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Bridging the Cryptocurrency Divide: A Challenge for Communications Professionals

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Some first-person research here: when I mention cryptocurrency to those outside its universe, the immediate reaction often is: “stay away,” or “not for me.”

As it should be, when you consider the tremendous ups and downs of the cryptocurrency market. It’s been the Wild West of asset transfer– marred by its affiliation with the “Silk Road,” the Mt. Gox meltdown and the 2018 “Crypto Winter.” While there are speculators who made their mark during the volatile rides of Bitcoin (BTC), for the most part, crypto has been seen as too risky, too maverick for the mainstream. And the media has responded (appropriately so) by reporting every up and down and scandal as they unfolded.

But now, something has changed. Earlier this year, JP Morgan threw its hat into the ring, announcing it would offer a digital coin, but only for investors of a certain wealth. And then came the even bigger announcement that Facebook and its partners would launch Libra. This new stablecoin would make life easier for everyone, including the billion-plus of unbanked people in the world as moving money “should be as easy and as cheap as sending a text message,” the announcement said.

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There is no doubt that Americans are becoming more aware of cryptocurrency. In a recent survey by Coinbase, 58% of Americans were aware of Bitcoin, and the potential number of people who heard of bitcoin – as a generic term – was at an all-time high of 89% in April 2019, according to a survey by Spencer Bogart.

The future of digital currencies is becoming more widely covered by mainstream media. Witness this week’s article in The Wall Street Journal, which provides an in-depth analysis of The Coming Currency War: Digital Money vs. the Dollar. “The future of money might be a digital version of the cash that’s already in people’s wallets – potentially upending the currency system that the work has known for decades,” the authors state.

While awareness is growing, it’s still not at the tipping point for cryptocurrency, which has yet to move from early adopters to mass acceptance. In his breakthrough research titled Diffusion of Innovation Theory, Everett Rogers, Ph.D. showed that change rapidly accelerates when “opinion leaders” adopt the new model and publicly acknowledge an innovative concept.

This may be great news for communications professionals who work for the major organizations that are now embracing the digital coin, as the influence of their corporate reputations and leaders makes the job easier. But not so fast for the rest of the digital currency world, such as stablecoin startups and other crypto entrepreneurs who struggle to disseminate the original message of Satoshi Nakamoto in Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System.

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“Digital currencies were meant to take the control of assets out of the hands of big finance and into the hands of the people who earned those assets,” The WSJ Journal article states. The adoption of digital cash by governments and big business “might be a disappointment to many libertarians and tech-savvy investors who are pinning their hopes (and in some cases their money) on private cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.”

Cryptocurrencies, digital coins and e-cash are complicated concepts that need to be communicated openly and transparently. The challenge here is to deliver that message in a way that moves beyond crypto’s early dark ages toward a future where digital coins or e-cash are adopted as a mainstream means of currency. And part of that challenge includes understanding and communicating the differences of coins issued by big businesses, governments, and startups, which include some that have altruistic expectations (i.e. Nakamoto) and others that are purely speculative (Bitcoin).

Clearly, the cryptocurrency message is now mixed and it will be up to communications professionals to find the best channels to reach its audiences. Is it new media? Traditional media? A combination of both? Research suggests that mass media channels are effective for “less complex” innovations, but for more complex ideas – interpersonal communications are a more effective means of delivering a message that resonates.

Will social media create those personal connections that are necessary to move people to accept new ideas in assets? Will corporate communications professionals connect with people in an authentic way that generates trust and acceptance of cryptocurrency? Can public relations professionals and journalists work to create balanced coverage of this unfolding innovation as it moves from early adopters to early majority and finally critical mass?

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Bridging the cryptocurrency divide will continue to be a challenge for communicators, as we work to move beyond the digital currency’s past and find its place in the future.

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