Showing all posts tagged marketing:

Marketing Without Surveillance

This is a post that I drafted when Facebook released their last results, and never got around to publishing. Why publish it now? For a start, none of this is breaking news, so it remains as relevant as it ever was. More importantly, with the ongoing bonfire of Twitter, the questions of whether ad-funded social networks are a good thing or not is more relevant than ever.

My position remains that none of this tracking nonsense is worth while. I have never been served a relevant ad through surveillance-driven adtech. Meanwhile, brand advertising works just fine, simply by virtue of the brand being present in the right context: bike gear on a cycling blog, that sort of very limited targeting that only requires a single bit of information about the audience.

Meta Loses Top-10 Ranking by Market Value Amid Worst Month Ever
Social media company falls behind Tencent in value ranking
Facebook parent has lost $513 billion in market cap from peak
Stock has fallen 46% from last year’s record.

What do the terrible results announced by Facebook — I refuse to give in to their desire that we call them Meta — actually mean?

Zuck blamed Apple's ad tracking prevention features for wiping $10B off their bottom line, and there has been a concerted push since to present this as somehow a bad thing, especially for small businesses. I agree with Nick Heer that this framing is pretty gross on Facebook's part, but what I wanted to do today is to discuss alternatives that are open to marketers today.

I'm not in marketing these days, and I never worked directly in the demand-generation side that would get actively involved with this sort of thing — but I have worked closely with those teams and been in the planning meetings, so I have at least an idea of how that business works.

Everything starts with a campaign: you have a particular message you want to get out, you want it to reach a particular audience, and you want some idea of how effective it is. Given those goals, there are different ways to go about running your campaign — different largely in their ethics, rather than in their actual results. Let's take a look.
Alice and Bob work for ACME Widgets Corp. Both of them are launching marketing campaigns for the coming quarter — but they take different approaches, even though they have the same metrics set by their boss, Eve the VP of Marketing.

Alice goes all-in on the surveillance model: her emails have tracking pixels, the links they point to are all gated behind a form that also signs you up for a newsletter, she places ads that follow users around the web once they have come within her surveillance web. She even messes with the favicon and the hosted fonts on the website in order to be able to track users that way. At the end, thanks to all of this effort, Alice can show Eve attribution metrics with a certain click-though rate for her outreach and a certain acquisition cost per customer, set against their likely lifetime value to ACME.

Bob takes a different tack: his emails are plain text, without even any images — since plenty of people now reflexively block all images in email, or load them through proxies. The links in the email are customised so that Bob can tell which email was the one that triggered the action, but then they go directly to the linked resource. He also buys ads, but instead of direct calls to action, Bob focuses on brand advertising in the sorts of publications that the prospective customers are likely to read. At the end, Bob can also show Eve attribution metrics, click-through rates and customer acquisition costs — but he has got there with without irritating prospective customers, or falling foul of either technical countermeasures or policies such as GDPR or CCPA.

Comparing Alice and Bob’s Results

Effectively, Alice and Bob have access to the same metrics; it's just that one of them is going about the process of gathering them honestly. The only data point Bob is missing is the open rate on those emails — but first of all, how useful is that metric in reality? If the indicator that an email was opened is that a tracking pixel was loaded, Alice doesn't know whether the recipient actually read the whole thing, or paged past her email quickly on their way to something they actually wanted. And even assuming that it's an accurate representation of how many people read the text but don't click on any of the links — what can Alice do with that information that Bob would not also do with the information that he sent out X number of emails and Y% of recipients clicked on the call-to-action link? And no, for goodness sake, the answer is not even more layers of attribution woo that claims to be able to identify whether someone came to the ACME website because they remembered the email, or the billboard ad, or because someone mentioned it to them at work — let alone trying to embed the "read progression" code that far too many websites now include.

Secondly, all of these intrusive metrics now have a firm expiry date stamped on them. On top of the ad tracking prevention, Apple now offers a Private Relay capability in iCloud that hides originating IP addresses. Browsers already no longer report a whole lot of information that they used to, precisely because it was used for creepy tracking stuff. By building her campaigns this way, Alice might achieve her goals today, but soon she will not be able to run campaigns like this, and will have to learn to do things Bob's way anyway.

