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Mixing Theory With Business

One of my favorite theories to go over when I was teaching was called the Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT). Basically, the theory tries to explain and predict how relationships develop between strangers. The idea is rooted in the logic that the more (and often, how) we communicate upon initial interaction, the more we reduce our uncertainty of this person and thus determine if we will continue to develop the relationship. (Berger, C. R., Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some Exploration in Initial Interaction and Beyond: Toward a Developmental Theory of Communication. Human Communication Research, 1, 99–112.)

Students enjoyed this theory precisely because it’s relatable. Imagine you’re at a bar: You see someone sitting at the counter who immediately catches your attention. You walk up to that person, and the scenario unfolds like every other first encounter: you ask their name, where they’re from, where do they go to school, what’s their major, where do they work, etc. These are, on one level, superficial questions, but on another, these exchanges are behavioral norms – you just don’t jump in with, “So, what are your thoughts on the death penalty?” Reading body language and listening to the level of involvement from your new friend will determine if you move on to the second stage: the personal phase.

After several first-stage interactions, we start asking questions about the other’s values, morals, goals – the more personal stuff. This is usually the stage in the romantic relationship where you find yourself having hours-long phone conversations (at least that’s what it used to be before this crazy Internet thing). Each conversation leads to a reduction of uncertainty, which leads to the final phase: the exit phase.

This stage really is the make-or-break part: do you want to continue to develop the relationship? This is where “plans are made.” This is where both parties decide that a friendship or romantic partnership will begin.

So I was thinking about this theory the other day – not in relationship to strangers meeting, but how companies gain new customers – and I wondered if companies do something similar: do they practice their own type of uncertainty reduction?

Today’s companies need to constantly communicate to their audiences, as we’ve entered a technological/information age where the consumer expects to be engaged. The concept of a broadcast-based communications platform, as we all know, has been upended and companies are learning that they need to speak with – not at – their key constituencies.

So if a company/brand must communicate in some way with a customer, do they follow a similar pattern as the URT?

Companies are leveraging the social sphere to engage in the first (entry) stage of URT. They follow people on Twitter and ask them to join their Facebook page or be a part of their LinkedIn group. But odds are, companies are already employing the rich data we leave behind in our digital wake to know the basics about us. How they use that data to engage is the key to move onto the second, more personal stage.

In the communications profession, we advise clients to disseminate their messages through various vehicles to accomplish this goal. We develop a media (mainstream or social) strategy, a speaking/thought-leadership platform and an overall messaging game plan for a reason: to communicate to our client’s key audiences. The more companies communicate with customers, the more the customer feels at ease with that brand and is more inclined to have brand affinity for that company—what you and I might consider an intimate connection with someone we met at that bar.

You don’t have to look far for examples of how (and how not) companies communicate to reduce uncertainty. Zappos, JetBlue, Comcast and others have been employing this recently—both online and offline—for  great gain. Even when something goes wrong, like JetBlue’s tarmac debacle, they are able to recoup because their customers have been engaged, been part of the process and their overall uncertainty of the company has been reduced through the company’s effective use of communication.

On the other hand, look at this week’s Blippy mess (outside of the fact their name is Blippy). The uncertainty surrounding the company and its genuine usefulness for its customers is high for several reasons: Blippy inadvertently publicly posted its users’ credit -card numbers; their response has been tepid at best, non-existent at worst; and they haven’t established themselves as a communicative company who could whether such a storm. In fact, it appears Blippy’s own blog was created after the credit-card security fiasco came to light—never a good time to begin thinking about how you are communicating to your key audiences.

Keep in mind URT is for interpersonal communication, not mass or corporate communication, and as the communications landscape continues to evolve (Facebook’s new “Like” system is a game-changer in this regards) companies will have to find ways to reduce the uncertainty about them so that consumers will want to enter a long-term relationship. But as we enter a deeper realm of corporate use and understanding of social media, perhaps we are beginning to see the early stages of companies and brands adopting some level of the URT to have a deeper and more established engagement with their users.

What do you think? Can companies use URT to their advantage?

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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