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Digital Marketing and the Tyranny of Words

By Jake Sorofman | July 07, 2016 | 3 Comments

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:

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.

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  • Laura Maly says:

    I could not agree with you more! I was just having this exact same discussion with someone the other day, who was arguing: They’re just words. And my response? Exactly – and words matter! They way they’re put together matters. The words you choose to describe your company, your services and yourself matter! Thank you for so eloquently stating precisely what I was sharing so passionately! 🙂

  • Jake Sorofman says:

    Words do matter! I’m glad this was useful for helping to make the case. Thank you for your comments, Laura. Much appreciated.

  • Mary Nelson says:

    Thank you Jake I actually feel optimistic now. I am a person who deals with dyslexia the tyranny of words has been the cause of many humiliating tears through out my life but never more bitter than in my inability to display my artwork and write a blog as you will see if you look at my WordPress website.
    I am very impressed with Gartner. I sometimes just browse through the internet from a lead I have been trying to use Intellinote which has merged with Broadsoft
    I was trying to determine if I should continue investing my time using the Intellinote app. I am thinking this app is meant for collaboration and my singular use of it will end because I am not the corporation that they wish I was.
    In trying to find a place on the internet that addresses both my talents art/poetry photography and sometimes even writing.
    I was hoping to use the internet to level the playing field that has not happened. However despite my endless failure I have been very outspoken probably at times sounding illiterate and dispensible.
    I believe quite the contrary if I say that I can find my way around a website that allows me to make a comment to encourage you to continue saying it like it is then my time has been well spent. I am the voice that needs to be heard! If literacy does not include the internet which is incredibly reliant on words than the fringe (those people left out because of lack of access or clarity) will increase and customer satisfaction will increase. My step son is a mover and shaker with technology I have asked him alot of questions and he has tried to answer them. I have also done alot of reseach my self.
    Back to thanking you! Much is needed there is very little support for people like me. We need accomadations specifically for dyslexics the websites that I have found struggle to define dyslexia rather than help mainstream those of us who know “Those who feel it know it best” Bob Marley my addition to that statement is the rest of us can only guess.
    The bones of ethics and concern are here, there is definetly a need for caution because Gartner is a for profit organization and even though I feel that addressing
    the needs of people like me would be both profitable and good citizenship I believe that creatives like me are not your demographic. It would serve your organization well to actually do real outreach inviting feedback so developers would factor scoptic sensitivity in color choices and readability in font choices. I have found written in the goals and mission I would think that Gartner could facilitate the dyslexic community unforunately the data may not support that. There is genious and innovation in many minds that are routinely dismissed.
    I am going to replace my blog last entry which was titled in away not appropriate here. With the comments I have written here so any enlightment you care to provide will not be lost on me.
    It’s been a pleasure Mary Nelson