The New York Times recently ran a story about a steady decline in the ready-to-eat breakfast cereal market. It’s interesting reading overall, but one anecdote in the story especially caught our attention. The manufacturer of a well-known cereal brand continued to see steady sales, but no growth. Then they capitalized on a powerful food trend and labeled the cereal “gluten-free.” As a result, according to a company spokesperson, sales “took off.” The food industry generates a constant stream of trends, fads and mania. “Gluten-free” is hot right now, but you can easily think of a long list of others.

Business communications or marketing-speak?

In the communications business, we’re also subject to (sometimes victims of) a ceaseless barrage of trendy words, phrases and “concepts.” Whether one calls them “buzzwords,” “jargon” or some other more or less pejorative term, they capture the attention of business leaders, writers, the media and countless writers and purveyors of business advice eager to jump on the bandwagon and ride it to big sales.

Some years ago, the well-known and widely published author, Don Tapscott, rolled out a bandwagon around the term “paradigm shift.” The concept was introduced in 1962 by Thomas S. Kuhn in his influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Soon after Tapscott’s association of “paradigm shift” with changes in business practices, one couldn’t attend a conference, symposium or business meeting without even unremarkable ideas being touted as the next “paradigm shift.” Since then, we’ve been run over by innumerable other wagons, including “innovation,” “digital disruption,” “content marketing” and recently, “digital transformation.”

Buzzwords have their place in business communication

These phrases and the ideas related to them have value insofar as they provide a shorthand way of referencing a wider discussion of business trends and concepts. “Content marketing” has been a powerful theme. It has triggered extremely productive consideration about how social media can become an integral part of any business marketing and communication strategy.

There’s a danger, though, that the underlying ideas become so misapplied and overused (“innovation,” anyone?) that they lose all or most of their impact. Wide acceptance almost always leads to generalization and misapprehension, too. “SEO” is a powerful and real thing in online communications, marketing and promotion. Yet, it’s possible to become so obsessed by one’s ranking in search results that one can lose sight of the goal: Is anyone actually clicking on your website and – most important of all – do any of those clickers actually become buyers? While most businesses are aware of SEO, some are pursuing the wrong objective by focusing only on search results and not conversion of clicks into customers. (For example, we’ll get a few hits here just by using “gluten-free” in the title of this post, but not necessarily from our target audience!)

Good writing always means precise writing

Be careful about associating your products and services with the buzzword of the day unless you can prove the point in some compelling way. Beware of claiming you deliver “content marketing” unless you truly understand what it is. And please don’t claim that your business is delivering the next paradigm shift to the industry.

Do you have a favorite buzzword you either love or hate? Why do you think it works or is overused or played-out? We welcome your comments.

Here is a link to the New York Times story:

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