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Understanding the Language of Marketing

Understanding the Language of Marketing Jim Meskauskas

A typical online media strategy is frequently articulated using words, terms and phrases like the following:

"The user will be reached using media that demonstrates a high composition of the target. We hope to engage the prospective consumer with a high share-of-voice. The intent is to capture 20 percent share of market."

Now review some of those words: "user," "composition," "target," "prospective consumer," "share-of-voice," "capture" and "share of market."

Contemplate the full scope of their meaning.

If you've worked in marketing and advertising long enough, you're probably having a hard time really understanding and feeling these words.

But once you do, whether it takes a lot of time or a little time, you come to understand something about them. They are clinical and cold. If someone outside the business of marketing and advertising were to come across them, that individual would not be able to independently verify with certainty that human beings were at all being referred to.

The way our business -- many businesses -- articulate the practice of their discipline is with words that dehumanize, impersonalize and objectify the subject of that discipline, while the active component of that discipline is represented in the form of battle with that object.

The reasons for this aren't difficult to draw out. Business (all of its parts and manifestations) needs dependability and standardization. It needs to systematize. And it needs to predict. In order to represent large systems in ways that make them conform to the needs above, they need to be articulated as static. Humans and their activities need to be represented as determined variables that can be put into an equation that produces a result that tells us something about what is going to happen.

This whole activity, while motivated by sensible needs, is deadening. It mortifies something that does not have that state as its natural state. At least it's not a natural state more than once!

We are not responsible for this language; it was here when must of us arrived. But too often people let language do their thinking for them. That's why "spin" works on us. Hell, that's why "advertising" works on most of us.  But by letting the language we currently use do the thinking for us, we end up actually taking ourselves further away from being able to accomplish our jobs as successfully as we can or want to.

If we thought about audiences as people rather than "users" or "targets" or "prospects," we might understand them in such a way that could make us more persuasive when communicating with them. The meaning of messages, after all, is not simply understood by the receiver of the messages; the receiver has something to do with the meaning of the message when it arrives. The recipient of a message brings meaning to it based on their own life and context. If I'm thinking about that person as a "user," how can I really understand the audience in such a way that I can effectively communicate with them?

Len Ellis, in a small but powerful book titled "Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn On Madison Avenue," writes, "As data becomes the dominant lens for understanding and acting on human affairs, it tends to crowd… qualitative forces off the stage and into the shadows. In their stead, data-based decision making tends to subordinate humankind to the regime of the machine… as an invisible ideology that recasts human affairs in machine-readable form and informatizes everyday life…"

Media planning, advertising, marketing -- the works -- is going to end up in one of two places: machines making machine decisions based on data points that are machine-readable, or it is going to be an activity of humans communicating with (not to) humans.

Similar to we are either going to be a handful of people taking care of the machines that are doing the work of producing media plans and the messages they carry, or we are going to be a collective of imaginative, sympathetic people operating in an environment of creative chaos in order to talk to other people.

Media Strategies Editor Jim Meskauskas is vice president and director of online media for ICON International Inc., an Omnicom company. .

Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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