Why Certain Marketing Words Sing, While Others Just Stink — and How to Tell the Difference

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For all the visual nature of modern marketing, words are still powerful. A mesmerizing video or stunning picture gains even greater impact with a few descriptive words, and consumers still rely on language to communicate and share their reactions to everything they see online. Choosing just the right words for your marketing materials can make all the difference in how well they succeed at engaging consumers.

As you craft marketing content, it’s easy to find online lists of marketing words that sell, and just as easy to find lists of words to avoid. Of course, some advice will be more useful than others, and unless you’re a professional wordsmith — few small business owners are — you may find it difficult to assess the value of the tips you read. However, if you understand why certain words are powerful while others are ineffective, you’ll be better able to choose marketing words that hit the mark with your target audience.

What makes words sing?

Why Certain Marketing Words Sing, While Others Just Stink

Professional wordsmiths, whether novelists or ad copywriters, carefully consider virtually every word they choose. They know that word choice drives a reader’s/user’s visceral reaction to the key message the text is intended to deliver. Pick the right words in the right combination, and your prose will entertain and enlighten while conveying your message. Choose poorly or lazily, and your content will bore readers at best, and annoy or repulse them at worst.

When you’re evaluating word choice for any piece of marketing content, keep optimum qualities in mind. Good marketing words are:

Emotionally evocative

Certain words inspire specific emotional responses in people who hear or read them. For example, you might consider using the word “hurry” in an email subject line to entice recipients to take advantage of a limited-time offer. But average Americans are hurried enough in virtually all aspects of their lives; they might perceive the word “hurry” as stressful. A good marketing word will evoke a positive emotional response from your audience. You don’t have to be a professional wordsmith to interpret the emotion associated with a word; go with your gut. If a word gives you a negative feeling, chances are good your audience will react the same way.

Informative

We’ve all seen ads, emails or commercials that are all flash and no substance. They use word gimmicks to attract attention, but fail to tell the consumer anything useful about the product or service they’re supposed to buy. While such words have an initial impact, they can’t hold attention long term, or lead to the level of engagement that results in a purchase. Good marketing words tell the consumer something about your product or service, which is why words like “you,” “now” and “free” resonate.

Personal

Good marketing tells consumers what’s in it for them if they choose your product or service. It helps them understand how what you’re selling relates to their lives. Word choices that create a personal connection for prospects — “you,” “kids,” “pets,” “parents” — help consumers understand the value proposition you’re selling.

Colorful

Certain words just have style or flare. They are colorful, fun, engaging, exciting or humorous, and they can be powerful enough to overcome the innate dullness of a naturally lackluster product or topic. For example, mopping the floor is drudgery, but when you use the words “deluxe,” “deliver” and “sanitize” to describe a floor cleaner, suddenly the task seems more exciting.

Easy on the ‘inner’ ear

Most people subvocalize when they read, meaning they “hear” the words spoken in their head in their own inner voice. While people may try to sublimate subvocalization when reading lengthy materials, most will “hear” your ad slogan, email subject line or web header when they read it. This means words that sound harsh when spoken aloud are likely to evoke the same response when read “silently.” Be aware of how a word sounds and consider if that sound fits with what you’re trying to achieve.

Active

The difference between active and passive can be hard to grasp, even for professional writers. Words that speak to the reader of “doing” rather than “being” are active, and they’re more interesting to read. While you likely think of certain verbs as being active — run, jump, call — nouns and descriptive words can also imply action. For example, “driver” feels more active than “motorist” in describing someone behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Economical

Often in marketing you have mere seconds to grab someone’s attention, whether it’s with the subject line of your marketing email or a 10-second radio spot. It’s important to act quickly using as few words as possible. Good marketing is economical; it packs a lot of meaning into just one or two words. This is why “super-sale” is more effective than “everything on sale at rock-bottom prices.” Mastering word economy makes your writing brilliant. Dubious about the power of word economy? Consider the shortest English “novel” ever penned (attributed to Ernest Hemingway): “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Companionable

Great marketing words are familiar, easy to get along with and don’t require consumers to run to Dictionary.com to figure out what you’re trying to say. Words that create a sense of companionship — “Oh, I know what that means” — make prose more relatable and consumable.

Fresh

Familiarity doesn’t, however, mean you can rely on words that are stale and over-used. Given the sheer volume of content Americans see and hear every day, certain words and phrases can quickly saturate their awareness. Consumers welcome content that’s fresh and engaging. Words and messages they’ve seen too often before quickly lose impact.

