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, Amazon.com, 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!

Author: David Baker

With more than 25 years of experience in digital marketing and marketing technology, Baker is an award-winning industry thought leader, columnist and speaker. He has held executive roles at publicly traded, leading agencies and marketing services providers including Razorfish, Targetbase, Agency.com and Acxiom.  Direct Marketing roles at American Airlines and Franklin Covey as well as startups including Cordial, TwelveHorses, MindArrow/RadicalMail — a first generation rich media messaging company — and DigitalThink, the first eLearning Platform that went public in 1999. He has served as strategic advisor to various media and technology companies. 

Baker is one of only three individuals to be awarded the MediaPost Lifetime Achievement award (in 2012) for his contributions to the digital marketing industry, and he was also the recipient of the DMA-EEC Thought Leader of the Year award in 2016 for his positive impact on digital marketing.  He is a MediaPost “Email Insider” columnist and former “Email Insider” Summit Chairman and program director.  His works have also been published in iMedia Connection, Internet Retailer, Adweek, Direct Marketing News, ClickZ, The Drum and Chief Marketer.

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