At the core of Bob's method is turning tracking inside out. Instead of trying to stalk users around the Web, engaging in a constant arms race and violating their clearly expressed preference, Bob simply figures out where his most valuable prospects gather and advertises there. First-party data is enough for his purposes, and while individual ads might be more expensive in CPM, he avoids engaging with an ecosystem that is ridden with fraud. He also does not need to worry that the ACME ad might show up beside some tin-foil-hatter YouTube channel and get bad press that way — and the time he doesn't spend micro-managing ad placement can be spent more productively on creating better copy, or an entire other campaign.

Context matters in other ways, too: when a prospective customer is reading about the latest political crisis, famine, or natural disaster, they are not in a widget-buying mood, so showing them a widget ad is counter-productive anyway. Instead, Bob puts his widget ads in widget blogs, places them with streamers who test widgets, and gets hosts of widget-focused podcasts to read out his ads. All of these channels have very limited tracking; podcasts offer none at all, unless Bob creates a special landing page or discount code for listeners of each podcast. And yet, those are some of the most expensive ad slots around, because the context makes them very strong indicators of desire to buy.

Eve looks at the campaign performance numbers presented by a haggard Alice and a relaxed Bob, remembers the news stories about Apple and Google clamping down further on ad tracking, and suggests gently to Alice that maybe she should sit with Bob and figure out how to get the job done without the crutch of surveillance ad tech.

🖼️ Photos by Charles Deluvio and Headway on Unsplash


A recurring topic when it comes to curbing the power of Facebook to influence the real world is somehow to curtail its huge advertising revenue. Campaigns such as Sleeping Giants have made it their business to call out advertisers whose brands had been associated with unsavoury themes, causing revenue to alt-right websites to drop as much as 90% (despite some shenanigans to attempt to reverse the drain).

In the wake of all this, large corporations such as Disney have made a big deal of "boycotting" Facebook:

Walt Disney has dramatically slashed its advertising spending on Facebook according to people familiar with the situation, the latest setback for the tech giant as it faces a boycott from companies upset with its handling of hate speech and divisive content.

The reasons for the supposed boycott are never stated clearly, but centre on supposed enablement of the alt-right by Facebook. I suspect that the actual recruitment is happening elsewhere, e.g. through YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, but that is a whole other issue.

Facebook seems unswayed:

Facebook executives, including Carolyn Everson, vice president of its Global Business Group, previously told advertisers that the company wouldn’t change its policies based on revenue pressure.

This actually looks like the correct response, given that otherwise pressure could presumably also be brought in the other direction. Imagine weapons manufacturers demanding that calls for gun control be censored or otherwise limited, and threatening to cancel advertising.

Facebook may also have correctly identified the real reason for the "boycott". Disney’s results for the past year show that overall revenue fell 42% to $11.78 billion, driven primarily by an operating loss of $1.96 billion in the parks and consumer products business, and a 16% fall in their studio business. The coronavirus pandemic causing cinemas and amusement parks to close is hardly Disney’s fault1, but it’s not surprising that they might look to cut some advertising expenditures, while also making themselves look good in the process.

It’s not cost cutting (bad, reactive), it’s joining a boycott (good, proactive).

It’s also worth looking at who is cutting what. Disney is still advertising on FB, but it’s direct-action ads to drive people to sign up to Disney+, their streaming service which is one of the few bright spots on their results with 60.5 million paying customers. That’s what FB is good for. It’s terrible at brand advertising, where you’re trying to build buzz around a new film that everyone has to see, rather than customising the benefits of Disney+ to each specific audience.

If you want everyone to pack the cinemas to see the new Star Wars film, you don’t need to advertise to everyone individually; you just get a billboard in Times Square. On the other hand, you can sell Disney+ many different ways:

  • Parents of young children: it’s a Pixar delivery mechanism!
  • Teenage boys (and men who never grew up, don’t @ me): it’s all Marvel superheroes and Star Wars all the time!
  • Older adults: National Geographic documentaries!
  • Musical fans: we have Hamilton now!

