflict. Without clarity on the product's resource allocation strategy and focusing merely on how it functions, message distortion occurs at every relay point.

  2. Bias: The understanding of 'value' can be subjective. If those in the relay view the product itself as the sole value, they'll introduce their biases. For instance, product marketing might benchmark product attributes against competitors, while trainers may emphasize product functionalities or ensure the pitch is mastered. If the customer is unfamiliar with the product category, misunderstandings arise. Every relay point assumes they communicated effectively and then blames the subsequent link in the chain for misinterpretations.

  3. Group Pressure: A new product launch often comes with associated targets, anticipation, and time constraints. Amid this rush, who will take the time to admit, "I don't get it" or seek further clarification? Each relay point often produces more collateral—white papers, ROI calculators, objection handling tools, etc.—without necessarily capturing the core message. With tight deadlines, there's little room or inclination for anyone to question the status quo.

  4. Memory Flaws: Ever left a meeting with a customer or an expert feeling enlightened but failed to note down insights? Later, when trying to communicate these insights, the essence is lost. This can be due to genuine memory lapses or misunderstandings of complex data. On inspection across the relay chain, without thorough checks or quality controls, the extent of these inaccuracies becomes evident.

  5. Distractions: In the ecosystem of product, sales, and marketing, various stakeholders juggle multiple tasks. From sales operations and trainers to HR and tech integrations, the number of moving parts is overwhelming. Think about a virtual meeting—how many participants are genuinely present versus those multitasking? Amidst personal and professional distractions, the core message can easily decay, assuming it was effectively captured to begin with.

Figure 2.0: Message decay in a sequential relay.

The Enormous Economic Impact on Your Organization

From a fiscal standpoint, anyone engaged in sales and marketing is part of a vast, intricate business mechanism. A new product launch is merely one example of the many "sequential relaying" communication processes occurring. Without structured reviews or organized feedback sessions, we merely amplify the confusion. When numerous messages become garbled, they transform into mere noise. And not just any noise, but specific, detailed pockets of it, which further complicates navigation. Often, in response, individuals revert to tried-and-true methods or pile on new strategies, leading to exasperation and inertia.

This might sound acceptable on the surface, correct? The conventional sales engine dictates that you identify your market and then determine the actions required to make sales. This mindset is deeply ingrained, beginning with how the "total addressable market" (TAM) is measured, how segments are defined, and even how sales force sizes are calculated. Supporting departments then devise activities to sustain this "engine." But, what kind of engine are we really fueling?

It's dubbed the 'revenue engine'. But is that truly our end goal?

Let's park that thought for a moment and delve into this process. If we take the "TAM" as our competitive arena and our slice of it as our performance metric, we're assuming the product-centric approach to defining a market is effective (a questionable assumption, but let's proceed). The communication relay then ensues: product value is determined, relayed to marketing, and subsequently broadcasted to potential consumers. Sales training is developed, marketing initiatives are rolled out, all with the aim of empowering salespeople to pitch the product effectively. One glaring oversight? The customer's perspective is almost absent in this convoluted game of "telephone." Concentrating solely on the numerous relay points, consider how factors like fidelity loss, bias, group pressure, memory flaws, and distractions play out.

At their core, many B2B companies grapple with outdated perceptions regarding the roles of sales and marketing. In numerous scenarios, sales concepts haven't evolved for over a century, and marketing paradigms have remained stagnant since the 1960s. Both disciplines revolve around the "Go to Market" principle, underscored by the four Ps: product, place, promotion, and price.

To put it succinctly: marketing stimulates demand, while sales satisfy it.

This simplistic viewpoint is inherently restrictive. It positions two professions, both endowed with unique yet powerful persuasive talents, in a continual tug of war, perpetuating a relentless game of "telephone." Whether it's company strategy, product launches, skill updates, or tool revisions, almost every communication model is structured as a relay. While even more intricate processes and issues undeniably exist, ponder the sheer volume of communication relays in your organization. How extensive is the message decay? This rampant degradation significantly contributes to the "commercial chaos" engulfing numerous entities.

Figure 3.0 Commercial Chaos.

