That used to be a very simple proposition. Let’s get together and chat, discuss, debate, plan, persuade, or entertain.
Today? Let’s “talk” can mean different things.
Communication has fundamentally changed over the years to include not just face-to-face interaction, but also phone calls, email, instant messaging, and video conferencing. Ask ten different people which is their preferred channel, and you’ll likely get ten different answers.
- About 57% of customers prefer digital communication such as email or social media over voice channels like the telephone or video calls
- Nearly 25% want a face-to-face interaction for complicated customer service issues
- Two-thirds of consumers use 3+ channels to communicate with a business
- 74% of Americans have used their phone to contact customer service
Age also plays a part in preference, with each generation having its own favourites and least liked. It’s critical to use the right channels to connect with the right groups – the wrong ones may be missed, ignored, unappreciated, or even considered rude.
The silent generation (pre-1946) and the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) both prefer face-to-face and telephone calls over anything else, although Boomers are generally okay with email, too.
Generation X (1965-1980) is most comfortable with social media, but they tend to think of it as a personal platform. Email is their preferred medium for communication.
Millennials (1981-2000) love the instant connection that comes with social media, texting, and email.
Finally, Generation Z (post-2000) is the first generation of digital natives. Social media – especially newer platforms like Instagram and Snapchat – and instant messaging are their preferred channels for most communication.
Sometimes, the deciding factor is speed and convenience. If you’re offering social media as a communication channel, for example, you’d better be able to respond quickly. Close to half of people expect an answer or response in an hour or less.
We send about 293 billion emails, 23 billion text messages (SMS), and make over 12 billion phone calls every single day, among other channels. That’s a lot of communication going on and a lot of choices to be made in how you communicate.
Most of us carry a smartphone with us at all times, and we spend hours online every day. Online communication as a whole seems to be taking over as the de facto king of the castle – but is it the best choice?
Maybe, maybe not. As with everything in life, there are pros and cons. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of online communication compared to offline communication?
Here’s a closer look.
‘Offline’ communication used to be the only communication, but obviously, that has changed significantly. What hasn’t changed is that human beings are social creatures that respond to real-life connection and engagement. That’s as true today as it was 150 years ago.
And while it may not be as fast or convenient as its online counterpart, offline communication still has a lot going for it.
It comes with that personal touch that we just don’t get from an email or text message. There’s just “something” about a face-to-face conversation – or a phone call, to a lesser extent – that can’t be matched by digital options.
Generally speaking, most of us are recharged by face-to-face interaction with other people. Our social lives – or lack thereof – have a tremendous impact on our physical and mental health.
That’s perhaps the biggest advantage for in-person communication. It resonates with us, even if only subconsciously, like no other channel. Don’t underestimate that.
As far as pros go, face-to-face interaction has a few that are hard to dismiss. It:
- It provides nonverbal cues. Conventional wisdom and widely quoted studies tell us that only 7% of communication on average comes from the words we use. The other 93% comes from nonverbal cues, including body language and vocal elements. While new evidence suggests that the figure may not be accurate, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that the vast majority of communication is conveyed nonverbally. Facial expressions, gestures, paralinguistics, posture, proximity, eye contact, touch, and appearance reveal a lot more than what we’re saying verbally. Any communication without it, like text messages, may fall victim to misunderstandings from its absence.
- Gives instant gratification. Need an answer or suggestion right away? Face-to-face conversations provide instant gratification. You’re both there, in the moment, answering and talking in real-time. There’s no waiting period.
- Demonstrates importance. Nothing makes someone feel more important than a face-to-face meeting or discussion in a world where it happens less and less. Need a customer or friend to know how much they matter to you? Meet up in real life.
- Enhances trust. When someone steadfastly refuses to meet in person, it can feel like they’re hiding something from us.
- Gets to the point. Simply put, there is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation (when it’s possible, of course). Instead of playing phone tag, waiting on an email response, and/or feeling ignored, everything is dealt with quickly and properly, with few, if any, misunderstandings.
- Furnishes privacy and security. There is no app or device to hack and steal information from because it exists only in the mind of the participants.
According to Alex Birkett, growth marketer at Hubspot and co-founder at Omniscient Digital, nothing beats in-person communication when it comes to sales and building rapport.
“When I meet prospects in person, there is so much more trust and so much less friction. To my knowledge, it isn’t really possible to achieve the same level of rapport via solely text communication like email. Even video conferencing doesn’t bridge that gap entirely.”
That said, offline conversation is not without its cons, as well, as people have many different preferred communication styles.
For starters, it’s subject to time and place restrictions. You can only meet with someone if they’re in the same place and available at the same time. That’s not always possible in the modern world.
It can also be a time-consuming approach. How many people can you physically meet with during a typical day versus how many emails you can send out?
Still, under the offline umbrella, it’s no surprise that phone calls are (still) a popular channel. Short of meeting in real life, they’re a close second in terms of feeling appreciated and understood.
Much of what we gain from an in-person conversation can be achieved with a phone call. Most, but not all.
What are the advantages? It’s still personal. It’s still real-time communication with instant gratification and responses. We get some of the nonverbal cues – sighs, inflection, pitch, volume, and tone – and we save some time because we don’t have to travel anywhere. We can make a phone call to someone down the hall or across the globe. Calls are also more private, secure, and confidential than a written message, and are still an effective sales tactic.