And so on: micro-segmentation is what adtech in general is good for.

This is why it’s worth looking beyond the headlines, at a boycott that is both more and less than it appears. Facebook will weather this boycott, and so will Disney.

In a timely update, today brings the story of a Dutch broadcaster that killed cookies and saw advertising revenue go way up. It turns out, advertisers don’t need to know much about users, beyond what they are reading or watching, in order to make sensible decisions about whether and how to advertise to them or not.

Instead of targeting a certain type of customer, advertisers target customers reading a certain type of article or watching a certain type of show.

The article calls this approach "contextual advertising", and according to the results of NPO’s testing, they convert at least as well as, if not better than, micro-targeted ones.

In January and February of this year, NPO says, its digital ad revenue was up 62 percent and 79 percent, respectively, compared to last year. Even after the coronavirus pandemic jolted the global economy and caused brands to drastically scale back advertising—and forcing many publications to implement pay cuts and layoffs—NPO's revenue is still double-digit percentage points higher than last year.

Everyone’s happy! Well, except for adtech vendors:

The main explanation is simple: because the network is no longer relying on microtargeted programmatic ad tech, it now keeps what advertisers spend rather than giving a huge cut to a bunch of intermediaries.2

And good riddance to them. Their only value proposition (such as it is) is that they will identify the high-value users browsing, say, NPO’s web site, and enable customers to advertise to them elsewhere on the web where the cost of displaying the ad is lower. What’s in it for NPO and other high-value outlets? Nothing; their value is actively being hollowed out. The advertisers aren’t that much better off, because now their ad and their brand is getting displayed in cheap locations beside low-value content, instead of on a reliable solid broadcaster’s web site. Everybody loses, except the adtech creepiness pushers themselves.

The sooner we move away from micro-targeting, the better.

🖼️ Photos by Annie Spratt and Travis Gergen on Unsplash

  1. Although I would argue that a decision to re-open Disneyland etc while the outbreak is still under way is extremely dubious. Easy to say when it’s not my revenue on the line, sure, but I also like to sleep soundly at night. 

  2. There used to be a gendered term here, for no good reason, so I fixed it. 

Advertise With The End In Mind

Even though I no longer work directly in marketing, I’m still adjacent, and so I try to keep up to date with what is going on in the industry. One of the most common-sensical and readable voices is Bob Hoffman, perhaps better known as the Ad Contrarian. His latest post is entitled The Simple-Minded Guide To Marketing Communication, and it helpfully dissects the difference between brand advertising and direct-response advertising (emphasis mine):

[…] our industry's current obsession with precision targeted, one-to-one advertising is misguided. Precision targeting may be valuable for direct response. But history shows us that direct response strategies have a very low likelihood of producing major consumer facing brands. Building a big brand requires widespread attention. Precision targeted, one-to-one communication has a low likelihood of delivering widespread attention.

Now Bob is not just an armchair critic; he has quite the cursus honorum in the advertising industry, and so he speaks from experience.

In fact, events earlier this week bore out his central thesis. With the advent of GDPR, many US-based websites opted to cut off EMEA readers rather than attempt to comply with the law. This action helpfully made it clear who was doing shady things with their users’ data, thereby providing a valuable service to US readers, while rarely inconveniencing European readers very much.

The New York Times, with its strong international readership, was not willing to cut off overseas ad revenue. Instead, they went down a different route (emphasis still mine):

The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages, followed swiftly by behavioral targeting. Instead, NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, svp for global advertising at New York Times International.

Digiday has more details, but that quote has the salient facts: turning off invasive tracking – and the targeted advertising which relies on it – had no negative results whatsoever.

This is of course because knowing someone is reading the NYT, and perhaps which section, is quite enough information to know whether they are an attractive target for a brand to advertise to. Nobody has ever deliberately clicked from serious geopolitical analysis to online impulse shopping. However, the awareness of a brand and its association with Serious Reporting will linger in readers’ minds for a long time.