The Issue: Message Decay is Elusive - Here's a Tangible Example

It's challenging to observe message decay in action within your company. The very fact that individuals can't "witness it" or aren't sufficiently "present" to recognize it as it unfolds contributes significantly to the issue. Candidly, who would step into a boardroom and discuss the "telephone game"? Yet, if I began with a discourse on "message decay" and communication process models, would you have engaged? Perhaps not.

But, equipped with an understanding of what to look out for, I offer you a real-world instance of "message decay" in action. Before we dive into a video analysis, let's acknowledge the journey we've embarked on:

  1. You've been introduced to the multifaceted concept of "message decay" through a disarmingly simplistic analogy.

  2. I've presented an easily digestible diagram, showcasing the effects without overwhelming you with jargon.

  3. We've delved into the real-world struggles of B2B companies based on comprehensive research.

  4. We've spotlighted observable patterns and common culprits of miscommunication in your organization.

  5. Visual aids are paired with poignant observations, offering both an emotional and real-world resonance.

  6. Finally, a reminder that many foundational business practices and perspectives stem from eras devoid of today's communication techniques.

Taking a leap further into modernity, let's harness a tool that wasn't available two decades ago: video. Behavioral economics, a riveting domain, seeks to analyze real-life choices amidst other ongoing influences. I've spent over a decade engrossed in designing these experimental setups, collaborating with industry experts, and walking the tightrope between comprehensive analysis and the preservation of intrinsic authenticity. While methodological rigor remains crucial, the focus has shifted from the sources to the results.

Yet, there's a catch. Your attention span is fleeting. Why invest time in a video when you've grasped the essence of "message decay"? You're seeking solutions, right?

Bear with me. It's imperative to ensure one is primed and receptive to a complex issue like "message decay" before diving into solutions. If you're skeptical about the theory's relevance or feel pressed for time, I urge you to watch the video with an open heart.

Ready? Here's your briefing:

The professor in the video orchestrates a communication relay, encapsulating:

  • The inception of an idea intended to influence another mind.

  • Serving as the "sender", he formulates and conveys his message.

  • This message journeys through a medium, in this case, students.

  • These students decode, then re-encode the message, acting as relay points.

  • Eventually, the final student, or the "receiver", deciphers the message, offering feedback.

What adds an intricate layer is the professor's choice of communication: exaggerated body movements. With our brains housing "mirror neurons" that enable us to mimic motor functions, the professor opts for pure body language to relay his message. This facet nudges you to reconsider preconceived notions about sales messaging.

Now, are you eager to dissect a brisk 2-minute video? It's a swift ride, so brace yourself and stay alert.

Figure 4.0 - Real life example of "message decay"

Result: Over 80% Message Decay

If you only saw the last person, how much of the professors message would you have received?

Isn't that compelling? I'm eager to hear your insights on what you observed. Here's my take:

  1. Incomplete Capture: The recording missed the initial sequence. This is particularly resonant, given that in real-world organizational scenarios, we rarely have a complete set of facts. The trustworthiness of these 'facts' seems to be declining rather than improving.

  2. Bias in Interpretation: The professor's actions might seem indicative of an ice cream-eating scenario, but that's an assumption we're making. Without clarifying with the professor, it remains our bias. For instance, the motion resembling wiping hands on someone else was discarded early, likely because of inherent biases.

  3. Social Pressure: The professor's exaggerated and, frankly, socially awkward movements put some students (or relays) in a challenging position. The potential embarrassment in a group setting may have influenced their replication of the actions.

Did you observe the professor's breaking of the "fourth wall"? By doing so, he indicated to the audience their active role in the scenario. Their reactions added a layer of distraction. For the later participants, anxiety might mount, further influencing their ability to accurately relay the message.

Wouldn't these pressures hamper one's ability to recall and accurately reproduce the sequence? The primary concern shifts from perfect replication to merely getting through the exercise.

Of course, multiple external factors in the environment contribute to the degradation of the message.

