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Buzz Kill: Marketing Phrases We Hate

September 29, 2015 Digital Media Solutions

Greetings, friends, and welcome to another edition of Buzz Kill, a (not so) regularly scheduled series where we chart the erosion of the English language, under assault from marketing phrases and press releases. This month, we’re going to weed out “growth hacking” and clean up the “Internet of Things.”

Remember, to be included on this list, each phrase must have four characteristics:

  1. It must be pernicious. Like a guinea worm, these words reside beneath the skin of the industry, invisibly growing until they burst forth, spraying their foul fluids all over the English language.
  2. It must be pervasive. Like Kudzu, these words are quickly creeping across the landscape, slowly strangling everything in their wake.
  3. It must be marketing-specific. Well, kind of. I’ll make an exception for words that are correct in one’s usage but are frequently misused in marketing.
  4. Most importantly, it must be dander-raising. These words inspire eye-rolling and exasperated sighs (at least from me). In excess, they are the verbal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard and result in hair pulling, clothes rending and uncontrollable madness.


Growth Hacking/Hacker/Hack

The Phrase: Growth Hacking/Hacker
How It’s Used: “Our innovative growth hacking strategies ensure you get acquire the most followers to get the most bang for your buck."
Why It’s Horrible: There are two major issues that make the term “growth hacking” the marketing equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

The first is that it relies upon the incredibly overused term “hack.” Originally used in a technological sense in M.I.T.’s tech Model Railroad Club back in the ‘50s, hacks are supposed to be workarounds or shortcuts – creative solutions to problems. Hacks are not, however, tips. They’re not hints. They’re not full blown instructions or best practices. “How to make your bed” is not a hack, nor is something like “Make sure your website has a responsive design.”

Here’s a “word hack” for you: Stop using hack. “Hack” is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hackneyed. Yes, perhaps “hack” was cool and trendy for a while, but now it’s overpitched, overplayed and overdone.

The second issue with “growth hacking” is that it is flat-out misused. When Sean Ellis originally coined the phrase in 2010, he used it to differentiate between the type of marketing executive that an established business needs (you know, folks who drone on and on about “aligning marketing plans with corporate objectives” and like) and the marketing executives required by start-ups.

Ellis posited that start-ups don’t require someone with an established marketing background as much as they need someone willing to be accountable for (and drive) growth by regularly testing and analyzing new strategies. In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with “growth hacking.” But marketers, being marketers, have appropriated the term and now use it to describe a skill requirement for just about every marketing position there is – every position from “marketing manager” and “media buyer” to “social media strategist” seems to include it now. What makes this use even more egregious is, when used that way, it explicitly means the opposite of what Ellis was intending when he crafted the phrase.


The Internet of Things

The Phrase: The Internet of Things
How It’s Used: “An Internet of Things will change our lives.”
What’s Wrong With It: Look, I have to make an admission here: I actually LIKE “The Internet of Things.” The only reason I’m including it is because our director of corporate marketing (Hi, Kathy!) keeps pestering me to include it in one of these posts. At its heart, though, the concept of the “Internet of Things” is actually a pretty cool idea. (In a past life, I was an emerging technology evangelist who built strange Internet-connected devices in my spare time.)

The phrase originated back in 1999, when Kevin Ashton, cofounder of M.I.T’s Auto-ID Center (yes, all good things come from M.I.T.), used it to describe an unrealized (at the time) world in which uniquely addressable Internet-connected devices significantly improved the lives of average people. It’s hard for most people to remember what 1999 was like, but this was a pretty ground-breaking idea at the time. I mean, we’re talking about a time when people were just getting comfortable using their credit cards online. The future of Internet search engines was still thought to be overloaded web portals like Yahoo and AOL. And people were just beginning to talk about this new thing called “Google” (which, at the time, was still in a beta test). So, while Internet-connected devices had been around since at least 1982, the idea that they would be pervasive and relevant to our everyday lives was almost science fiction.

My introduction to the concept came through Bruce Sterling’s fabulous book “Shaping Things,” (published by, surprise surprise, M.I.T. Press — all good things DO come from M.I.T.). In it, Sterling expands on the idea of a world of connected appliances by suggesting the Internet of Things will be made up of objects called “spimes,” which are essentially digital objects that could, at various times in their lifecycle, also exist in the physical world. These things don’t exist (yet), but before you toss the idea in the wastebasket of futurist drivel, consider for a moment how your apps, contacts and data transfer between devices when you buy a new phone. This doesn’t quite meet the entire definition of a spime, but it does meet a few of the requirements. We are truly living in the future, brothers! Now where’s my damn jet pack?

Anyway, enough about the history of IoT. Why does Kathy hate it? Mostly because it’s overused. And she might have a point here: A quick look at Google Trends indicates that interest in an Internet of Things increased by about 10 times over the last three years. In fact, depending on the section of the Internet you inhabit, right now you might have an Internet of news about an Internet of Things.

So, it’s popular, but is it being misused? PR Newswire has thousands of press releases that feature the term published within the last 180 days. Let’s take a look at a couple:

  • Kwilt and Petzila (“The Leader in Internet of Things Pet Solutions”) partnered to incorporate images from the Petzi Treat Cam into KwiltKeys, a cloud-based digital photo album service. That uses the term correctly.
  • Salesforce unveiled an “Internet of Things Cloud.” Redundancy issues notwithstanding, they actually use the term correctly – it’s a service offering that seeks to make sense of piecemeal data from Internet-connected devices.
  • Tile (“a mass market internet of things device, providing community members with a platform to choose items that matter to them most”) unveiled the second iteration of their device. I mean, overly long marketing speak aside, they use the term correctly. Tiles are internet-connected fobs that allow you to find lost devices. (full disclosure here: I am a proud Tile owner, purely because I have a pathological problem where, as soon as I enter my home, I absentmindedly place my keys in the most unlikely of locations. This happens each and every day without fail and I am convinced this is me somehow working off a karmic debt from a past life where I was a really horrible person).

Honestly, it’s a little difficult to find people blatantly misusing the phrase. Is it used often? Sure. Too much? Maybe.

About the Author

Digital Media Solutions

Founded by a team of lifelong athletes, Digital Media Solutions (DMS), the fastest-growing independent digital performance marketing company. The company’s set of proprietary assets and capabilities in the world of performance marketing and marketing technology allow clients to meticulously target and acquire the right customers. DMS relentlessly pursues flawless execution for top brands within highly complex and competitive industries including mortgage, education, insurance, consumer brands, careers and automotive.

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