The NYT sells its own ads, which is not really scalable for most outlets, but I hope other people are paying attention. Maybe there is room in the market for an advertising offering that does not force users to deal with cookies and surveillance and interstitial screens and page clutter and general creepiness and annoyance, while still delivering the goods for its clients?

🖼️ Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash

Conference swag

Now that AWS re:Invent is done, conference season is over for me this year.

I feel quite virtuous, because I have managed to collect only a single vendor T-shirt and one cellphone stand all year, leaving all the other tat behind at the various shows.

The fact I’m not hauling it home doesn’t mean all of that tat doesn’t have an impact though. Here is a good roundup:

It’s not just tote bags, which only make up 8.4% of total promotional product sales. It’s also T-shirts, which represent more than a quarter of sales; writing instruments, which make up 6.1%; and various tech accessories, like USB drives, which make up 7.5%.

The promotional products industry in the United States is worth $24 billion and has grown by 2.5% over the last five years. There are 26,413 businesses in the space, which employs 392,820 people, according to the most recent figures. While cheap swag is popular across industries, education, healthcare, insurance, nonprofits, marketing companies, and technology are the biggest consumers of these items.

As we all start to plan the 2019 shows, here are some suggestions for event planning teams to minimise the footprint of all this activity.

No Printed Brochures

For a start, while a few people still genuinely prefer hard copy materials, most of the paper brochures handed out at trade show booths go straight into the nearest recycling bin. Instead of scaring a bunch of trees, why not have a panel in the booth with a row of QR codes so that attendees can grab electronic copies of the materials? Or combine that with a station where they can email themselves relevant material directly from the show floor.1

No Show-Specific Materials

I would suggest not to have any give-aways that are specific to one show. I have seen all sorts of ridiculous hats, wristbands, and even headbands. These are even more likely to be left behind in a hotel room than the general run of the mill giveaways.


T-shirts are a mixed bag. Some manage to achieve the status of becoming actual collectibles – see e.g. the Splunk shirts, at least a few years ago. Most however will at best be used for decorating, or as sleeping attire for the female attendees. Probably not where you wanted your logo displayed: the audience is generally very small, and it’s probably too dark to read anyway.


More positively, you can do something that is specific to the location of the show; maybe you could raffle off tickets to Cirque du Soleil for a show in Las Vegas, or a tour of the city somewhere like London. At smaller events where most attendees will be staying at the same hotel, you could also offer hotel vouchers for spa treatments or room upgrades.

Useful Give-Aways

People do like a little tchotchke, but try to make it something useful – and not fake-useful, meaning no 256MB USB keys, low-quality tote bags, or yet another fidget spinner. Instead, my suggestion is to align the giveaway to your brand identity: pocket tools or batteries for "useful", drinks for "refreshing", and so on.

Rest Easy

Finally, I can’t claim credit for this one, but there was an excellent suggestion on Twitter during AWS re:Invent:

This seems like an excellent idea: people will genuinely want to use the pillow, and so provided your logo isn’t too tasteless, they will be reminded of you every time they travel. For an example of a company doing this right, AWS themselves always manage to have excellent hoodies for re:Invent attendees: high quality, and with branding that is recognisable but sufficiently subtle not to be in your face.

See you on the show floor in 2019!

  1. Yes, eagle-eyed events people, this would indeed give you an extra opportunity to get their contact details – but mind that GDPR! 

Enterprise Brand Advertising

I've spent most of my career around enterprise IT sales. I have learned a lot from my colleagues on the sales side, which makes me much more effective in supporting them. After all, let's not forget - whatever your business card or your email sig say your particular role is, ultimately we're all in sales, or we're all out of a job.

One of the things I have learned, however, is that there is a very common misunderstanding of the role of marketing and advertising in enterprise IT sales.

The first thing to bear in mind is the difference between direct marketing and brand marketing. To quote Wikipedia,

Direct marketing is attractive to many marketers because its positive results can be measured directly. For example, if a marketer sends out 1,000 solicitations by mail and 100 respond to the promotion, the marketer can say with confidence that campaign led directly to 10% direct responses. This metric is known as the 'response rate,' and it is one of many clearly quantifiable success metrics employed by direct marketers. In contrast, general advertising uses indirect measurements, such as awareness or engagement, since there is no direct response from a consumer.

