It's Time to End Jargon in Digital Marketing
10 March 2018
Digital marketing has a problem and it’s called jargon. Our industry is filled with trendy phrases that clutter our discussions and confuse our clients. It takes over our inboxes, meetings and phone calls, each speaker trying to prove that they’ve got a handle on the latest terminology. Jargon fills our proposals and works its way into our pitches, and before we even start a project we’ve established a business relationship based on marketing-speak instead of plain English. I’ve long been an advocate of removing jargon from our industry, and there are plenty of reasons why.
My biggest concern with jargon is that it complicates communication. Have you ever watched a marketer use excessive jargon when explaining something to a client? There’s almost always a disconnect between the conversation the marketer is having and the one the client is having. You can sometimes physically see the confusion on the client’s face, and the relief when somebody steps in and speaks without jargon. It’s not just clients who get confused, colleagues are also susceptible to misunderstanding (or not understanding) what a conversation is about when too much jargon is used. Even our industry leaders agree. In 2017, NewBase conducted a poll of global marketing CMOs and found that 83% of them think there is too much jargon in digital marketing and that it adds unnecessary complexity to our conversations.
Unfortunately, people are often embarrassed to ask for clarification if they don’t understand jargon because they feel that it shows a lack of knowledge. That leaves them trying to figure out what the phrase means through the context of the conversation. Each person ends up with a slightly different understanding of the definition, which leads to people talking about very technical processes with different understandings of what is actually happening.
One of the most common arguments for the use of jargon in digital marketing is that it makes the user sound professional and in-touch with the industry. I would suggest that a real professional is judged on their knowledge of a subject, not their ability to throw out the latest term they picked up in a meeting or industry blog post. Our goal should be to clearly explain a project to our clients and colleagues, and to communicate effectively with people across the marketing spectrum, from the not-so-tech-savvy marketing manager at a small company to the digital director at a tech start up. Making a client, and our colleagues, feel comfortable that they understand the project, the process, and the goals is essential to a successful working relationship. That is far more important than trying to make ourselves “sound” professional.
“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
– George Orwell
I’m not alone in my anti-jargon stance. Around the world, governments and organizations are promoting the use of plain language. In 2010, the US government passed the Plain Writing Act which requires federal agencies to use clear government communication that the public can understand and use. Although this applies more to legislative content, the premise can certainly be applied to digital marketing. Its Plain Language website has useful tips on reducing complex language to simple, clear English. Even author George Orwell took a stance on jargon in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” when he stated, “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
There is a difference between jargon and terminology, and it’s important to understand that. Terms like “website,” “content management system,” “search engine optimization,” and “UX design” define specific products, services and processes. These terms are most likely understood by even the least experienced marketing professional, however it’s always important to make sure that people you are talking to know their meaning. How do you know if a word is jargon or terminology? Ask yourself if there is a simpler way to say what you are trying to say. For example, the word “website” is the simplest way to describe, well, a website, while “ideating approaches on being channel agnostic” can definitely be simplified to “thinking of ideas that reach customers across the Internet.”
So how do you reduce your use of jargon? Slow down your conversations so you have the time to choose your words, edit your proposals to specifically remove jargon from them, and consider joining the Jargon Free Fridays movement to help break your habits. If somebody in a meeting is using jargon you don’t understand, ask them to explain the definition. This will help you follow along better and will make them realize that not everyone uses that term. Most importantly, make a conscious effort to observe how your clients and colleagues react when you do use industry terminology and adjust your language accordingly.