Thomas Barta: Marketing jargon is a major career killer

Marketers need to do a better job at marketing the value of marketing to the rest of their business. First step? Lose the jargon, says Thomas Barta, marketing leadership expert and co-author of leadership book ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’.

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Great marketing communication is jargon-free so the customer message makes it through loud and clear. So why do so many marketers believe using marketing jargon inside their company is okay? It’s not. It’s a career killer.

“Can you hear me now?” asks the guy in Verizon Wireless’s iconic TV ads. He always gets a thumbs up from his colleagues on the other end of the line proving he gets reception everywhere. Many marketers aren’t that lucky. They struggle to get heard internally.

A while ago I observed a CMO applying for major new research funding at a board meeting. He explained that brand advocacy among millennials was low. The brand purpose needed to be made contemporary. Programmatic was key. And while click-through rates were decent, the firm’s CMS was outdated. A new end-to-end marketing approach was urgently needed but so was $1.1m of new research money to develop that model.

Nobody in the C-suite gets excited about programmatic, brand positioning or click rates. But when you talk revenue, costs, profit or impact on society, the eyes are on you.

After the meeting he asked me how I thought it went. “To be honest,” I replied, “I think you completely lost everybody in that room. Let’s hope you keep your job.”

The CEO later called him to say that frankly, he hadn’t understood a word. The budget request went nowhere. Luckily the CMO kept his job but he learned a big lesson.

Communication is critical

This is my first Marketing Week leadership column. I thought pretty hard about where to start. The meeting described above reminded me of communication’s critical role in business success.

Marketers (and their agencies) love jargon. Not a single day seems to pass without the invention of new buzzwords and phrases: ‘advertainment’, ‘clickbait’, ‘content is king’, ‘disruptor’, ‘#growthhacking’ (always with a #), ‘millennials’ and ‘programmatic’. I’m sure you could add 10 more.

Don’t get me wrong, technical marketing terms are useful. They are shortcuts to help us describe complex matters more quickly. But these terms are constantly overused. Some marketers would easily win every round of buzzword bingo. But not their non-marketing colleagues’ hearts and minds.

Here’s a baffling finding: all marketers I know are thinking hard about how to communicate with customers or consumers. But too few are thinking about how to communicate effectively with their co-workers. In fact, when many CEOs speak with their marketers, they feel lost in a maze of jargon.

READ MORE: How to market marketing

Using marketing jargon inside your company creates three big issues. Firstly, it clouds your reason to exist. Let’s remind ourselves: The marketing department’s core role is to help the company serve customers better than the competition does.

If done well this generates more revenue and more profits. However, Marketing Week’s latest Career and Salary Survey shows 61.8% of marketers believe their work is only somewhat understood or not understood at all by their business. And when the Economist Intelligence Unit recently asked business leaders where their marketing departments had contributed most in the past year, only 15% said “revenue growth”. That’s a chillingly low number.

Using buzzwords makes it hard for people to understand your contribution to what matters: revenue and profit.

Think about people inside your company like you would think about your external customers.

The second issue it that marketing jargon distances you from your co-workers. In successful companies, people from different departments communicate well, exchange ideas and drive innovation together. Using in-group marketing language with non-marketing peers – thus demonstrating that you are different – will drive people away from you and your team.

Thirdly, marketing jargon damages your career. In a large global study I recently did together with London Business School’s Patrick Barwise, we looked at marketers’ career drivers. We didn’t research jargon as such, but we made a stunning discovery. Speaking the company’s own internal language, (e.g. product or services language), is a surprisingly large career driver. Ironically, jargon does matter – as long as it’s the right jargon.

You can do better. A financial services CMO, for example, now highlights marketing’s revenue impact in all internal documents. An airline CMO consistently shares her compelling story of “becoming the undisputed customer favourite”. Both were earmarked as high performers. Their success, of course, isn’t just based on great communication, but they said ditching jargon for powerful language made a big difference.

Become an internal communications pro

Do you want to become a compelling internal communicator? Here are some ideas.

First off, think about people inside your company like you would think about your external customers. What’s on their mind? How could you make your important marketing priorities relevant to them? How could you make your message stick?

Most marketers excel at understanding customers or consumers. Far fewer understand the needs of their C-suite leaders. Don’t fall into that trap. Get behind what matters at the top. Interview people, read analyst reports, have a chat with your finance guys.

Once you know what matters in the C-suite, align your language patterns to make what you say matter, too. Explain how your marketing priorities tie in with the company’s top performance indicators. Keep your language focused on the revenue line. Nobody in the C-suite gets excited about programmatic, brand positioning or click rates. But when you talk revenue, costs, profit or (increasingly) impact on society, the eyes are on you.

When it comes to convincing colleagues, talk hope. Marketing doesn’t typically have all the formal power within a company. In fact, nobody does. To make a great customer experience happen, you typically have to rely on many people who don’t report to you. You can’t give your colleagues orders. You have to persuade them.

“A leader is a dealer in hope,” Napoleon once said. People love following leaders who give hope, who stand for a better future. Gaining more share of voice or repositioning the brand may excite you, but perhaps nobody else. When you talk about your company becoming the undisputed category leader or the number one choice for customers, however, your message could become contagious.

Try this: for the next 10 days, treat the people in your company as your customers. Ditch your marketing jargon. Use language people will understand, language they’ll relate to. I’m certain you’ll feel the power of communicating in the right language.

Can you hear me now?

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