Measurement of results is a fundamental element in successful direct marketing. The Internet has made it easier for marketing managers to measure the results of a campaign. This is often achieved by using a specific website landing page directly relating to the promotional material. A call to action will ask the customer to visit the landing page, and the effectiveness of the campaign can be measured by taking the number of promotional messages distributed and dividing it into the number of responses. Another way to measure the results is to compare the projected sales or generated leads for a given term with the actual sales or leads after a direct advertising campaign.

Sales people tend to assume that all marketing should be direct marketing - that is, marketing that should trigger a measurable action. Each campaign must generate a certain number of leads, a certain percentage of which will turn into actual qualified opportunities, and with any luck some of those opportunities will eventually close.


Coffee is for closers only

Of course this situation generates all sorts of fun conversations where sales people question the quality of those leads, while marketing answers back with barbed retorts about the number of opportunities that the sales team actually convert. Lost in the Sturm und Drang of the resulting blamestorm is the question of whether this model can even work at all.

On the other hand, straightforward brand advertising is ridiculed as a waste of money. Since it is hard to measure almost by definition, it doesn't fit into the usual opportunity conversion spreadsheets, and is therefore the first expense to be cut when Sales is driving the bus. In fact, the only way of measuring the impact of brand advertising is by looking at what happens when you stop doing it.

I would argue that for the sort of long-duration, big-ticket sales cycles that we have in enterprise IT, the expectations of direct marketing in the traditional sense are overinflated. On the other hand, the potential of brand advertising is vastly underestimated - including by marketing departments.

Brand advertising - what is it good for?

Very few people in this space will make or even consider a purchase based on a single campaign or targeted VITO letter, no matter how good. This idea plays into the heroic self-image of sales, but it is rarely true. In actual fact, before receiving that first formal sales approach, our prospect already has an opinion of what our company and products are like. This opinion is formed from various different sources, but the most important ones are personal experience and received opinion. If you can get personal experience right the first time you have generally bought yourself a customer for life, but that's a whole other topic. The way you can influence the frame of mind of your VITO is to work on that other axis: the received opinion that they already have of your product and/or company.

In turn, that received opinion is also determined by two main sources: word of mouth, and - yes - brand advertising. Brand advertising helps position your company as the sort of company that your VITO would want to do business with: innovative, customer-focused, stable & reliable, or whatever your particular values might be.


A prospect reading a VITO letter

So far, so much like direct marketing, except without the all-important metrics. Where brand advertising pays off is in what happens next. What you want to happen after VITO reads their customised1 letter is that they run down the hallway, burst into their colleague's office or their team's open space, and announce excitedly that they have just read about a very cool-sounding product from your company.

Their willingness to do this - to expose themselves in this way - is going to be predicated on your company's credibility in the space where you operate. In 2015, anyone getting excited about a new offering from Blackberry would have to do a fair amount of explaining (sorry, Blackberry). Vice versa, nobody has to explain why they are planning to buy cloud services from Amazon, storage from EMC, networking gear from Cisco, or insert your own favoured example.

While no amount of brand advertising could save Blackberry at this point, Amazon, EMC, Cisco, et al got to where they are in no small part by working on their perception in the market. In other words, their brand advertising ensures that VITO will be excited, rather than embarrassed, to involve their colleagues in an evaluation and advocate for a new offering.

What advertising can and cannot do

None of this is to say that brand advertising alone is sufficient if the products themselves don't meet expectations around price, performance, support, or any other axis that is important to customers. However, brand advertising can help get to the point where those variables can come into play.

Ironically, this distrust of advertising is one of the very few things that sales people and engineers both agree on. Both are making a category error which is nicely explained in this episode of the excellent Exponent podcast, with Ben Thompson and James Allworth.

Bottom line, I think overlooking brand advertising is a false economy. If you’re a startup, of course, you can’t blanket airports and fill out business magazines like the big guys2, so figure out what you can do in that space. And if you are big company that doesn’t do brand advertising, know that prospects are asking themselves why that is - and this definitely feeds into the perception they have of your company.