Sender Message

Receiver Message

1) Tap to greet

1) tap to greet

2) Licking of cone

2) Lick, but rushed

3) Drop of ice cream

3) Drop

4) Look of sorrow

4) Ponder

5) Pause to consider course

5) Put back Scoop

6) Bend over

6) Lick

7) Pick up scoop and stand up

8) Put scoop in cone

9) Happy, Relief

10) Lick

11) Drip, hand motion

12) Shake off hand motion

13) Pause to figure it out

14) Wipe off on other person

15) Smile to audience

16) Lick again

17) Hand motion to terminate

Figure 5.0 Table summarizing the message decay in the video example

When you dissect the "sender's" algorithm, the pronounced, exaggerated motions are evident, each designed to depict specific context and emotions. Yet, by the relay's conclusion, almost all emotional nuances vanished. The overt gestures were mostly omitted, rendering it challenging to deduce the initial intent of enjoying ice cream. By the end, there's a staggering 64% loss in the sequential steps.

Now, let's draw a parallel. If 80% of a song's fidelity were to degrade, the melody would be unrecognizable, with key instruments and vocals drowned out, leaving behind just a muffled, distorted remnant of the original. Similarly, if a TV signal were to lose 80% of its fidelity, the visuals would be blurry and colors distorted, while the audio would crackle, making the content almost indecipherable.

Extrapolating this to a business setting, think of the wealth of information lost during a product launch, as messages traverse through various relay points. Even more, consider the surplus information inadvertently added at each stage that doesn't serve the end goal: effectively conveying the product's value proposition to the potential customer. This added noise only confuses the message further, diluting the core intent and diminishing the value delivered to the end recipient.

So What, Santucci?

Sure, at first glance, the concept of 'message decay' might seem academic, abstract, or confined to classroom settings. However, its implications in the modern business landscape, especially within sales and marketing, are profound. Let me help you connect the dots:

1) Message decay is a giant and invisible problem across all forms of sales.

Every whisper of a lost detail, every missed feature description, and every diluted pitch undermines the potency of your sales and marketing endeavors. If you ever find yourself questioning, "Why aren't we connecting as effectively as we should?", chances are, the culprit is message decay. Here's why it's more pervasive than you might think:

  • Common Conversations: Ever overheard an inspector say, "Did you mention our standout feature?", only to get the reply, "Of course I did"? The confidence might be there, but the clarity might not.

  • The Decision-Maker Disconnect: Higher level executives are targeted for pitches, but what if they're only getting a fraction of the original message? The stakes are higher when the audience is at the top.

  • The Inter-Team Tangle: The dialogue between salespeople and sales engineers is crucial. But what if it's more of a game of 'telephone' than a clear-cut conversation?

  • Delivery Dilemmas: The account team preps for delivery, but by the time it reaches customer support, the original insights could be watered down.

  • Managerial Muddles: When salespeople brief their managers, are they echoing the initial message or a modified version?

  • Launch Lapses: New product launches should be crystal clear events. But if the message isn't consistent from conception to consumer, potential gets lost.

  • Training Trip-ups: A session might start with a clear agenda, but by the end, attendees might have a version that’s lost its vigor.

  • Complexity Complications: The more layers of communication, the higher the chance of message dilution. And in today's intricate business world, those layers are multiplying.

Message decay isn't just a theoretical concept; it's a tangible barrier. It's not just about what's being said; it's about what's being lost in transmission. Recognizing its ubiquity is the first step to safeguarding your business against its silent sabotage.

2) The Imperative of Simplicity in Sales Communication for the Digital Age

In an era dominated by digital nuances and rapid information transfer, the heart of effective sales communication is simplicity.

In my first research report "Engineering Valuable Sales Conversations" we interviewed over 30 B2B companies about sales growth challenges. Here is direct quote from that report.

"In the heat of battle, salespeople succeed when they have more effective interactions with customers than their competitors. To be effective, salespeople must have the skills, content, and supporting infrastructure to efficiently make a vision real for a specific buyer. Sales enablement professionals must, therefore, engineer their efforts to enable, in effect, the mass customization of sales conversations."

There are two different lenses that exists to understand the world and make sense of it. Reductionism (which breaks things down seeking their objective truth and looking for linear cause chains in one dimension) and holisms (which observes a system as whole accepting there is variolous of subjective truth, synthesizing those perspectives, accepting non-lineal relationships and natural layers). The more complex B2B sales becomes, the less you can understand how things work by looking for simple cause and effect. You need to be able to thing more holistically. When you break things down focused in their essential truths, narratives or patterns emerge that make everything more simple. Here is one of those - looking more into the weeks of examining products, marketing programs or sales tactics only create more confusion. They are a system. a value communication system.

