Do Buzzwords Get in the Way of Progress?

Have you read a column in the past week, month or year that’s void of buzzwords? Probably not. In the age of 5,000-plus choices of what partners, technologies or agencies to choose from, I find it uncanny how the marketplace is fraught with complex ways to explain simple things.

Have you read a column in the past week, month or year that’s void of buzzwords? Probably not. In the age of 5,000-plus choices of what partners, technologies or agencies to choose from, I find it uncanny how the marketplace is fraught with complex ways to explain simple things. Blame it on analysts who define industries? Blame it on a competitive marketplace and people trying to stand out with that killer phrase that describes what they do? Blame it on retailers striving to explain and justify what they do to their corporate leaders? Or startups striving to associate new ideas to mainstream challenges? Or blame it on consultants for making the simple complex and charging for it.

What it doesn’t help are retailers. In a perfect world, retailers live their brand. They look for simple ways to communicate with a broad spectrum of customers, and need creative yet practical approaches to words. You’re a merchandiser, an e-commerce company, and a lifestyle brand, and it can be a cultural challenge to balance buzzword frenzy with simple words the market needs to hear about your company. My main problem with buzzwords — and I’ve been as guilty as anyone in the use of them, just read a few of my columns — is using terms in loose context can minimize the impact of the term and make it actually more confusing. Therefore, in the spirit of no buzzwords, this column is just that: real talk for real retailers.

Lets start with a few buzzwords:

  • Disruptive technology: This begs the question of how disruptive your disruptive technology has to be for you to claim that it’s truly disruptive vs. just moderately irritating.
  • Ecosystem: This buzzword got big in mid-2014, 2015 as Luma Partners really promoted its Lumascape. Next thing you know every vendor is using it and every internal IT team began following suit to describe their “data lake strategies” and “technology road map.” I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to referring to my business interdependencies using the same terminology we use to talk about global warming and our attempt to save the planet.
  • Millennials: Are millennials really a buzzword? They might be. They’ve become more than just another generational grouping. As more millennials enter the workforce, replacing the retiring baby boomers, we will continue to spend a lot of time talking about the impact they’re having on the intersection between business, technology and our interpersonal lives. Maybe more importantly, we will continue to try to figure out why they break up with each other via text.
  • Thought leadership: This buzzword was prevalent for many years, and I still don’t really know what it means — or maybe I thought I did and really didn’t. I was awarded Thought Leader of the Year in 2016, and had trouble describing the award outside of … unfortunately, it seems to be entrenched and positioned to bother us for another year. I’ve been trying desperately to think of a new term that could supplant it, but question if I’m enough of a thought leader to make that happen.
  • Storytellling: I have to confess that I’ve coached and advised leaders to use stories to convey important things about their businesses because a good story resonates better than death by Powerpoint presentation. Now we’ve got storytelling classes, storytelling departments, and even storytelling gurus. Once gurus come into the picture, we’ve officially hit buzz status
  • Artificial intelligence/machine learning: These are likely the most overused, misunderstood and confusing buzzwords. How many times have you heard, “We have AI.” While this area of discipline and technology advances will reshape much of what we know today, any buzzword that conjures up impending doom of the human race isn’t helping in a dynamic business world.
  • Big data: I have trouble with anything that starts with “big” as a modifier of an industry trend. What’s big, and is there bigger? Much like the term disruptive, big data is an overused phrase that doesn’t serve many outside of its sellers. Google, Facebook,, Microsoft, Apple have big data. If you really want to understand big data in our society, there’s a great book: “The Human Face of Big Data.” Warning, this book is big, literally. In the end, the term does little to help you contextualize marketing problems or your own internal data challenges.

We’re in a world of endless information. Buzzwords in my opinion distort real talk and make complex concepts harder for the masses to address in situational marketing. Have fun with it by infusing a NO Buzzword culture or, better yet, force the offender to fully explain the term in the context of your business. And remember the goal of words is not to show how smart you are versus; they are a way to level set on complex ideas.

Make the complex simple!

Marketing Stack From Hell

Steve Jobs thrived at balancing the complexity that drives powerful computational systems with the simplicity required for utility. “Simple can be harder than complex,” Jobs said. “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

For retailers, mountains are marketing stacks. Even in small organizations, a stack’s silos of specialization can’t help but make tactical advances at the expense of strategic insight. As retail organizations scale and spread across channels, atomization scales too. Each retailer is unique, so I want to be careful not to overstate, or understate, the degree to which retailers complicate their worlds. But how can retailers make technology investments while balancing the long-term view of the total cost of ownership in the age of cloud technologies with no capital expenditure benefits? Moreover, how do retailers balance risk and change management in an already frantic innovation environment?

The big marketing clouds own the mainstream messaging for the space across much of the industry, but there has been a dramatic shift in recent years toward point solutions. Many brands opt for short-term investments in emerging companies to augment their larger investments in CRM, data management, advertising and personalization. Here, there’s good and bad news.

First, the good news. Embracing quick changes without heavy investment or long-term payoffs empowers retailers to solve niche challenges with agility. Indeed, many challenges can be met by specific vendor solutions that can be quickly deployed inside today’s marketing stacks. Of course, the real key is the retailer’s ability to make sense of what they need so they can source a solution from the 4,000-plus vendors in the Martech LUMAscape.

