The Communications Process: Encoding and Decoding

Model of the Encoding and Decoding Communication Process

This model of the communication process helps describe the steps (process) and the challenges of a brand (or company) communicating (and promoting) to their intended target audiences.

Here is the communication process model that is commonly presented in many marketing textbooks.

As you can see, this communications model consists of nine interrelated elements, namely:

  • SENDER = the firm (or brand) sending out the message, such as advertising, sales promotions, media releases.
  • ENCODING = how we construct and design the message with words, phrases, images, and so on.
  • MEDIA = refers to the channels we are using to communicate, such as TV, radio, social media, packaging, signage, and so on.
  • MESSAGE = how we modify our encoded message for the media selected .
  •  DECODING = how the receiver interprets and perceives the message – which may be different to our intended message.
  • RECEIVER = consumers (or organizations) who are part of our target audiences for this campaign
  • RESPONSE = whether the receiver is influenced by the communication – does it change their attitudes and/or behaviors toward the brand? Do they buy the product?
  • FEEDBACK = refers to any consumer information from the consumers that goes back to the sender. For example, sales results (of course), as well as clicking on a ad or skipping it provides feedback to the firm/brand.
  • NOISE = refers to anything that disrupts the communication. Examples could include platforms that allow people to skip advertisements, poorly placed billboards, ads that are too small to read.

Please Note: The nine components of the communications model have been outlined above from a marketing perspective, but the model itself can extend to ANY form of communication (such as friend to friend) and is not solely limited to a marketing application. 


NOTE: Please scroll down for a more detailed explanation of the model and for examples of each communication component OR simply review this video…


Why is the Communications Process Important in Marketing?

Promotion, also referred to as marketing communications (or IMC),is the process of an organization communicating information about their brand and products to the marketplace (customers, stakeholders and the public = all of which can be target audiences).

From the above statement, it is clear that the goal of promotions is communication, which is designed to influence consumers and modify their behavior. Therefore, to understand promotions, the process of communications needs to be understood.

Understanding the Encoding and Decoding Model of Communication

The process of communication can be understood using a model usually referred to as the ‘Communication Process’ or as the ‘Encoding/Decoding’ model in various marketing textbooks.

As we can see from the model provided above, the Encoding/Decoding model has nine parts: source/sender, encoding, message, media channel, decoding, receiver, and response, noise and feedback.

All of these parts will be explained below as well as how they relate to the process of promotions (integrated marketing communications).

The Source = The Sender

The process of communication begins with the ‘source’ also known as the ‘sender’. The source refers to the individual or group who intends to communicate an idea to their audience.

In regards to promotion/marketing communications, the source of the communication will be the organization (or brand) that intends to promote their new product.

In marketing effort, brands and firms usually invest heavily in external communications, and some firms will have promotional budgets running into $100’s of millions.

The key objectives of these communications will include (among other goals):

  • Growing brand awareness and other brand health metrics
  • Attracting new customers
  • Enhancing customer loyalty
  • Launching a new product
  • Expanding into a new segment or market
  • Promoting a special deal

Encoding the Communication

Depending upon the firm’s or brand’s communication objective (please see list above), the next challenge is to work out how best to communicate what they want the target audience to know, understand, or behave.

As an everyday example, say you wanted to borrow money from a friend – then you would think about how and when you will ask – and you may even practice want to say to them.

The same challenge faces marketing teams. OK, we have a new product and its great and offer significant value – but how do we best communicate to the target market?

Therefore, encoding the process of transforming the key intent of our communication into a logical, concise and persuasive message. This message needs to be capable (in most cases) of being both visual (for videos, TV and print ads) and audible (for radio, TV and videos).

So when the source (the brand) of the communication puts together their intended message, this is referred to as ‘Encoding’.

Encoding’ can be defined as transforming an abstract idea into a communicable message. This is done using words, symbols, pictures, symbols and sounds.