None of the things you communicate are as simple as "I wear blue shoes to play basketball" or a silly 17 step mine of an ice cream eating experience. So, developing strategies to overcome message decay is very important and requires a "systems thinking" approach. Each person in the relay is going to think they are communicating clearly, just as each person did in the video example. To even see the problem you have to crate ways to replicate it. The sheer volume here in this picture is massive - and its been simplified already. What you are seeing is the beautify phenomenon known as emergence, which occurs in natural systems. This isn't hard to appreciate and understand with a systems thinking lend. However, it does require discipline. You can't show up with "the answer" because - the whole concept is predicated on arriving at an answer, together.

Figure 6.0 A live systems thanking approach to attacking message decay

3) Sales as a Communications Process: Evidence from the Father of Digital

Claude Shannon, often hailed as the "Einstein of the digital communication epoch," provided foundational concepts to the digital economy we navigate today. If you're engrossed in this article on an electronic device, you're already experiencing the fruits of his labor. Shannon's monumental contribution to information theory and electronic communication is etched in the annals of history, especially through the ubiquitous unit of measure: the "bit," conceptualized by his team in the 1940s.

His seminal paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" from 1948, charts the blueprint for scalable communication. And while I can delve deep into the mathematical intricacies – a realm I've explored for two decades – the focus here is to distill Shannon's wisdom into actionable insights for modern sales and marketing professionals.

An eye-opening definition from Shannon's paper sets the stage:

"the word communication will be used here in a very broad sense to include all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another"

Ponder on the gravity of that statement.

Sales, in its essence, isn't about blaring self-praises or flaunting product attributes. It's a tune, a frequency, a channel. It resonates with Zig Ziglar's notion of "WIFM (What's In it For Me)." Successful salespeople discern the wavelength their audience operates on. Instead of harping on self-accolades, imagine the profound impact of offering insights that empower the client, enhancing their sales prowess or garnering stronger support from their enterprise.

Similarly, marketing isn't about screaming your offerings into the void. It's about strategically influencing, resonating, and connecting. A mere promotional cacophony, if not geared towards positively affecting the audience, fades into the ambient noise, much like the humdrum of city traffic. Shannon's perspective on communication, centered around "affecting another," offers profound insights for B2B entities operating in today's intricate landscape. It's not just about transmitting a message; it's about ensuring that message resonates, influences, and affects the right audience in the intended manner.

Figure 7.0 Claude Shannon is the father of digital communication

4) The Digital Realm: Minds Influencing Minds in a World of Bits and Bytes

Today, much of our communication landscape is digitally oriented, which demands a critical examination: What proportion of your business interactions, brand messaging, and customer relationships unfold in the digital domain compared to face-to-face interactions? Websites, social platforms, text messages, emails, multimedia content, e-docs – the list is extensive and ever-expanding. Conversely, consider the traditional interactions – those face-to-face meetings, physical product demos, and boardroom discussions. Which direction is the tide turning? Evidently, towards an increasingly digital future.

Imagine a simple Google homepage – ostensibly just a blank canvas. Yet, beneath this simplicity lies a digital powerhouse. It's a portal through which customers can access troves of information about your offerings. For sales and marketing professionals, the pertinent question arises: With every digital outreach or product launch, how impactful is the message you're transmitting? How is it tailored to "affect" the prospective customer in this age of digital disruption?

However, the true marvel isn't just the interface but the underlying infrastructure. This 'website,' in its rawest form, is a combination of 1s and 0s, housed on a server, potentially miles away. Our connection to this virtual world, often termed 'the cloud,' is ironically juxtaposed with the tangible concept of 'water vapor' in the real world. Dive deeper into this digital domain, and you'll find Alphabet, Google's parent company. With a market capitalization surpassing $1 trillion, if Alphabet were a country, it'd be contesting with giants like Canada in terms of GDP. This digital giant would undoubtedly be a G20 contender, influencing global economic directives.

