Communication Channels

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In the basic communication process, a sender puts a message in words and transmits it to a receiver who interprets the message. The medium the sender chooses to transmit the message is called the communication channel.

Traditionally, it was thought that the words chosen and way they were interpreted were solely responsible for a successful message. Beginning in the 1960s with Marshall McLuhan, however, many came to believe that the medium was the message. Today, with the help of media richness theory and its extensionsand variants such as channel expansion theorymost people realize that the appropriate choice of communication channel (medium) contributes significantly, along with the words, to the success of a message. Appropriate choice helps senders communicate clearly, saving them and their businesses time and money. Therefore, examining various communication channels to understand their appropriate use is important.

Media richness theory ranks communication channels along a continuum of richness, defining highly rich channels as those handling multiple inherent cues simultaneously, such as using feedback, nonverbal cues, and several senses simultaneously. A face-to-face meeting, which employs feedback as well as audio and visual senses, is considered extremely rich. A newsletter or brochure is lean, however, involving only the visual sense and slow or no feedback. Several of these channelsbrochures and Web pages, letters, electronic mail (e-mail) messages, video e-mail messages, text messaging, instant messaging, telephone conversations, videoconferencing or virtual meetings, and face-to-face meetingswill be reviewed, along with some guidelines for appropriate use.


Writers usually create brochures or Web pages to provide information on a product or service. While often used for persuasive purposes, they are usually presented as routine informational documents. Writers lay out the information carefully, often designing the visual layout as carefully as they compose the text of the content. These lean channels work effectively when one-way communication in a visual medium is needed. In choosing these channels, the sender is eliminating any extraneous information a richer source might include, keeping the content of the message clear and focused.


Letters are primarily printed, formal business documents. They are best used when one wants to convey important, nonroutine information, such as job offers or refusals, promotions, awards and honors, and other kinds of special announcements. Also, they are an appropriate channel for certain attempts at persuasion, such as soliciting contributions to a special cause, asking someone to speak to a group, or proposing the acceptance of an idea. Print letters are still used as advertising tools; the most effective ones, however, are those that are individually customized, making them a special message.


E-mail messages are widely used in business as well as in personal life. While e-mail is a fast and efficient channel, it is considered lean because it allows no eye contact and few nonverbal cues. Because e-mail messages are not totally secure and because they are legally discoverable, these messages are used primarily in routine contexts, leaving special or nonroutine messages for other channels. The notes writers send to family and friends are usually accounts of day-to-day activities, with more important, special messages communicated through richer channels.


A variant of e-mail, video e-mail is much richer than text-based e-mail, but it is still a one-way communication channel. The lack of interactivity makes it appropriate for messages that need richness but not real-time feedback. Personal use of this channel might be appropriate for such situations as showing a new haircut, introducing new friends, and even showing a new baby. On the other hand, business use of video e-mail is still evolving. Obviously, when one needs to show something, say a new package design, it would be a good choice. A short sales message might be appropriate in some contexts. At this time, the best use of this channel appears to be special messages.


Text messaging is predominantly for short messages sent from one cell phone to another cell phone by typing in written messages. Because it takes time to enter the text, senders often use shortcuts such as "u" for "you" or "thx" for "thanks." Some technologies, however, are making it easier to send these messages. Not only are there Web sites where users simply enter messages via a keyboard, but the predictive technology built into phones that completes words is reducing the amount of typing needed. Additionally, voice-input software that converts voice to text is an up-and-coming technology. Sending text messages allows the senders to communicate with receivers in a way that is less disruptive than a phone call and usually more immediate than an e-mail message.


Similar to text messaging, instant messaging (IM) is used to exchange short messages, usually with abbreviated text, sent over the Internet. Most senders and receivers connect and engage in highly interactive real-time communication. Its use in business is just beginningnot only because a large percentage of young people competent at using it are just entering the workplace, but also because of the recent development of enterprise IM software, which keeps records of these messages. Until this technology became available, many businesses were reluctant to allow IM, fearing such things as problems with sexual harassment, loss of intellectual capital, and other potential problems the technology might enable. Furthermore, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requires that written company communications be auditable, so until enterprise IM software became available, IM's use in business was not widespread.


A somewhat richer channel is the phone. It transmits sound rather than printed words and sound can enrich the message's words with emphasis and emotion. It also allows for immediate feedback, qualifying it as a richer channel one would use to get important, immediate responses. The choice of this channel to transmit a message is highly contextual. Some receivers view the telephone as invasive and prefer to rely on voice-mail systems to get messages. Others view the phone as an important way of doing business. Most receivers carry cell phones so they can get important messages wherever they go. Knowing the importance of one's message, as well as the receiver's preferred way of doing business, is critical when opting to use this channel.


As communication channels, videoconferencing and virtual meetings are extremely rich. These technologies allow people in different locations to interact with one another using audio and video. Users choose them for their convenience as well as cost-effectiveness. They are available in most large companies as well as on the Web by subscription for use by smaller companies and individuals. For example, a company might want to have the vice president for sales in on its planning meeting for a new product launch without asking that person to travel to its site for a thirty-minute meeting. Or a company might want to screen job candidates and then bring in only the top candidates for on-site interviews. As a rule, these channels are best used when the communication needs are special, immediate, or otherwise expensive.


Face-to-face meetings are ranked at the top of the richness scale because they allow complete use of all senses and continuous feedback. Companies find such meetings to be a good choice for nonroutine business, such as planning new products, analyzing markets and business strategy, negotiating issues, and solving or resolving problems. Additionally, the face-to-face meetings of teams often provide a synergistic effect that improves the outcome of their actions. The collaboration efforts face-to-face meetings evoke are often worth the time and expense of using this channel.


While these channels are not the only ones available, they clearly show that the sender of a message has range of choices from lean to rich. To help ensure successful communication, the sender needs to select the channel appropriate for the context. Additionally, in choosing an appropriate channel, one needs to consider not only richness but also other factors such as message content, sender and receiver competency with the channel, receiver access to the channel, and the receiver's environment. For example, while an e-mail is relatively easy to send, some people may not have easy access to receiving it, while others could easily have it forwarded to a cell phone or pick it up on a wireless device.

The appropriate choice of a communication channel leads to productivity increases and positive social effects. Understanding how the appropriate choice affects the success of a message helps senders decide which communication channel to use.

see also Communications in Business


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Marie E. Flatley

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Communication Channels

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