Without proper care and feeding, words can become slippery, pernicious things.
This, of course, is the case wherever and whenever words are used and abused, but it often feels particularly true in the world of digital marketing, where we’re not always kind to or careful with words.
For example, show me three ideas more slippery and pernicious than the following:
- Marketing clouds
- Marketing analytics
- Customer experience
These ideas are big, abstract, practically Orwellian in their vagueness. Each is hologrammatic, shape shifting with the eye of the beholder. Marketing clouds are as precise and immutable as the atmospheric conditions they honor. Marketing analytics means everything from simple site optimization tools to more complex predictive modeling, advanced algorithms and machine learning. And don’t even get me started on customer experience, which (for vendors and providers, at least) is about as incisive and useful a description as “people who breathe oxygen”—and now the prized watchword for virtually everyone with the remotest stake in enabling a positive outcome for the customer.
These are but three conspicuous examples of how, in the world of digital marketing, we overload language to the detriment of our mutual understanding. The signal fades, meaning is lost altogether.
Meaning, of course, isn’t somehow encoded into words themselves, but discerned through a mutual agreement on context and intent. What this means for marketers is that, while we may say one thing, audiences hear something else entirely. Communication loses fidelity and intended meaning drifts into a vast haze of subjective interpretation. We’re all left vaguely confused, or worse, lulled into the false confidence that we’re actually understanding each other.
This may strike you as the tar pit of academic trifling, discussions that are perhaps best left to the linguists and to people who talk about Noam Chomsky and use words like semiotics in casual conversation. But I would argue that rigorous and precise use of language is fundamental to marketing effectiveness and thus relevant to the average marketer.
We’re each part of the problem—and the potential solution.
How things got this way is a story of both opportunism and inertia. When an idea catches fire, marketers rush in, attaching to and co-opting whatever commodity is drawing heat and light. The thinking is that washing in this bath of goodness will somehow confer such goodness on whatever it is you have to sell.
But, more often than not, all it creates is a diluted, meaningless mess—the marketing equivalent of greywater. No advantage is gained by the opportunist, to say nothing of the incumbents with a legitimate claim to stake, or the prospective customers trying to make sense of it all.
You see, words do matter. But not just words in their most abstract sense. How words are combined and arranged. When we assume that words can stand alone, that they’re somehow freighted with inherent meaning, we miss the opportunity to actually communicate.
We confuse—or worse, delude—each other.
George Bernard Shaw said that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. In this illusion lies delusion—and in this delusion lies the potential for talking past each other. Often without even knowing it.
And that, my friends, is the tyranny of words.