Or another similar definition of encoding could be the manner of formulating and structuring the intended message to ensure that the desired information is accurately interpreted and is influential and impactful.

In regards to promotion/marketing communication encoding involves transforming the organizations ideas about a product into various forms/types of promotion: advertisements, press releases, sales promotions or a personal sales pitch.

In larger companies, this is typically undertaken by an advertising/digital agency (like a consultant) who will generally construct what is known as a “central creative idea/message” about how best to communicate, in order to achieve the required communication objective.

Designing the Messages

As you can see from the communication process model above, the boxes of “messages” and “media” are interrelated. What this means is that we take the overall messaging (designed in the encoding process above) and modify for each media channel that we are using for our campaign.

Let’s explain using an example. Let’s assume that McDonald’s has decided to increase the size of the Big Mac by 50% in order to compete with the largest serving sizes of competitors like Burger King.

In the encoding step above, their marketing agency came up with the central idea of having the new Big Mac too big to appear on a screen or on an image. For instance, in a TV commercial (or video) only part of the Big Mac is shown, with the tagline of “The New Big Mac – you must see it to believe it”.

The agency in this example would highlight that the ads would never fully show the new Big Mac completely, to connect with the tagline.

Therefore, in the message design stage, the marketer (and/or the marketing agency) would be designing the copy (words), selecting/creating images, riding radio scripts and TV scripts and so on – all based off the central messaging.

Modifying Messages for Each Media Channel

At this stage we have both the central creative message for the campaign, as well as ad copy, written scripts, images and potentially video message designs – as per the prior step above.

However, we now need to make sure that the messaging works for whatever media we are using. For example, we may have an online ad with the new Big Mac running off the edge of the image. But then we need to ensure that this image approach will also translate to in-store posters, billboards, transit ads (side of buses and taxis), and so on.

Although these all visual ads, the size dimension and location of these ads will vary. In addition, the amount of time that a consumer has viewing each of these will vary.

For example, an online ad may sit there for a few minutes while we browse a page online. But we may be driving past a billboard ad and only see it for a split second.

This is this step of the communication process – ensuring that our message design is consistent with both the central messaging (defined in the encoding stage) as well as fitting with the individual media channels that we are utilizing.

From the following list we can see that we may have quite a few media channels to cosnider, including:

  • television
  • radio
  • newspapers and magazines
  • online advertising
  • search engine advertising
  • social media advertising
  • billboard, transit and outdoor advertising
  • in-store ads and posters
  • emails, newsletters and text messages
  • in-store staff and salespeople
  • packaging and signage
  • various sales promotions
  • and many more…

Please scroll down to the end of the article for a detailed example of how media choice impacts message design. 

The Receiver = Usually a Consumer

Now we turn to the receiver – usually a consumer, but does not always need to be. In marketing, we talk about “target audiences”, which are the people and organizations that we want to get our message.

Quick Note: Certainly, for most organizations and brands, generally their target audience for their marketing communications are consumers. However, some companies will also have non-consumer target audiences, which could include the government (to lobby for legislation change), social and environmental groups (to enhance brand equity and reputation), local communities, key influencers and opinion leaders, and so on.

Anyone who is audience to the message is referred to as the receiver. For example, all viewers of a television advertisement can be referred to as the ‘receivers’ of the message.

It is important to note that the receiver of the message may not necessarily pay attention to it – which is the challenge of selective attention, which you may have covered in consumer behavior topics.

As an example, you may be driving in a car and have the radio on and several ads are playing – and while you “received them”, did not pay any attention to them – unfortunately this is a common marketing challenge.

Decoding the Communication

When the receiver (usually a consumer in our case) views or hears the message – and pays SOME attention to it – they do what is termed ‘decoding’.

Decoding can be defined at the receiver interpreting the message and coming to an understanding about what the source is communicating.

Decoding the message may be different to our intended message. In everyday life, we refer to this to a misunderstanding – which can even happen in families who know each other quite well.