Where does it fall short? We lose the visual cues, which are the lion’s share. We must still spend more minutes on a real-time conversation than a written message, and we’re still bound by time and the availability of the other person. Ever play phone tag? Phone calls can also be frustrating, with each person cutting the other off or overlapping their conversation because we can’t ‘see’ when they’re done waiting for a response.
That said, if you’re looking to cultivate the relationship and build trust, few things compare to a face-to-face chat or call. It’s a fundamental part of relationship marketing.
But let’s be honest: few have the luxury of being able to engage strictly in offline conversations. Online digital channels obviously do have a big place in the communication matrix, too.
It’s a digital world, and to ignore that would be foolish. The chief advantage of online communication is that both geography and time are relatively – if not completely – unimportant.
Online communication is available 24/7 and provides global accessibility. Need to convey important and time-sensitive information but it’s 2 a.m. in Germany where the recipient lives? Go the online route.
Going by the numbers, there is perhaps no more popular channel than email. Nearly everyone, regardless of age or location, has access to and knows how to use email. Hundreds of billions of emails are sent and received every single day worldwide.
Other advantages of email include:
- Reach. There were 3.8 billion email users worldwide in 2019. It’s expected to hit 4.3 billion – over half the population – by 2023.
- Affordability. Email is free for most users, and even if you decide to upgrade to a paid service, it’s still an extremely affordable channel for individuals and businesses.
- Accountability. As a written medium, it’s easy to keep records of email conversations, promises, and agreements.
- Depth. Because it’s not limited by character or word count like some social or text platforms, you can convey a lot of information in a single, in-depth email.
- Speed. Hit ‘send’, and your email is almost instantly delivered to the inbox of your recipient(s).
- Scalability. Start small, and grow. Email service providers like Mailshake make it dead simple to send a personalised message to one recipient, or dozens.
- Mobility. Send an email from your desktop at work, your laptop at home, or your smartphone from virtually anywhere.
- Personal. It’s never been easier to add personalisation to every customer touchpoint. With email, you can segment and send highly targeted messages.
- Data and Experimentation. You can track the effectiveness of your email outreach over time, and you can run controlled experiments. At scale, this can lead to a much better ROI.
- Ease-of-use. Even the less tech-savvy among us can master the basics.
In fact, email marketing has an excellent return-on-investment for businesses both large and small — whether you’re using the channel to communicate on a small scale with sales prospects or at a higher volume in order to drive traffic to your blog or new product landing page.
But it’s not perfect, either. A few of the disadvantages include:
- Deliverability. As any email user can attest, email has a spam problem. Roughly 56% of email volume is spam. Gmail alone blocks millions and millions of messages each day. As a result, it’s possible your email won’t make it to the recipient’s inbox if it’s mistakenly flagged by the filters.
- Vulnerability. Although most providers do a great job of keeping your data safe, anything in the cloud is at risk in one way or another. If you’re sharing confidential information via email, it could be intercepted or hacked. If you’re archiving it, it could be lost to server damage.
- Difficult to interpret. Email is completely devoid of those very important nonverbal cues we mentioned earlier, so it’s much easier for misunderstandings to occur.
- Response time. Send an email, and you may have to wait an hour, a day, or longer for a response. It’s delivered immediately, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be opened just as quickly.
The good news? You can learn to be a better email user, stay out of the junk folder, use a free email checker to see if the email address is valid, and negate a few of those cons.
This one blends the best of face-to-face and online channels. You get all of the advantages of a phone call but with almost all of the nonverbal cues for better communication.
You can cross great distances, too. Friends, family, or customers on the other side of the world? Video has it covered, to say nothing of the money you save on travel costs.
In a recent study conducted by Lifesize, 94% of respondents said video conferencing increases productivity and 89% said video conferencing helps them feel connected.
It’s the instant-gratification, real-time communication that we love, and a strong bridge to keep older customers that are further away from you happy and satisfied.
But, yet again, there are cons to the medium, too, like technical issues, setup costs, and international time zones (everyone still needs to be available at the same time), to name but a few.
If you’re dealing with younger generations, you should particularly look to use social media, instant messaging, chatbots, and SMS texting in your communication strategy, all of which are fast, usually opened and responded to very quickly, and popular. But you have to keep the messages short, and you can also run the risk of appearing intrusive if you send too many. Balance is the name of the game.
Ultimately, you’ll need a strategy that incorporates multiple channels for communication. Customers want to be able to communicate with you via their preferred channel, whether that’s the telephone and face-to-face interactions, or email and chat/IM.
The question to ask is, Who are your customers? Which channels do they prefer? At a minimum, you’d do well to have at least one online channel – such as email – and one offline channel – such as a phone number or periodic real-world meetings – open to your customers. But don’t stop there. Additional research, testing, and customer feedback may reveal other channels that you need to add to the mix.
Stay flexible, and make the most of the analog and digital world we call home.
What does your communication matrix look like? What channels are most successful for your business? Share in the comments below.
Bio: Mark shares 44% of the letters that make up the word “marketing”, so his future was set from an early age. After a short but financially lucrative gig as a Macaulay Culkin celebrity impersonator, Mark fulfilled his prophecy and joined the Mailshake team as a marketing strategist.
Originally published Oct 02, 2019, updated Jan 16, 2023