Grammatical

Although social media is an important component of your overall marketing strategies, that doesn’t mean you should apply social media “speak” to every piece of marketing you do. It is possible, and imperative, to be grammatically correct, engaging and brief. When consumers see grammatical errors in content, they may not be able to cite the grammar rule it breaks but they can still know it doesn’t “sound right” to them. What’s more, poor grammar implies a lack of care and laziness that no small business owner wants associated with their products or services.

Contextual

Good marketing words make sense in the context in which you’re using them. For example, “gleam” makes perfect sense when you’re talking about toothpaste or car wax, but is less relevant in the context of a fitness club or produce stand. A word can be emotionally evocative, informative and entertaining and still not fit the context of your marketing goal.

Optimized

While people, and not search engines, make purchases, it’s important that you optimize online content for search engines; they’re the gatekeepers between your marketing content and the audience you hope will see it. While SEO should never be the deciding factor in your marketing word choices, whenever possible use words that will earn your content higher ranking by search engines.

What makes words stink?

Why Certain Marketing Words Sing, While Others Just Stink

Words fall into three categories when it comes to marketing: good, indifferent and bad. Poor word choices can undermine the most positive marketing message. One or more wrong words can dilute your brand identity, create a negative connotation for consumers, and even get you into legal trouble.

It’s imperative to avoid words that are counter to your marketing objectives. Here are some guidelines to help you identify words you should never use in marketing:

Is it jargon?

Every industry has its own language, and while jargon may be useful for communicating specific ideas and topics within an organization or industry, it’s almost never helpful in marketing. Jargon makes consumers feel like outsiders. It’s confusing, and average people can’t relate to it.

Is it offensive?

While there may be some validity to the idea of societal backlash against anything that’s overly politically correct, giving offense is the last thing you ever want to do in marketing content. It’s virtually impossible to eliminate all risk of ever offending anyone, but certain words are bound to be offensive. You know what they are — words that have racial, ethnic or biased overtones, that belittle certain groups of people, or would prompt your mother to remind you that if you can’t say anything nice you should say nothing at all. Case in point: outraged consumers leveled the ire on a huge discount chain after the retailer added a “fat girls costume” category to its website for Halloween.

Is it derogatory or insulting?

Yes, this is slightly different from being offensive. It’s possible to say something negative that, while not necessarily offending the consumer, is still off-putting. Positivity drives purchases, and using derogatory words in your marketing can give consumers the impression that your brand identity is inherently negative.

Is it crass or icky?

Some words just lack class. Others are inherently icky. Still others just make people uncomfortable. It’s hard to imagine words like cancer, rancid or puss ever evoking an uplifting feeling. Sometimes, they’re necessary — if you’re talking about a fund-raiser to benefit cancer research, you have to say the word — but often they’re not. Always look for alternatives to words that could cause consumers discomfort.

Is it duller than dirt?

Just as there are words that will always be associated with negative feelings and meanings, some words have no emotive value at all. Or, they’ve become so overused that they are no longer effective in creating a desired response. Still others just aren’t put together well, and they lack that sparkle that makes for compelling content.

Where words should sparkle

Why Certain Marketing Words Sing, While Others Just Stink

Of course, it would be wonderful if every line of your marketing materials sparkled. Certain spots, however, are more important than others when it comes to creating impact with words. Here are the top four places where your word choice must shine:

  • Headlines/titles – In our speed-conscious society, many consumers make decisions about what to read and what to buy based solely on a piece of content’s headline or title. A few great words in a headline can ensure customers are interested enough to listen to the rest of the pitch.
  • Your slogan – You can probably think of some great slogans – “Just do it.” “Don’t leave home without it.” “Say it with flowers.” A good tagline tells consumers who you are, what you’re selling and why they need it, all in a few choice words.
  • Email subject lines – The subject line of your marketing email is the digital equivalent of a newspaper headline. It will either convince the recipient to open it, or hit “delete” without reading further. Subject lines that are long, dull, confusing or misleading won’t perform well.
  • The first line of your pitch – If your headline, title, slogan and subject line have all worked to get the prospect this far into your marketing materials, it would be a shame to lose them with a lackluster first line. Packing the beginning of your content, whether it’s an email or print ad, with great words can help ensure customers will stay with you until you close the deal.

Despite the rise of digital marketing, or perhaps because of it, words remain as powerful as ever. When you choose strong words that sell, inform and elicit emotion, you create engaging content that builds your brand, boosts sales and impacts your bottom line.