  1. You are customising your VITO letters to each prospect, aren't you? 

  2. Startups should not waste resources trying to act like bigger, more established companies. Startups have a disruptive value of their own, and can play on that3

  3. Says the guy with the psychedelic cow logo on his business card. I mean, check out our website. Nobody will mistake us for a staid, established vendor - and that’s the point

Air… BUS?

What's in a name?

Airbus is in the news, and analysts doubt that the company will pull ahead of its archrival Boeing.

I have only the most indirect relationship with the aerospace industry - basically, I fly a fair amount - but the whole idea of Airbus is off-putting to me. Airbus is a conglomerate of interesting companies that manages to be far less cool than the sum of its parts. Even the name implies disdain for its customers. Air… BUS? I don't want a "bus" experience of air travel, and I don't like the association of those ideas.

Even the logo manages to be desperately uncool and off-putting:


Compare and contrast with one of the constituent companies:


Could there be a more awesome name than "Aérospatiale"? The logo is pretty cool as well, although a bit retro now.

Since we're on the topic, let's talk about Boeing as well for a moment:


Another cool logo, reminding us that Boeing is not just about a big bus that takes passengers between cities, but also about rockets that go to space.

This is not just theoretical marketing won

kery, either. The whole concept of the big A380 "super-jumbo"1 fits into that bus model of thinking: not the fastest, not the most innovative, just a way to stack as much self-loading cargo

as possible

in one bus and ship it to its destination as cheaply as possible (for the operator). This concept has largely failed to resonate with the market, and the A380 programme is in serious trouble, with Reuters calling it ["poor-selling"]( "

Airbus to juggle jet production, defends poor-selling A380" ). Compare and contrast with the Concorde, which is still used as an image of technological success years after the termination of maintenance contracts - by Airbus - killed it as a commercial proposition.

I mean, just look at it!


Nobody is going to sell posters of the A380 after the end of its service life. No airport will want to park one on its apron, and no travellers will gaze at it longingly from the windows of their more pedestrian aircraft.

What's in a name? Sometimes, everything.

  1. Surely it says something that they even define themselves in relation to categories that are already owned and defined by their arch-rival? There is only one "jumbo" jet, and that is the Boeing 747. Calling your own plane the "super-jumbo" just makes you look like Homer Simpson designing a car. Maybe they should just call the next one the "Airbus Homer", with gratuitous fins, bubble domes everywhere, and shag carpeting throughout the cabin. 


I've been blogging a lot about messaging lately, which I suppose is to be expected from someone in marketing. In particular, I have been focusing on how messaging can go wrong.

The process I outlined in "SMAC My Pitch Up" went something like this:

  • Thought Leaders (spit) come up with a cool new concept
  • Thought Leaders discuss the concept amongst themselves, coming up with jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms (oh my!)
  • Thought Leaders launch the concept on an unsuspecting world, forgetting to translate from jargon, abbreviations and acronyms
  • Followers regurgitate half-understood jargon, abbreviations and acronyms
  • Much clarity is lost

Now the cynical take is that the Followers are doing this in an effort to be perceived as Thought Leaders themselves - and there is certainly some of that going on. However, my new corollary to the theory is that many Followers are not interested in the concept at all. They are name-checking the concept to signal to their audience that they are aware of it and gain credibility for other initiatives, not to jump on the bandwagon of the original concept. This isn't the same thing as "cloudwashing", because that is at least about cloud. This is about using the cloud language to justify doing something completely different.

This is how we end up with actual printed books purporting to explain what is happening in the world of mobile and social. By the time the text is finalised it's already obsolete, never mind printed and distributed - but that's not the point. The point is to be seen as someone knowledgeable about up-to-date topics so that other, more traditional recommendations gain some reflected shine from the new concept.

The audience is in on this too. There will always be rubes taken in by a silver-tongued visionary with a high-concept presentation, but a significant part of the audience is signalling - to other audience members and to outsiders who are aware of their presence in that audience - that they too are aware of the new shiny concept.

