Parlez-vous B2B? The dangers of using jargon in your marketing

The 18th Century French philosopher, Etienne Condillac, observed that "every science requires a special language, because every science has its own ideas."

Condillac’s theory was that specialists communicate with their peers in a distinct language – such as by using abbreviations, acronyms and jargon – to maintain brevity and precision, and to be easily understood.

As a respected member of the ‘Enlightenment’ movement and author of a number of books on epistemology, Condillac certainly knew his stuff. But if he were around today to see the mess the ‘science’ of marketing – in particular B2B – has got itself into, he may well have rethought this stance…

A rude awakening

We recently had a student on work experience in our Planning team here at Earnest HQ. In between making us all feel quite ancient, we asked her for some thoughts on a live brief we had on for a global lead generation programme.

Within minutes Emily had compiled a list of 14 (yes, fourteen!) words or acronyms that she needed us to decipher for her – from a single page brief. From “ARPA” to “BRIC” and “lead gen” to “collateral” – it read like an A-to-Z of B2B marketing jargon. We even had to look-up some acronyms ourselves. See for yourself…

The word ‘jargon’ comes from the Old French word jargon meaning "chatter of birds" – and if we’re not careful, that’s all our marketing communications could turn into.

Lessons from the web

According to e-consultancy, user experience research shows that too much jargon will in fact put off your site visitors. Investors and financial analysts’ experiences were tested on IR pages on corporate websites. One user was “offended by irrelevant information” and “the usual marketing junk and jargon” they saw on a site.

Like most users, they expected to find relevant organisation information right away. Successful, engaging sites used bold headings and concise paragraphs to keep users’ attention. The eye-tracking chart below – with blue dots indicating where users are fixating – demonstrates how users strayed away when it came to longer paragraphs littered with links and sales information.

Journalists were also tested, and as you might expect they were an even harder audience to please. According to the report, journalists “typically scanned past lines of text that seemed too marketing-oriented. They were always wary (and sometimes cynical) about marketing information”.

Instead, what they wanted were facts and compelling information, presented in a way that they could then easily re-purpose. Eye-tracking research shows that users' eyes are attracted by numbers in web content. Numbers typically represent facts, and our B2B audience love facts. So this tends to keep their attention and increase sharing.

Preventing the next financial crisis

Marketing waffle could have an even more disastrous impact in the financial world. Mortgage lenders potentially face millions of pounds of write-offs by including too much jargon in their comms. According to Professor Daniel Read, a behavioural economics expert, marketing spiel from lenders instils “excessive irrational optimism” in buy-to-let customers. Very much like a library book fine that steadily increases over weeks and months, without us worrying, so can borrowers’ loans if they are not communicated to effectively.

Read says that communications must be “personalised and very simple… with no waffle or qualification if it is to be effective”.

Psychological proof

The Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman cites a cognitive study in his excellent book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. The wonderfully titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” includes a number of experiments with Princeton students testing the effectiveness of long and complex words. It demonstrates that the less you force people to think, the more they’ll believe what you’re saying. The paper concludes with the mantra: “Write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.” Can’t. Argue. With. That.

Some top tips

So here are 6 top tips the next time you write or review your business communications. Whether it’s an email, landing page, or even a blog post…

  1. Think with the customer in mind – are you giving them what they want?
  2. Read it aloud – does it sound natural? Is this a person talking or a company?
  3. Include facts and stats – this will make the content more shareable
  4. Always use numerals when writing web copy – this is more likely to draw users’ attention, compared to when numbers are written out (‘23,000’ rather than ‘twenty three thousand’)
  5. Keep it short-and-sweet – trying to avoid long words, when a short one will do
  6. Do a ‘jargon-count’ before publishing or hitting send – will all of your readers understand every acronym?

And let’s leave the final word to David Ogilvy:

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”

Are there any marketing jargon words that make your blood boil? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you…

By Earnest 10 October 2013
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