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The Difference Between Innovation and Strategy

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Crossing the Chasm
Learning to differentiate concepts starts with defining the terms we use to describe them. Take for example, innovation and strategy:

Innovation is anything that breaks a constraint.

Strategy is about the constraints you embrace.

As we often do, we try to solve too many different types of problems with one solution (or worse, a meeting), when a structure based on sequential conversations would net us a clearer process and support better decisions. 

A few thoughts on breaking and embracing constraints.

Breaking constraints

When we look to innovate, we are working with new ideas. Some of these ideas might even be big. Big ideas could have big impact, but we need to create the conditions for them to hatch first. And we do that by starting small — with a proof of concept.

In his bestseller Crossing the Chasm Geoffrey Moore says, “Trying to cross the chasm without taking a niche market approach is like trying to light a fire without kindling.” By chasm, Moore means:

the rapid acceleration in market development followed by a dramatic lull, occurring whenever a discontinuous innovation is introduced — [one that] drives all emerging high-tech enterprises to a point of crisis where they must leave the relative safety of their established early market and go out in search of a new home in the mainstream.

These forces are inexorable — they will drive the company. The key question is whether management can become aware of the changes in time to leverage the opportunities such awareness confers.

The transition from new idea to pilot to going well to early market and then scaling the business impacts the organization itself — its structure, its business model, and the skills of the people in it. Tim Kastelle says “making a new idea work requires three distinct sets of skills”:

1./ Invention phase: creativity and invention to get the new idea to work

2./ Market creation phase: customer development and problem-solving skills to create a market with the early adopters

3./ Scaling business phase: transition to a business model that will scale with mainstream customers

The problem is that many organizations don’t staff to the three different sets of skills. Geoffrey Moore described this problem in Crossing the Chasm:

The chasm is a drastic lull in market development that occurs after the visionary market is saturated and pragmatists will not buy into a discontinuous technology unless they can reference other pragmatists, thus the catch-22. Pragmatists with their stick-to-the-herd strategy need to see other pragmatists in their own industry buy before they buy. As a result, the market is stalled.

On the inside, “the challenge is to get your company aligned on the right approach by reaching consensus about current market state.” On the outside, the only reliable way to cross the chasm is “to target on the other side a niche market made up of pragmatists united by a common problem for which there is no known solution.”

In the updated third edition of the book, Moore addresses online adoption. The Four Gears for Digital Consumer Adoption he lists are traffic acquisition, user engagement, monetization, and enlisting “the faithful.” He says:

Tipping points are as key to consumer adoption as they are to B2B. Prior to reaching one, all efforts to scale require pumping in additional fuel — if you cut off the fuel supply, the system will revert to its original state.

But after you pass the tipping point, the system restabilizes around a new status quo, and actually pulls you forward to get you to your new ‘right’ position. You can still screw this up (just ask the investors at Myspace and Groupon), but it takes some real effort to do so.

In a later book, Dealing with Darwin, Moore expands his observations on this point when he talks about differentiation. The book is about the foundational models, the frameworks of the economics of innovation, the category dynamics that surround innovation laying the groundwork for understanding what works based on different points of maturity in a category, and business architecture and the contrast between high-volume and high-complexity business models.

“Innovation plays out very differently in these two environments,” he says. The main question he looks to answer in the Darwin book is — How do great companies innovate at every phase of their evolution? According to Moore, it comes down to two forces: 1./ managing innovation, and 2./ managing inertia.

Moore identifies four clusters of innovation zones — Product Leadership, Customer Intimacy, Operational Excellence, and Category Renewal. The challenge for decision-makers in any organization (regardless of its size or nature) is to select the innovation zone in which to establish and sustain “break away” separation from its competitive set.

There are problems with each type of innovation:

  • neutralization, when we make a product good enough to achieve parity with the competitive set — time to market to create competition is critical; many organizations build past the sale
  • productivity, when we improve certain areas of the business to lower cost and compete — repurposing the resources is a critical aspect of this; many companies resort to layoffs and write-offs, an inefficient, expensive, and highly disruptive method
  • differentiation, when an improvement helps achieve competitive separation in the marketplace — it’s a calculated investment of resources, the key words here are focus and prioritization; many businesses however stop short, or don’t go far enough in any one direction, leaders fail to prioritize

Any type of innovation that falls short belongs to the waste category. This is also where we find the innovation that is not tied to economic value. In many organizations, this category is by far the largest.