Receivers (consumers) will decode (interpret and understand) the message according to their knowledge, their consumer experience, the context, and their prevailing attitudes.

For example, with the new Big Mac hypothetical advertising messaging above, we may have some consumers very positive about the new product, while other consumers may not hold positive attitudes about McDonald’s and therefore see the new product as being “too big”.

This is why in marketing we consider perception – that is, how the consumer views the brand in the marketplace.

Response in the Communication Process

Then in this circular model process we have response. Response is CRITICAL because changing consumer behavior is usually our intended objective and the main reason for our marketing communication.

Consumers can respond in different way, including:

  • Buying the new product
  • Switching to our brand
  • Switching to a competitor
  • Buying our brand more often
  • Being willing to pay more (or upgrade)
  • Becoming more positive towards the brand
  • Becoming aware of our brand
  • And even, do nothing (which is not great, but can be helpful information)

Ideally, the consumer’s change in behavior should align to our initial communication objectives.

Feedback in the Communication Process

Firstly, you should note from the model that feedback is underneath the model and flows from response – so these two concepts are somewhat interrelated.

Feedback refers to any information and results gained by the firm about the impact of the marketing communication. For example, a consumer might:

  • Buy the product (as per their responses above)
  • Say they like/dislike the ad (in research or social media)
  • Click on the ad
  • Skip the ad
  • Change the TV channel
  • Take the time to review the ad
  • Post online comments

In today’s technology word, marketers are able to track whether or not digital ads are viewed and what the consumer does next. This provides insight into the market’s feedback to the communication.

As marketers, we are interested in things like:

  • Did it interest them? Did they like it?
  • Did they notice it? Did they spend time on it?
  • Did they like the post/video? Did they post a comment or question?
  • Did it change their attitude toward the brand?
  • And did they buy the product?

Outside of available digital data, firms can also use marketing research to gauge the target market’s feedback to the communications.

Measuring feedback is extremely important in a marketing/promotions campaign because it allows for a measure of the success of the marketing campaign. It also gives insights into what messaging and channels “cut-through” and resonate with the target audience/s. 

Noise in the Communication Process

What is noise? Noise is a distraction or diversion that impacts the ability of the message to effectively communicate and achieve its objectives.

In simple terms, noise is the term given to anything that disrupts the communication. That is, anything that prevents the audience from receiving the message the way they source intended to.

And don’t be confused, doesn’t necessarily involve a noisy (audible) distraction.

In the case of promotion (marketing communications) noise could be:

  • Applications that allow audiences to skip advertisements
  • Poorly place billboards
  • Advertisements in print that are too small or poorly placed
  • Videos with poor sound or awkward visuals
  • Busy contexts = lots of billboard signs together, or ads shown in crowded cinemas

Some Examples of How Media Choice Impacts Message Design

Billboards

  • These are typically on the sides of roads and need to be read quickly within a second or two.
  • This means that the communication needs to be fast, sharp, and easy to read.
  • Generally, billboard ads carry a large headline, minimal if any ad copy, usually have a interesting visual to attract attention, and are clearly distinguish with the logo.

Radio ads

  • These are usually usually listened to in the background – such as when driving or working around the house – which means that people are not normally pay much attention.
  • This means that radio ads need to be quite “attention-getting” and interesting, but they also need a relatively simple message.
  • Radio ads not designed to carry a lot of information, especially in 30 second format.
  • In this regard, some radio ads can be quite repetitive – repeating/reinforcing key points of information

Flyer/handouts

  • These are designed to get people to act, especially as this one carries a discount coupon.
  • They need to be visual, and draw people in quickly – otherwise the flyer will end up in the trash.
  • It will typically carry a headline, an interesting visual, some detail = ad copy, obviously the discount coupon and how to redeem it – plus logo, and any terms and conditions for the coupon.
  • It also may include a QR code or a website address for more information.

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