Is Content Marketing Lost in Translation?

Is Content Marketing Lost in Translation?

One theme that cropped up again and again at this year’s Sydney Content Marketing World was how marketers need to understand their audience—even before they become customers. So far, so much common sense. Yet we can all name thousands of examples where what should be common sense is overlooked in favour of disconnected and cliched marketing-think.

It’s not surprising this happens when marketers persist in overcomplicating everything while speaking a different language to everyone else. Why is so much marketing discussion carried out in code?

“Sorry, I don’t speak Marketing”

The always plain-spoken journalist Stilgherrian wasn’t at Content Marketing World (I think he would find burning hot coals preferable) but he vented his frustration at the #CMWorld hashtag on Twitter.

Why are we? It’s a fair question. Our industry is now so full of weasel words, buzzwords, cliches and empty rhetoric that sometimes even we struggle to understand what we really mean. However, although it might not always have been obvious from viewing the hashtag, Content Marketing World did try to hold certain overused terminology to account.

Joe Pulizzi even opened the event by apologising to the audience for coining the phrase ‘content marketing’ back in 2007. At least ‘content marketing’ is a pretty innocent term that attempts to simplify rather than overcomplicate things. That certainly can’t be said for many other overused marketing terms…

“Don’t look now, but your buzzwords are showing”

Put enough marketers in a room and before long someone will start talking about “analysing the social graph” to “foster creative ideation” so they can “launch innovative tactics”  designed to “activate community engagement” for “maximum reach and cut-through”, all while “maintaining alignment with the core brand message”.

By which I think they mean, “thinking up new ways to use social media so that interested people can learn more about what we do.”

People who make things more complex than they are either know less than they think, or are trying to sell you something.

Despite working in the persuasion industry, we have a terrifying knack of believing our own bullshit as it bounces around the echo chamber. In the constant search for a silver bullet, we sell each other new fads and develop new theories, dressed up in impressive sounding but ultimately empty terminology.

Marketers marketing marketing to other marketers is never going to end well. (Tweet this)

We’re only deluding ourselves by thinking such fluffy concepts and unaccountable ‘goals’ actually have substance. It’s the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome. Our clients and CEOs can usually see through our vague nonsense just as much as the general public can. And the scary thing is there are plenty of marketers willing to go out in public wearing virtually non-existent strategies woven out of this stuff.

Is it any wonder marketers get heckled on our hashtags? Is it really surprising that 90% of CEOs trust information from their CFOs but 80% distrust information from their CMOs? (Here’s the original 2012 research, released by the Fournaise Group. Hat tip to Ray Kloss who quoted the stat at Content Marketing World.)

“I don’t think that means what you think it means”

Yes, I sometimes catch myself talking about ‘engagement’ or resorting to the phrase ‘thought leadership’ to make a quick point. But this is usually followed by an overwhelming desire to turn around three times and spit to ward off the evil marketing voodoo.

Whenever we describe real world goals and activities by resorting to abstract concepts, we risk losing touch with the real world. If you can’t explain a concept using every day language, can you be sure it will work in an every day world?

Here are some examples that should be struck from the marketing lexicon.

Thought Leadership: Only the audience gets to choose whose ideas are worth following. If you have to tell people you’re a thought leader, you ain’t one. I could call myself a ballerina, but it doesn’t mean anyone’s going to come and watch me dance. Plus how is ‘thought leadership’ ever a business goal? (Apparently 54% of Australian marketers think it is.)

Brand awareness: Shorthand for “Please God let all these Facebook ‘likes’ somehow turn into more sales next month because I’ve no idea how to sell to these people”. I talk more about my dislike of brand awareness as a marketing goal in a recent article for Cirrus Media.

Ideation: Refers to a specific and documented process of generating ideas. It is NOT synonymous with ‘thinking while holding a white board marker’.

Influence/Influencer: ‘Influence’ is important, but no one in the real world defines their online activity as ‘influencing others’. When a marketer approaches someone and calls them an ‘influencer’, she reveals an agenda based on self-interest. We might as well tell them, “You could be a nice guy and everything, but we’re really only interested ’cause everyone trusts you more than us.” Since when has that ever worked as a strategy to make friends?

Engagement: Marketing is a long-term process, so this term was originally coined to describe everything that happens between a person and a brand before eventually becoming a customer. Today, ‘engagement’ is discussed more in terms of cherry-picked metrics that are easy to fudge. “We’ve had huge engagement numbers on our Facebook page!” Wonderful. But if that doesn’t ultimately lead to a tangible business benefit you can prove, I think you missed the point of the exercise.

Activate/Activation:  You mean ‘promote’, right? Or ‘distribute’? Or maybe you simply mean ‘start’? Sometimes it appears to stand in for ‘improve’. Whatever the context, I assume you’re trying to trigger some kind of response. Actually, I’ve no idea what you mean. And how can you ‘activate’ an inanimate object? (City of Perth Council thinks you can)

Can we get back to simply saying what we mean? Can we start challenging the jargon and questioning the fluffy terminology? Can we stop trying to overcomplicate everything we do?

