Friday, September 4th, 2009

Words is broken

Words is broken
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Dat’s rite. We’z all myxed-ups and I’s nots tawkin bouts the tweensz textn. Nope, there’s something increasingly problematic with the language we employ in marketing. If we don’t make some changes soon, no one will listen to any of our messages.

Wearing-out red pens

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a book called Speak Human: Out-Market the Big Guys by Getting Personal. It has now been sent-out to a few trusted friends for feedback. Meanwhile I’m running it through what feels like an endless number of revisions—scrutinizing every term, phrase, and suggestion. Today’s not going that well; I’ve only worked through three pages, and I’ve been at it for two hours now. (Sigh.)

In part I’m working to expunge my slips in punctuation, grammar, and spelling—of which there are many. More than that though, I’m trying to pin-point holes in my arguments. I use the book to make some suggestions that I feel are largely based on common-sense. As a result, I want to ensure that I’m not oversimplifying or speaking out-of-turn.

Speak Human is in some respects a bit of a handful. I’ve endeavored to make it a resource that one might give to a small business owner. In it I work to provide them with a working understanding of brands, marketing, and social media. The greater theme of the book, however, is that by behaving more plainly and personally, companies can better connect with customers.

Lately, I’ve been using experiences I’ve had with marketers – and companies in general – to test the principles I present. It’s a bit of a relief that I keep finding that my arguments seem to hold water; but, it’s also a rather sad indictment of today’s marketing climate.

Getting back to that whole “language” thing

Words are powerful. The slogan, “A Diamond is Forever” establishes inordinate value for a shiny stone. Some argue that the word “change” was Obama’s secret-weapon, positioning him in way that left others scrambling. Meanwhile, if you ever want to cripple an otherwise sensible discussion with your spouse, just insert the words, “you always…”

As the people tasked with reaching customers and persuading them to believe in our companies, we should be especially keen regarding the power of words. We must also acknowledge just what disastrous results can come back upon us through their misuse. In saying this, I ask why we are so readily allowing social media to bastardize the meanings of even the most basic words.

Perhaps most telling of this epidemic is how we’ve let the true meaning of the word “friend” become almost entirely sapped. For lack of a better convention, this term – and our desire to be polite – have skewed what was an otherwise basic notion. Seth Godin puts it nicely in a recent talk with Tom Peters, “It’s worthless to have lots and lots of friends on Facebook because they’re not really your friends. They’re just people who didn’t want to offend you by pressing the ignore button.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg though. When marketers excited about social media use terms like “relationship”, “conversation”, and “transparency”, I mostly just hear, “bullshit”, “bullshit”, and more “bullshit”. Why? Because these words are cheap to say, but far more costly to back them up. As a result, lots of people use them without really meaning anything. It’s fun to get excited about social media’s potential, but it might prove a “wash” because so many want to reap the benefits without really engaging with anyone.

Test subjects

For the past few months now, I’ve been collecting notes on companies that speak human and those that don’t. For the sake of today’s post though, I’ll focus on those who don’t—but should really know better. Moreover, I’ll concentrate on those who’ve made contact with me, looking to gain attention for their companies through this blog.

On a regular basis, I receive emails from people in marketing roles who want me to write about something they’re doing. Most times I can tell that it’s a blanket message just by considering the general nature of the request. There’s typically some kind of note about how much they like ideasonideas, and that they would love to partner with me and create some kind of relationship.

Lately, I’ve taken to emailing these people back. I figure it’s an interesting test: If they’re willing to get in-touch asking for help, you’d think they’d be interested in “getting to first-base” with me. Sadly, most just want a one-night-stand; worse yet, they’d rather if I didn’t talk too much while they were having their way with me. The general sentiment seems to be, “Stop asking questions silly blogger… and give us some free publicity!”

Sure, you’d expect this of some groups like black hat SEO groups or dodgy overseas web development firms. What’s weird though, is that marketers for well-respected organizations are doing just this. They initiate contact asking to be “friends”, but my friendly reply doesn’t seem to even warrant their response. My suggestion: don’t send an email asking to “partner” with someone unless you’re willing to engage in an actual dialogue.

These guys are using popular social media terms but can’t seem to understand that these words are founded on real human interaction. This allows them to think that using such buzzwords is all that’s required, allowing them to keep on broadcasting one-way messages. The notion that seems so terribly elusive to them is that relationships are about more than just selling product.

The real cost of social media

In part, this is a scaling issue. Even if these marketers like the idea of connecting with others, they don’t have much time to do so. They need to reach a lot of people in order to keep their bosses happy. This is certainly understandable, but I don’t think it makes such behavior excusable, and it shouldn’t be mistaken for good marketing. The simple fact is: If you want a relationship, you’ll have to invest something in it.

Marketers need to pony-up or they’ll find the only place for their messages is in the waste-bin. Engaging in conversations with customers and “partners” is time-consuming, but with each sincere interaction, currency is earned. This presents huge opportunity for those willing to put in some time. I regularly spread the word for companies who I’ve grown to trust – so long as they are good ones – and I’ll bet that you do too. That being said, few of us have much interest in someone who wants a roll-in-the-hay, without even talking to us first.

I say it’s time to cast-aside all of the desire to find “best-practices” relating to social media. Forget about the white-papers and seminars relating to this “revolution”. If you want to establish real relationships with customers, you need to get back to basics and engage in actual conversations. (You know—those ones in which people really talk to one another?)

Paying lip-service to all of these silly terms, while we really just engage in one-way communications shows how stuck we are in an advertising world. Sorry folks, all these social things just don’t work if you use them like that. And sure, this sucks for marketers, because it slows them down. What few think to acknowledge is that it’s actually pretty hard to have thousands of meaningful conversations running concurrently; nevertheless, that’s simply the world we live in. Relationships, friendships, and trust don’t come overnight. It’s time to stop tossing around these words while marketing the in the same crappy old way we used to.

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