Greetings and welcome to the inaugural edition of Buzz Kill, our blog series designed to cut through the industry jargon and bring a return to sanity and, you know, the English language.
Admittedly, I am a word freak. I habitually do crosswords, and my Scrabble ability has jeopardized romantic relationships (memorizing every word that has a “Q” with no “U” after it is not, apparently, a hit with the ladies). So perhaps not everyone casts so much side-eye at people who use the words listed below as I do. But, in my opinion, these types of words are dangerous.
You should view these words as the vocabulary equivalent of the tongue-eating louse, a marine parasite that first enters through the gills of a fish, cuts off the blood supply of a fish’s tongue until it atrophies and falls off, and then replaces the tongue with itself. Similarly, these words are slowly strangling the blood supply of our ability to communicate. My deepest fear is that one day we’ll be the inhabitants of some twilight dystopian future where internalized buzz words have created an entire language of meaningless doublespeak. But instead of serving an Orwellian ideology, as it did in the book 1984, it will serve nothing.
See, each of the words we’re featuring has a couple of characteristics:
- 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.
- It must be pervasive. Like Kudzu, these are words that are quickly creeping across the landscape, slowly strangling meaning in their wake.
- It must be marketing-specific. Well, kind of. I’ll make an exception for words that are correct in one usage but are frequently misused in marketing.
- Most importantly, it must really raise my dander. These words inspire eye-rolling and exasperated sighs. In excess, they are the verbal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard and result in hair pulling, clothes rending and uncontrollable madness.
Without further ado, let’s begin with this month’s words:
The Word: Vertical (and, more specifically, “vertically integrated”)
How It’s Used: “We’re a vertically integrated software company serving only the education vertical.”
Why It’s Horrible: In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with “vertical” or “vertically integrated.” Both of them are very respectable economic terms to describe specific types of markets. The issue arises in the misuse of them to either describe an “industry” or, in the case of “vertically integrated,” to describe a primary focus on an industry. For example, a company that specializes in selling educational software to colleges is part of a vertical market, but that company isn’t vertically integrated unless it controls every segment of its supply chain as well. The granddaddy example of vertical integration was Andrew Carnegie. At one time, Carnegie Steel controlled every step of the steel-making process, from the mines where iron and coal were extracted, the transportation methods (ship and rail, respectively) that moved those goods to the factories, to the production of the steel itself. For something to be vertically integrated, it must control every step of the production process.
Better Alternatives: When you mean “industry,” say it. If you serve an industry, you’re “part of a vertical market,” but you’re not “vertically integrated.”
The Word: Viral
How It’s Used: “Jeff’s photo album of ‘What East Coasters Hoard Before A Storm’ went viral last night.”
Why It’s Horrible: It’s imprecise enough to be almost meaningless. Simply put, information does not actually spread like a virus. The transmission of ideas requires the willful participation of the infected, and the transmission of a virus does not. Participants of information spreading networks frequently rework or change the original message as it’s transmitted across a network (think about the classic “telephone” game, for example), which actually causes quite a bit of consternation for initial communicators as their ideas are repurposed to serve the needs of the people transmitting it. As the esteemed MIT professor (and founder of the Convergence Culture Consortium) Henry Jenkins describes it:
In focusing on the involuntary transmission of ideas by unaware consumers, these models allow advertisers and media producers to hold onto an inflated sense of their own power to shape the communication process, even as unruly behavior by consumers becomes a source of great anxiety within the media industry.
Better Alternatives: “Shareable media” describes content with a high propensity to be retransmitted. “Earned media” (in opposition to “paid media”) describes organic mentions and impressions.
The Word: Guru
How It’s Used: Typically, this is used to describe someone with expertise in a new media field like mobile, social, search or gaming. Ergo: “I’d like to introduce you to our social media guru.”
Why It’s Horrible: This makes me cringe every time I hear it, in the same way that hearing the term “media maven” makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The term “guru” actually translates as “teacher” in the original Sanskrit. (For those logophiles out there, it’s actually a cognate of the Latin word “gravis,” because both Sanskrit and Latin are descended from the same Proto-Indo-European language). Traditionally, it was used to describe teachers who can provide some type of transcendental wisdom to their students. In colloquial English, “guru” has come to describe anyone who imparts some type of quasi-mystical knowledge.
The marketing usage of this is bad because it implies there’s something mystical or hocus-pocus-y about specific new media fields, which is simply untrue. Taken to its logical conclusion, the usage of this term calls into question the validity of anything a new media expert says because it implies that it could be pseudo-transcendental claptrap instead of reasoning grounded in logical and scientific thinking. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke did say that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but I can assure you that all new media fields are significantly more grounded in logic than in any type of wizardry. The amount of times I’ve hand to stand on a bridge, pound my staff and shout, “YOU CANNOT PASS,” I can count on one hand. And I get my beard trimmed at least once a month.
Better Alternatives: “expert” or “strategist”
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