The most common reasons why companies stop short of the full implementation are a risk reduction mindset and lack of corporate alignment.

Although many of the examples in Dealing with Darwin are dated (it came out in 2006), the principles are still applicable. Parts two and three should be required reading for anyone in general management and product strategy/marketing.

We resist new ideas, which is why many successful innovations build on something that already exists.

An example of good innovation is On directorship. The idea builds on an existing process to redefine the balance between corporate governance regulation and education, puts a name to the value creation aspects of board work and complements the other functions required to run a company. It spells out the mechanics of adding the framework for “doing the right things” to “doing things right.” 

Embracing constraints

The Harvard Business Review has a collection of ten articles on strategy development and execution, from Micheal Porter’s What is Strategy? to the Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy, to Clayton Christensen and colleagues on Reinventing your Business ModelTurning Great Strategy into Great Performance, and Who Has the D? How Clear Decision Roles Enhance Organizational Performance.

Anyone with “strategy” on their job title should read these ten articles (and think about them beyond the surface) to start. Some of the articles deserve a deeper investigation and most of the authors have also published books on the topic.

In the introduction to what is strategy? We learn that there are three key principles that underlie strategic positioning. Strategy:

1./ Is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities. Strategic position emerges from three distinct sources:

  • serving few needs of many customers (e.g., just oil change)
  • serving broad needs of few customers (e.g., only high net worth)
  • serving broad needs of many customers in a narrow market (e.g., a movie theater operating only in cities with fewer than 20,000 people)

2./ Requires you to make trade-offs in competing — to choose what not to do. Some competitive activities are incompatible; thus, gains in one area can be achieved only at the expense of another area.

3./ Involves creating fit among a company’s activities. Fit has to do with the way a company’s activities interact and reinforce one another. Fit drives both competitive advantage and sustainability: when activities mutually reinforce each other, competitors can’t easily imitate them.

What is not strategy? Operational effectiveness is not strategy, it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient, because strategy is based on unique activities. When he talks about emerging industries and technologies, Porter shows us the transition from innovation to strategy and differentiation. He says:

Developing a strategy in a newly emerging industry or in a business undergoing revolutionary technological changes is a daunting proposition. In such cases, managers face a high level of uncertainty about the needs of customers, the products and services that will prove to be the most desired, and the best configuration of activities and technologies to deliver them.

Because of all this uncertainty, imitation and hedging are rampant: unable to risk being wrong or left behind, companies match all features, offer all new services, and explore all technology.

This describes the neutralization category of innovation.

During such periods in an industry’s development, its basic productivity frontier is being established or reestablished. Explosive growth can make such times profitable for many companies, but profits will be temporary because imitation and strategic convergence will ultimately destroy industry profitability.

The companies that are enduringly successful will be those that begin as early as possible to define and embody in their activities a unique competitive position. A period of imitation may be inevitable in emerging industries, but that period reflects the level of uncertainty rather than a desired state of affairs.

In tech industries, this imitation phase often continues much longer than it should.

This is where companies begin to wade into waste category of innovation — packing more unused features into their products, slashing prices, and yes, holding onto freemium models that may not help them growth. 

Rarely are trade-offs even considered. The drive for growth to satisfy market pressures leads companies into every product area. Although a few companies with fundamental advantages prosper, the majority are doomed to a rat race no one can win.

Ironically, the popular business press, focused on hot, emerging industries, is prone to presenting these special cases as proof we have entered a new era of competition in which none of the old rules are valid. In fact the opposite is true.

In Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters Richard Rumelt says “the most basic idea of strategy” is “strength applied to the most promising opportunity.” He says today we call these strengths advantages:

There are advantages due to being a first mover: scale, scope, network effects, reputation, patents, brands, and hundreds more

But he says this misses two very important sources of natural strength:

1. Having a coherent strategy — one that coordinates policies and actions.

A good strategy doesn’t just draw on existing strength; it creates strength through the coherence of its design. Most organizations of any size don’t do this. Rather, they pursue multiple objectives that are unconnected with one another or, worse, that conflict with one another.

2. The creation of new strengths through subtle shifts in viewpoint.

An insightful reframing of a competitive situation can create whole new patterns of advantage and weakness. The most powerful strategies arise from such game-changing insights.

“Good strategy is unexpected,” says Rumelt, and helps “discover power.” Many organizations and leaders have mistaken views about what strategy is and how it works. That is what takes them off course.

 

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Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni

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