This is especially important when we’re talking to customers, clients and CEOs. It’s also important when having conversations in a public forum like a Twitter hashtag. Because the more people see us talking a different language, the more they’ll believe we don’t really understand them.

And they would be right.

Go on. Do you have an example of marketing gobbledygook that really melts your brain?


  1. So Jonathan, I read a post like this and I want to plant a big wet sloppy kiss all over your beard. The words I can’t bear are engagement, activation and ideation. The wonderful thing you did here was define why we sound so stupid when we use all these phrases. If there was ever an antidote to the marketing Kool-Aid, it has to be this post.

    We were warned when “let’s do lunch” started. Now look where we’re at.

    • Jonathan Crossfield says

      And of course I only picked a few examples. I’m sure there are many more crap words and useless concepts deserving of evisceration, but y’know, word count and everything.

      ‘Engagement’ deserves it’s own blog post though. I had so much more to say on why what was once a useful and specific marketing concept (despite being jargon) has devolved into whatever the marketer wants it to be.

      Someone who shall remain nameless used ‘ideation’ in a tweet at CMWorld. I dealt with them… #RustyKnife

  2. In your Part 2 post, please cover:

    Unpacking – Let’s unpack that last point in more detail, usually part of a death-by-Powerpoint presentation
    On Boarding – What are your ideas, tips for effectively on-boarding new clients?
    Socialise – I socialised your case study with our team.

    Thanks, in advance, for your attention to this very perturbing matter.

  3. “Ecosystem” – Are we sitting on a bunch of lily pads in the Galapagos Islands tweeting from our iPhones? Kumbaya…the digital ecosystem truly is a living, breathing, interconnected entity of engagement bliss that will surely fuel business revenue 2.0…eventually…I mean, it has to because all of these gurus who write lots and lots of books say so…right? Gotta go, off to their next keynote. Let them know I’m “inbound” to arrive.

    “Turnkey” – Is this a disruptive innovation we create once we fully leverage the power of big data?

    “The New Currency” – I was really mad the other day when the cashier wouldn’t let me use my Klout score to pay for groceries.

    “Empathy” – ‘Congratulations for making the Inc. 500/5000 list. I believe in [company name]! Are you available for a call Friday to discuss your car rental needs when you go to tradeshows?’ <—– True solicitation received. Thank you sender. I believe in you too.

    • Jonathan Crossfield says

      “I was really mad the other day when the cashier wouldn’t let me use my Klout score to pay for groceries.”

      I chuckled rather gleefully at this.

  4. You know, I think we try so hard to have unique, original content that we never realize how much we overuse the language in content marketing. We pride ourselves in our brands being one of a kind, but when we sit down to discuss how to market them we drop into those terms like, “engage the audience,” and things like that, which is ironic since the big message seems to be to talk to your audience like they’re people, but when we’re coming up with how to talk to them we make them sound like a statistic.

    It’s also ironic because I read how traditional marketing it out the door and content marketing is the new thing to do: don’t talk to your audience like a car salesman, be personable, they don’t want to be talked to like you’re selling something. And that may be true, but isn’t that what we’re doing, in a way? We look at our target audience and think, “Hmmm, how should I proceed? What do they want to hear? How do I engage them?”

  5. Jonathan, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Last night, I completed my own post on the many facets of “engagement” (based on actual dictionary definitions) but hadn’t published yet; fortunately, I saw your post this morning and included a link.

    As a content writer, I experience a sense of self-loathing whenever I hear these terms blithely bandied about. I love marketing as an art and as a practice, but I don’t love the language of marketing. Glad to know I’m not alone.

  6. Hi Jonathan,

    That is a brilliant post and should be required reading for all of us marketing folk!

    For years, I’ve tried eliminate ‘engagement’ and ‘brand awareness’ from my vernacular. If ever they slip out by accident, please slap me.

  7. I agree that we marketers tend to get so caught up with the “marketing fluff” terminology that we forget that it often doesn’t mean that much to our customers. Now, whenever I write content for my website or general sales material I will always take a step back and think, what does this really mean to my customer (or prospect) and how can I best communicate that in terms that makes sense to them. It is actually quite difficult to do well!

    • Jonathan Crossfield says

      Absolutely! In fact, only this morning I decided my next post for this blog would be on the Knowledge Heuristic (oh for a free afternoon to write it…). It’s a quirk of psychology that all of us have, to a degree, assuming that our understanding or explanation of a topic is obvious to everyone else as well. It’s the best reason I can come up with or why so much IT copywriting in particular is completely crap at saying what their product actually does!


  1. […] get to indulge much in content marketing musings, but I did find a few gems, beginning with an article from Johnathan Crossfield. Following his visit to Content Marketing World last week, Crossfield […]

  2. […] believe the term “engagement” has lost its meaning altogether. (I highly recommend Jonathan Crossfield’s pointed takedown of this and other overused and abused industry […]

  3. […] via Is Content Marketing Lost in Translation?. […]