Watch your language
Marketers please take note: watch your language.
Perhaps no document of its time was more prescient about the Web's potential than the Cluetrain Manifesto, which first appeared on the Web in April 1999. It was alternately pretentious and profound, with considerably more of the latter quality. Extending the ideas of McLuhan and many others, the four authors—-Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger—-struck home with me and a host of other readers who knew innately that the Net was powerful but weren't sure how to define precisely why.
As I dig further into corporate uses of blogs and wikis, I point more and more people to The Cluetrain Manifesto as a necessary reference to understand the phenomenon. Whoever writes professionally for the web should read it. And whoever finds it more pretentious than profound should, may be, write for another medium or simply avoid writing about their company.
There's something going on on the web today that marks a shift in corporate communications and marketing. It goes to this direction: markets are conversations.
What Sun Microsystems is doing with its employees' blogs should be on the radar of all IT marketers, especially knowing that at least half a million IT professionals are encouraged to blog by their employer in this industry. There aren't half a million marketers in this field, and there will never be. When Jonathan Schwartz goes on writing that (emphasis mine):
One of the big upsides of my job is hobnobbing. I clearly didn't check with our corporate communications team before saying that, but let's be honest - it's cool to sit with a head of state, or a head of a corporation, or a CIO with an IT department bigger than Sun's entire employee base. The perspective is always fascinating.
Corporate communications should be paying attention as well. Now watch where this is going.
Engineers, scientists, and military officers often turn out good prose. Their sentences may not always be limpid, lyrical or arresting, but as writers they are capable of a clarity and precision that academics and marketers often can't or won't match. Their work demands it. When a software engineer writes vague instructions, her program breaks. When a scientist notes observations imprecisely, her experiment suffers. When a Green Beret commander gives a rambling order, his guys are put at risk.
But Dervala goes on a comparison which, I'm sure, will strike a chord with a lot of people and make some other uncomfortable:
Literary hacks, consultants, and marketers, on the other hand, are slower to recognize their limitations and fix them. It may not even pay off to do so. Now that machines do the work of scanning abstracts for relevance, an article full of jargon will score more highly in a form of buzzword bingo. In the business of business mystique, all but the very best fear clarity. When you're not convinced about what you're selling, it takes courage to describe it in a way that can be understood. Even when you believe wholeheartedly, simplicity and grace takes much more effort—and more brains—than the cheap embrace of buzzwords and cliché. Jack Welch talks straight, but to a bog-standard middle manager, a description like "leveraging expertise in innovative, mission-critical enterprise solutions" provides more letters for covering ass.
Before Dervala, Erin Kissane started a series of posts to put marketers favorite buzzwords on a hit list. Welcome, or rather unwelcome are solution and leverage. I, for one, who can't stand content-free content, am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
One can say I'm biased, and I am. Or that this is just a hype. Or that it's limited to IT. Surely, my focus is on the IT industry right now, a technological one that is filed with engineers who are used to communicate and are less afraid than others to try new tools. But IBM, Sun and Microsoft are no small startups and what's happening is spreading outside IT. Look at GM Fastlane, or Randy Baseler's journal at Boeing (though the VP marketing hasn't got rid of all his marketing habits overnight, he's making progress at the expense of Airbus which is still focusing on traditional brand awareness, PR and marketing methods). As a corporate webmaster, I'm living a funny time and my gut feeling is that it's all but a hype. It won't be an overnight revolution but it will spread on the web regardless of the company size and activity.
The pressure is rising for the marketing and communications communities to think about their added value. If they don't have one, then they will be made redundant. I think they do have value (everybody can publish on the web today, but not everybody writes well). The web is a very unfriendly place for useless intermediaries. Losing the "Command and Control" habits is frightening, and isn't necessarily easy to overcome. But difficult doesn't equate complex. It's difficult but simple. Start by adapting to each of your audiences. Stop copying someone else's jargon and serving Wall Street Calibrated Soup™ to your clients, they know better. Even analysts read blogs, if they aren't blogging themselves. Trust your employees to interact with your clients, they already are. Content is key but your voice is what makes it authentic or not. You want your web site to be eye-catchy? I'd like it to be link-catchy. And it starts by simply watching your language.