But the meteoric rise of these tech titans is a testament to their relentless pursuit to counter "information entropy" and adhere to "Shannon's law" – sometimes likened to the 'speed of light' restriction in physics. In essence, entropy quantifies the uncertainty in message delivery or the 'noise' interfering with the core message's purity. Drawing from Shannon's communication problems hierarchy:

"relative to the broad subject of communication, there seems to be problems at three levels. Thus, it seems reasonable to address them serially. Level A "How accurately can the symbols of communication be transmitted" (technical layer).

This technical layer is where Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and others have demonstrated unparalleled proficiency. Their digital architectures are so streamlined and efficient, they metaphorically resemble spacecrafts nearing light-speed. An impressive feat, indeed. However, it also signifies an unprecedented paradigm – every nuance, every gesture, every message can be digitally captured and accessed instantaneously.

For sales and marketing stalwarts, this digital realm offers both challenges and opportunities. The battle for influencing minds is more fierce than ever, but the avenues for impactful communication have expanded exponentially, unlocking potentials previously thought unattainable.

Figure 8.0 The Google screen is a lot more disruptive to you than you think

5) The Unified Vision of Sales and Marketing: The Art of Persuasion

At its core, the essence of both sales and marketing orbits around one fundamental principle - persuasive communication. Drawing a direct line from the concept of message decay to this might seem a stretch, but let's delve deeper.

Reflect on the pressing challenges of the digital era encapsulated in Layer A, the technical layer. The discourse among many professionals often gets mired in tactical nuances, losing sight of the broader picture. Professionals entrenched in these dated paradigms will find themselves rendered obsolete unless they adapt and evolve. Consider the evolution within the sales landscape itself: once dominant 'door-to-door' vacuum cleaner salespeople, a staple across the U.S from the 1920s to the 1960s, found themselves pushed to extinction. What triggered this shift? The power of live product demonstrations. The ability for businesses to showcase their products at malls, reaching far more significant audiences with consistency, quickly outmoded the traditional door-to-door approach. This seismic shift exemplifies the influence of 'Place' - one of the four P's of marketing, underscoring the importance of adapting to changing times.

Time might be on your side now, but rest assured, the landscape is in constant flux. As businesses undergo digital transformation, a new challenge emerges: Layer B, the semantic problem. In an age dominated by writers and heavy reliance on written documents like PowerPoints and PDFs, the true essence of conveying meaning is often lost. While debates about the intricacies of communication in this new age - from navigating politically-charged terminology to embracing GenZ's unique linguistic lexicon - rage on, the primary objective remains clear: persuasion.

Level B. How precisely do the transmitted symbols convey the desired meaning?

Shannon's Layer C illuminates this objective poignantly: "How effectively does the received meaning affect conduct in the desired way?" In every form of communication, from an artist singing a soulful ballad to a teacher imparting knowledge, the underlying intent is to influence, to inspire, to motivate. This is the very crux of persuasion. Yet, the thin line between persuasion and manipulation is often blurred. It's not about simply pushing a narrative but resonating with your audience, understanding their pulse, and aligning your message accordingly. This is the future trajectory for sales and marketing professionals, and as we proceed, we'll delve into the nuances of achieving this resonance.

Level C. How effectively does the received meaning affect conduct in the desired way.

Figure9.0 Sales is about persuasions - customers will find you for products.

Bottom line

Message decay, akin to the childhood game of "telephone", poses substantial commercial challenges, directly impacting countless careers and financial prospects. It's evident that an evolution is underway in the sales and marketing sectors. This transformation is fueled by the unsustainable nature of the investment-to-returns ratio prevalent in today's business landscape.

A quick glance at the patterns emerging, whether through the relay video or the tangible evidence presented, underscores a fundamental shift. The communication principles that were foundational throughout the industrial revolution are being rendered obsolete. However, in these changing tides, Claude Shannon stands as a beacon, outlining the 'laws' of modern communication.

The silver lining here is that our digital age, despite its complexities, is inherently geared to magnify all tools and mediums of human interaction. From the subtle nuances of body language and mirroring to the potent impacts of symbols, rhetoric, and sociological drivers, every facet of communication is primed for amplification.

Stay tuned to our platform. We are committed to showcasing cutting-edge explorations that illustrate these principles in real-world applications. We aim to equip you with tools and insights that move away from sterile, robotic interactions, steering you towards genuine, impactful human-to-human connections.

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