Killing Ourselves with Buzzphrases

It’s long been a criticism in digital media that sellers and buyers alike make things way more complicated than they need to.

In no place is that more evident than the buzz phrases we use to describe emerging tactics.  “Native Advertising,” “Responsive Design,” “Programmatic Buying” – whatever the term we invent, it’s sure to confuse the people we’d like to take advantage of the tactic and ultimately sign the check.

That’s nothing new.  The trades even celebrate it, usually by waiting for a new tactic to emerge and then calling 10 “industry luminaries” to see how far apart they are with their definitions.

But this endless coining of clever buzzwords hurts us.  Culturally, we hate admitting ignorance in meetings, so the tendency is to listen to the buzzwords, nod one’s head and remain ignorant.  Sometimes, I catch myself doing it, and I’ve even spotted clients jotting down terms, presumably to Google them later.  So I’ll stop and give definitions.

We do it to ourselves.  In the late ’90s, we confused everybody by not being able to define “rich media.”  Since then, it’s just been a cavalcade of meaningless buzz phrases that mean different things to different people at different times.

Take “Native Advertising” for example.  When I first heard the term a couple years ago it referred to an ad format unique to a specific publishing venue.  “Good,” I thought, “maybe talented designers are starting to rebel against the standards and do something about ads that don’t get noticed.”  But then, in usual fashion, the term began to take on new meanings.

Next thing I knew, “Native Advertising” started to mean “those ‘More Stories from Around the Web’ links you see all over destination sites.  As far as I’m concerned, “Native Advertising” now means “Digital Advertorial.”

It’s not the first time digital buzzwords have been hijacked.  When the Word of Mouth Marketers latched on to “Conversational Marketing,” I had a dog in the hunt and actively resisted the attempt to change the meaning.  Since then, though, I’ve learned to avoid fighting those battles.  It’s just not worth the energy, particularly when the better-funded startups are the ones doing the hijacking.

One day, we might learn that when digital tactics have multiple meanings, it just serves to confuse marketers.  When the conversations about plans are getting heated, people understand what a 30-second broadcast spot is, or a center spread in a magazine.  They understand what a banner ad is.   And that may have been the last time we got it right as an industry.

Which is why nobody really cares to pay attention to our nuances these days.  The industry pundits rush to drive a wedge between “Programmatic Buying” and “Real-Time Bidding” over and over and over again.  Meanwhile, the people writing the checks don’t much care about the minute details of execution.  They just want it to work.

I think it’s time for a simple rule when it comes to new tactics.  If you can’t say what it is with a simple sentence, don’t bother.  You get a special bonus if you can use that one sentence to make an analogy to something a marketer is already familiar with.  In Native Advertising’s case, I’m going with “It’s a digital advertorial.”

Tom Hespos is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Chief Media Officer at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for Tom’s column the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.