Buzzwords – a rule to be broken?

I recently tweeted about an interesting programme I happened to catch on BBC Radio 4. The programme was Word of Mouth – a weekly look at language use in modern life.

This week, the topic was ‘PR: How Not to Do It’. It focussed on the prevalence of buzzwords throughout history and how these can actually work against you.

All very well for those at the top of their game, I thought, but how does that help aspiring marketeers?

Don’t get me wrong, I know buzzwords can be as annoying as corporate speak. They don’t mean anything – or rather they are often employed to mean the opposite of what they actually mean – and they become overused.

Yet when you attend marketing days or copywriting courses, you are encouraged to use buzzwords. In fact, we are often presented with a list that we should, on pain of death, get into our copy lest it never see the light of day.

Here are just a few:

New

Awesome Hot

Free

Epic
(and epic fail)

Mashup

Upsell

Millennial

Amazing

Solutions Issues

Wellness

And if you look at successful headlines, they clearly work. They wouldn’t be buzzwords if they didn’t have some special power would they? And in case you were wondering, yes buzzword itself is a buzzword!

In the discussion, Hamish Thompson, MD at Houston PR, suggests that the best way to avoid these words is to take your advertising concept in a different direction, perhaps by looking at a campaign backwards.

In his example, he cites a company who decided that instead of selling drills, they sell holes. He also mentions a Virgin Life Insurance ad he worked on, where instead of selling policies front ways (‘buy this in case you die’), they twisted it around and played up the comical un-thought-of aspect (‘we’ll cover you in the event of attack by Dalek’).

This works. This is clever. And a lot of companies could probably be persuaded to go down that route.

However, he also cited an example of a press release he has to write annually for the Boring Conference. He loves this task, because he gets to take an ironic stance and writes the most boring press release he can.

But this sounded alarm bells for me. While that would certainly fire up journalists (and don’t forget, when you’re writing a PR, they are your audience) I think that a client has to be on the same wavelength as you in order to be OK with what they’re paying you for! My fear is that many clients know what they want: it’s what they see in viral headlines, the smack-you-in-the-face lies (and pics) we read all the time, lurking in those clickbait ads at the bottom of any web article.

My point is, many clients aren’t necessarily ‘up for’ subtlety and irony.

It seemed to me as though Hamish’s suggestion is what top-of-their-game marketeers should be doing. But unfortunately, I don’t know if too many start-up freelancers would be brave enough to take the risk for fear of it falling on deaf ears.

Ultimately, I think buzzwords still have a place in the right context for luring people in – but don’t get complacent. Don’t substitute creativity for buzzwords. Because eventually, buzzwords die off. You know as well as I do that when a headline starts ‘You won’t believe…’ or ‘5 things you need to know about…’, you’re probably not going to click. It’s viral fodder that will make your computer run slow, spread pop-ups everywhere, and make you wish you’d never wasted the time.

I suppose my tip is: use your judgement. Pay attention to the client’s brief. If they’re open to seeing what you can do, then why not pitch them a few off-the-wall ideas in amongst a few safe strategies? Every now and then it will pay to take a chance, even if it’s just in content you’re publishing on your blog or pro bono. It’ll be good experience for you and your portfolio, and you’ll have more credibility when you pitch something similar in future.

 

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