Content Marketing’s Plain English Problem

“Here comes big content.” So said Jack Sorofman, research director with Gartner Inc., in Direct Marketing News Multichannel Marketing Guide 2013.

“Jay-Z sees that the important thing in the world today is content.” – Bruce Ratner, minority owner of New York Nets, in New York Magazine

When the world’s top business analysts and entertainment moguls agree on a trend, chances are it has legs. But there’s a little problem that threatens to take out content marketing at the knees: our ability to write and speak clearly.

“[P]lain English is no one’s mother tongue,” Bryan Garner, author of the “HBR Guide to Better Business Writing” said in a recent interview. That’s a big problem for many companies and their marketing function as we cruise into the era of big content.

To illustrate the low supply of plain English, Garner rips off a list of words and phrases that he says stop readers and listeners from thinking: paradigm shift, mission critical, incentivize, bandwidth, utilize, and more. Most of us roll our eyes when we hear this type of business jargon (seeing “impact” as a verb or “utilize” instead of “use” gets me every time), but Garner’s point is that the reaction can be much more severe: sloppy language actually halts thought.

Does your content marketing generate valuable returns or does it produce brain freezes?

Garner’s not alone in focusing on the actual words that comprise content and fuel content marketing. In a response to one of my previous posts offering guidance on creating written content, a commenter (Brent211) noted that I ought to focus on more basic guidance, including “be objective” and “use multiple sources.” Similarly, Sorofman’s column seeks to provide fundamental guidance. It presents Gartner’s “content marketing supply chain,” an infographic that deconstructs content marketing into familiar business processes (sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution) and sub-processes.

It is the very first sub-process of the sourcing process—creation—that content marketers need to get right, regardless of whether they’re producing writing, speaking, or visual graphics. If the language of content-creation is peppered with thought-stopping, brain-numbing, opinion-pushing, sales-minded words and phrases, it corrupts the rest of the supply chain.

There are many ways to strengthen quality control regarding content creation and collection. In fact, there are too many ways—just as there are far too many grammar and style manuals out there that purport to be the final word on Good Writing or Proper English. That’s important to recognize. Language is a lot like accounting in this way: the general public tends to think each area is governed by hard and fast rules, but expert practitioners will tell you that that each of these crafts’ gray area is far vaster than what actually is governed by rules.

The larger realization that content marketing success hinges on a marketing function’s ability to speak (and use) plain English also has much wider applicability. Think of how often you receive an email (from human resources, your direct reports, your boss, a customer, etc.) whose linguistic content makes you cringe. Maybe it’s time to consider an internal marketing effort geared toward helping make everyday written and verbal communications throughout the business more well versed in plain English.

Above all, think before you finalize an email, tweet, blog post, or piece of online content. “I think every message you write, you ought to look at, ‘How would somebody who is not friendly to me look at this message?’” Garner advises. “Does it look self-serving? Does it look as if I’m not being direct? Does it look as if I’m trying to cover up something, etc.? I mean, really think about the way you would be coming across to somebody who’s unfavorably disposed to you and you’ll end up crafting a better message.” 


Freelance journalist Eric Krell works with Mitel CMO Martyn Ethrington to produce DMN’s Diary of a CMO.

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