Now, the bad news. It’s very hard to create sustainable competitive advantages when your vantage point is dominated by the challenges of the moment. Meeting the immediate needs of today’s marketing stacks limits our visibility into the total stack and its holistic capabilities. Managing a sprawling ecosystem of vendor arbitrage often has greater opportunity costs than you realize. And while I’ve always believed that “the big don’t eat the small, the fast eat the slow,” there are times when slowing down pays off.

According to a survey by CMO Council and RedPoint Global, only 3 percent of respondents felt all of their automation, engagement and deployment tools were fully connected, with data, metrics and insights traveling freely between different technologies. Put another way, 97 percent of those surveyed face marketing stacks from hell because they’re planning technology investments for systems that aren’t nearly as functional as advertised.

Kobie Fuller, the former chief marketing officer of Revolve Clothing and partner at Upfront Ventures, laid out his view of the future marketing stack. Fuller’s advice is worth circulating widely. The moral of the story is that you can’t ignore short-term thinking, but at the same time you have to be realistic about strategic outcomes and your organization’s ability to sustain those outcomes.

If you’re like most retailers, you talk about personalization as the differentiator for your business. But in reality, the scale challenges of personalization are all about a marketing stack that’s bookended by data and insights. The first step is slowing to a pace where you can distinguish between the short term, where agility is everything, and the long term, where strategy is a matter of placing scale bets. But even if you’re moving at the right speed, the best friend of a marketer in growth mode is an ecosystem that offers continued optionality. Building that ecosystem means first doing the hard work of making things simple.

The Inbox Doesn’t Know the World Is Falling Apart

Marketing is hard enough without the uncertainty of macro disruptions. But lately, the threat of a macro disruption seems to lurk behind every corner. Natural disasters, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war, a tweeter-in-chief who can send the stock market in one direction and the media echo chamber in another with 140 characters or less.

Marketing is hard enough without the uncertainty of macro disruptions. But lately, the threat of a macro disruption seems to lurk behind every corner. Natural disasters, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war, a tweeter-in-chief who can send the stock market in one direction and the media echo chamber in another with 140 characters or less. Each day, we wake up, check the internet, and wonder what new tidal wave of chaos will wash over us. But for retailers, what we really want to know is how to prepare for a holiday season where chaos threatens commerce?

The good news is that people are more resilient to macro events than we think. You may have heard that gun sales, for example, went up after the 2008 election. That’s true, gun sales really did surge after Obama won the presidency, but a deeper dive into the data reveals that guns and ammunition sales always go up after Democrats win national elections, just as alcohol sales spike whenever Republicans win. In other words, no matter how dire an election looks to one side or the other, we tend to revert to predictable shopping patterns in the immediate aftermath of even the most contentious elections. Retailers can leverage that resiliency by turning to their most resilient channel — email. Not only does email have unparalleled economies of scale, it offers retailers value beyond mere promotion, particularly if they’ve built messaging portfolios that are flexible enough to adapt to changing macro conditions.

Consider a 2012 JetBlue campaign that promised to send more than 1,000 customers to the international destination of their choice, if their candidate lost the election. Obviously, JetBlue found a clever, bipartisan way to tap into a common sentiment — if the other candidate wins, I’m leaving this country! But the real genius of the campaign is the flexibility; it would’ve worked regardless of the outcome. Even in a Bush vs. Gore scenario, JetBlue could have spent the ensuing 37 days of legal wrangling emailing participants cheeky messages about their uncertain travel plans. So how might retailers use JetBlue as a template for making sure that their holiday plans are resistant to macro disruptions?

Start by making a list of the disruptions. Don’t leave anything off because you think it’s unlikely; in fact, if you can think it up, assume it can happen. Then work up responses to add to your messaging portfolio. For U.S. retailers, Mexico is a gold mine. However, given the public cracks in America’s relationship with its neighbor, a retail messaging portfolio is incomplete without something to say in response to a possible change in cross-border commerce. Likewise, every retailer knows that the fight over an online sales tax has been reopened. Retailers have machine learning tools that can generate new offers under a new tax regime, but that’s all the more reason retailers need to be prepared to deploy messaging on the fly should such a scenario present itself. Along the same lines, retailers must also prepare for an even bigger shift if net neutrality goes away. One possible scenario is that retailers might want to drive consumers to visit the store again because the physical experience will look a lot better compared to a potentially slower, less efficient and costlier online shopping experience.

Recently, some brands demonstrated their communication resilience. Ahead of Hurricane Irma, Verizon and AT&T notified customers that they would add more data to existing plans or simply not charge for text or data overuse for the next week. Airbnb tackled an even greater challenge by reaching out to hosts who might be willing to donate housing to evacuees, and then connecting those strangers in the chaos of a hurricane. Like everyone else, AT&T, Verizon and Airbnb certainly were planning something else the week that Hurricane Irma struck, but they were nevertheless prepared to meet the chaos of a macro disruption because they had built resilience into their communications portfolios.

There’s an old bit of wisdom about resilience that says, “humans make plans and God laughs.” The lesson isn’t to forsake planning, but rather to be humble enough to stay flexible so that you can change your plans as the facts on the ground change. This is good life advice, but it’s also good advice for retailers, especially as we approach the holiday season. Something big may very well disrupt your plans, but if you’ve built resilience into your email messaging portfolio, you’ll be ready to respond no matter what.