It's cover - a way of saying "it's not that I don't know what the kids are up to, it's that I have decided to do something different". This is how I explain the difficulties in adoption of new concepts such as cloud computing1 or DevOps. It's not the operational difficulties - breaking down the silos, interrupting the blamestorms, reconciling all the differing priorities; it's that many of the people talking about those topics are using them as cover for something different.

Images from Morguefile, which I am using as an experiment.

  1. Which my fingers insist on typing as "clod computing", something that is far more widespread but not really what we should be encouraging as an industry. 

SMAC My Pitch Up

I have a liking for terrible puns, so I have always had a soft spot for the analyst firm Horses for Sources. Their latest newsletter included a link to a blog post which I'd meant to write up the first time around, but got distracted… ooh! A squirrel!

Ahem. Anyway.

Here's the piece: Time to stop the buzzword balderdash and become meaningful again.

Am I smoking something illegal, or has our industry really started to lose the plot with the amount of buzz terms that – quite frankly – only mean something to the sellers and advisors trying to make their wares sound that little bit savvier than their competitors. And even then, I am not too sure whether many of them even fully understand what they are buzzing about either, more simply regurgitating what their competitors are saying.

They also provide a table of examples, which really doesn't look good for anyone talking about SMAC1:

I don't think the problem is with people parroting their competitors. Rather, in each company the "thought leaders" come up with terms like DevOps, cloud, or, yes, SMAC, and they mean something specific by them. Over a period of time when they are hashing out their concept, they develop these sorts of verbal shorthand to refer to quite complex structures.

When these deep thinkers are communicating the concept to outsiders, sometimes – often – they forget to provide the extended definition and associated context. Their audience of sales people and other front-liners half-understand the concept, learn the shorthand by heart, and end up in front of customers regurgitating poorly understood messages. The result is basically cargo-cult marketing.

The problem is not that the various visionaries have their own jargon, or even that they talk in acronyms. The problems begin when they come down from the mountain and forget to translate that jargon into common language. The point is not to sound smart to people who don't understand the concept, but to communicate that concept.

A theory that you can't explain to a bartender is probably no damn good.
--Ernest Rutherford

  1. Hilariously, even Wikipedia's disambiguation page for SMAC doesn't have a definition for SMAC in this sense, just a link to let people create a page... 

Ban All Acronyms (BAA)

There's a tendency in the technology industry to speak in acronyms, generally three-letter acronyms or TLAs. Technology is not the only industry where this happens - I'm reading the FT right now, and it's saturated with EBITDA and FTSE, not to mention what the ECB is doing about the PIIGS - but because I work in tech I feel more confident talking about my own glass house.

At one level TLAs are no more than the logical end-state of jargon. Once you start repeating phrases instead of communicating, it's more efficient to condense those phrases to acronyms. It's also cool to be in the in crowd who knows what's going on.

The problem is that at some point you need to communicate what you're doing to the outside world, and if you've been talking about it in TLAs all along, they're going to slip into the conversation. Your audience will pick up on them and repeat them, and pretty soon the acronyms have taken on a life of their own and nobody even knows what they stand for any more.

Try an experiment: use the full names instead of the acronyms wherever possible. I mean, be sensible: people will look at you funny if you say Universal Serial Bus. But at least try to avoid adding to the stock of empty acronyms - the intellectual junk food of our industry.

And if the name is too long and unwieldy to use except as an acronym? Well, that's a big indication of something that needs fixing!

Monday Realisation

Marketing, like IT, is infested with people who think they know what they're doing, but really really don't. In both fields, this devalues actual professionals.

I trained in IT (Comp.Sci. degree), and my lovely & talented wife is a marketing & PR professional. I noticed a while ago that our complaints were symmetrical: people tended to undervalue what we did, and indeed the entire field. There was also a tendency for people to jump in and try to do it for themselves, with consequences that were usually either hilarious or tragic, depending on how close the observer was to the results.

Now that I am receiving formal training in marketing, I am getting it from both sides. At least I am prepared!

Image by Thom Weerd via Unsplash