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And the Category Is: Marketing Words That Have Lost Their Meaning_Blog Header

And the category is: Marketing words that have lost their meaning

By Andrew Caravella / August 27, 2018

Throughout the last couple of decades, we’ve had the privilege to witness some of marketing’s most substantial evolutions: the rise of digital media, the ubiquity of social media, increased automation, heightened personalization and necessary transparency. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, there’s still one major evolution for which I’m holding out: The evolution of marketing language.

I’ve been vocal in the past about the importance of language and how marketers must consider revamping much of their vocabulary. And while the use and abuse of these common terms might not be overtly offensive to some, in many ways it’s cheapening our conversations.

But it’s not just their frequency that dilutes their effectiveness, it’s their lack of intentionality.

The biggest mistake we can make as communicators is to become complacent with the legacy language of the industry to the extent that we’re blind to its shortcomings.

In this highly sensitive and critical digital age, our biggest opportunity is to speak (and write) with new purpose–not to impress our peers or maintain the status quo–but to create real connection with the people with whom we want to build relationships.

I beseech you to think twice before using any of these terms and to do better by your teams and organizations. If not, prepare to put your money where your mouth is and add a few bucks to the proverbial “marketing swear jar.” (Trust me, this is not an actual swear jar because if it were, I’d be broke as a joke).

1. Target

While we’re starting out, let’s add “kill,” “arsenal,” “execute,” and “launch” to this first one.

If your contribution to the swear jar was dependent upon the severity of the offense, in my opinion the use of any and all “combat” language should turn your pockets inside out.

The pervasive use of military terms in our industry has created a toxic “us vs them” mentality that’s ruining our chances at creating real connection. After all, why would we wage war against the very people we are trying to embrace and engage?

Instead of combat, think connection. What language can we use to serve, rather than slay?

As a quick example, the next time you want to use “target,” consider using “intended,” or “desired.” Or maybe take it a step further—thinking less about how we need to reach certain people, and more about how certain people need to be engaged.

2. Ultimate

Every time I come across yet another “ultimate guide” online, I can’t help but hear The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya in my head saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Because the truth is, I can guarantee that your company’s “Ultimate Guide to” or “Ultimate List of” is most definitely not. Unless maybe it’s an ultimate guide of all the ultimate guides.

First, it’s tough to be the ultimate anything in an industry that’s constantly changing. Second, it’s not as helpful or descriptive of an adjective as it could be. And third, part of acquiring knowledge is tapping multiple resources and various perspectives. That’s the beauty of learning and your goal should be to become a valuable contributor to that process.

Rather than using this somewhat clickbaity term, try telling people something more specific or actionable about the content. Or at the very least, use terms like “the latest” or the “most up-to-date.” And then as a content provider be sure it stays that way.

3. Audience

I recently saw the Tony award-winning play, “Angels in America” here in New York. A play in two parts, the experience is split up into an afternoon and evening, or even two separate days. It’s an epic and emotional live theatre experience and it got me thinking: Rarely does an audience get to appreciate a performance, leave, and then come back together later to continue that experience.

By the end of it, we weren’t just an audience, we were a connected community, if even for a short while–and it was magical. We should strive to create this same sense of community and shared experience amongst the people with whom we desire to connect.

Brand marketing may have started with a broadcast mentality, but social delivered us into the age of complex communities and multifaceted relationships. So now instead of “performing” for a faceless audience, our goal must be to connect with real people.

This is also why I rally against the word “consumer,” insinuating that their value to us is derived solely because they want something we offer. Yes, consumption drives much of the ecosystem. Yet the more we think of people as anything other than people–and care about our own interests rather than others–the further away we get from creating real connection.

I recognize that this shift is going to be difficult in both mindset and, especially, in practice. It’s a traditional term that is deeply ingrained in the industry lexicon. Even my own organization frequently refers to our community as consumers. It will take time to uproot it from our collective vocabulary and begin replacing it with more human alternatives like “person,” “people” or “individual.” But I believe it needs to happen.

We should always be talking about building communities, not performing for audiences.

4. Buzz

This one “bugs” me for a few reasons. One, it greatly under-sells and under-values the work we do as marketers. Eliciting genuine emotion and tangible response from people is not an easy task. People often misinterpret “buzz” as something that happens organically, when in reality it usually results from (at minimum) a few months’ worth of concerted efforts.

Two–and more importantly–the response we’re looking for from people is much more nuanced and complex than just a vague, frenzied excitement. Sure, we want to know the collective emotion and sentiment of our communities around our brands and products—but we mostly want people to take action as a result.

Let your planning meetings and marketing discussions focus on driving “sentiment,” “emotion” and even “action” rather than just “buzz”–because those are actual human responses.

5. Strategic

The word “strategic” has become a marketer’s favorite adjective–strategic thinking, strategic, planning, etc. But it might be one of the most foul-mouthed words of all. We’ve been so conditioned by the emphasis of strategy over the years, we’ve started just tacking it onto every step in the process. But in doing so, we’re blurring the real definition of the word.

“Strategic planning” isn’t really a thing, because a “strategy” is different from a “plan.” And the only real “strategic thinking” is the kind of thinking you do to develop a strategy. So you’re either just plain old thinking (which btw, is most definitely encouraged!), or you’re developing a strategy.

You don’t need to use “strategic” to justify a part of your process. Let your work speak for itself. If it’s not aligned to greater business goals and marketing objectives, you’ll know and you should fix it. Call a spade a spade to make your communication more clear and concise.

6. “Out of the box”

Arguably one of the biggest throwaway phrases in a modern marketer’s vocabulary. People in power tend to use the phrase to invite creativity, rally a team or stir an agency to action. I find it can be a lazy alternative to offering constructive, valuable feedback to spark new ideas.

While there’s nothing really inherently wrong with “out of the box,” it’s overplayed and outdated. It gives zero direction, it’s not actionable and it usually just yields greater frustration.

You can consider using terms like “fresh perspective,” “challenge tradition,” or anything that suggests thinking differently, but even then try to be more specific in your request. What element of thought do you want expanded? What about an original idea doesn’t meet our customers’ needs? Have we considered what’s inside the box and its inherent value?

Just think “out of the box” when you want to use “out of the box.” K, thanks.

7. “Next level”

Yet another empty phrase that sets my teeth on edge when used in marketing communication. “Take your business to the next level,” “take your strategy to the next level,” etc.

This fluffy, hype-y phrase undermines the intelligence of the people to whom you’re trying to communicate your product’s benefits. People are coming into contact with your brand at varying levels, so the next level is different for everyone, and completely subjective.

If you want to be better than you were before, be specific about areas for improvement and innovation. If you’re making a promise about what your product or service can do for someone, be measurable whenever possible: “Increase your sales by 10%.”

Some of these words and phrases may be more a part of your internal team dialogue than your external marketing campaign vocabulary. That’s ok and perhaps more forgivable. Yet we should still be cognizant of our lax language choices across the board because many times little internal changes can drive extraordinary external growth.

This is also by no means the ultimate list (see #2 above) of words to wind down because every industry, company and department has their own lists to consider.

Remember, as professional communicators we set the standards. It’s up to us to question and challenge the use of these popular phrases and inject alternatives. If we continue the use and abuse of meaningless words and phrases, we run the risk of becoming nothing but the very background noise we’re trying desperately to avoid.

What are some other words and phrases that you want to see the industry evolve?

Andrew Caravella

Andrew Caravella

is the VP of Global Partnerships at Sprout Social.
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