Jargon is a tell for marketing cluelessness

In the world of stage magic and especially close-up, table magic, magicians can suffer from what’s called a tell. This is an error, a performance flaw in the trick that gives the whole trick away. It’s the egg you didn’t have fully tucked up your sleeve, or the coin peeking out the bottom of your hand. It’s the misdirection that wasn’t convincing enough to draw your eyes away from the pocket. One tell and the illusion crumbles. This gets trickier and trickier the more you perform for other magicians, too – a very minor tell to the layperson becomes a glaring error to a fellow magician.


The other day, I listened to a vendor’s sales pitch say – earnestly, with a completely straight face – “This is a turnkey solution to future proof against verticalization of the sector”.


Here’s the basic lesson: corporate jargon is a tell. It’s a tell to the laity – the CEO or VP who may not necessarily know the exact industry terms, but can smell BS. It’s a glaring tell to fellow marketing and sales professionals who not only call BS, but realize that you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing or what you’re talking about if you have to resort to language like that.

As with stage magic, the simpler you can make your show, the cleaner you can make your presentation, the more amazed people will be when you surprise and delight them. If you can’t explain why someone should do business with you in a jargon-free tweet, then you either have a marketing problem or a product problem (and if the latter, you will have a marketing problem too).

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Marketing sophistication and the Art of War

Sun Tzu said in the Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Today, knowing yourself and your competitors when it comes to digital marketing is easier than ever. With freely available tools, you can quickly ascertain the sophistication of a company’s digital marketing capabilities, from your own company to competitors to prospective customers.

Let’s look at an easy way to get started. Assuming you’re using the Chrome browser, head to the Chrome app store and install these two free extensions, BuiltWith and Ghostery.

Ghostery tells you what kinds of marketing and tracking tags a site is running – who else is getting visitor information about you. Generally speaking, sites who are thinking about analytics and monetization have more stuff installed. For example, here’s Chris Brogan’s site:


Note that there are relatively few extensions running on it, just a handful of software packages providing tracking. (I should clarify that in no way do I think of Chris as a competitor, opponent, or enemy, I just needed a non-work-related site to compare!)

Now compare to all of the stuff running on my site:


All of these tools are gathering data about your visit. What does this tell you about these two sites? The primary message is that I measure more stuff than Chris does. That’s neither good nor bad in itself; however, if you were looking to sell analytics tools to either one of us, you’d be faced with two very different potential customers. I might be more receptive to what you’re selling because I understand the value of analytics, but one or more of the tools I’m already using might solve my analytics problem, and thus you’d be trying to do a competitive sale. Chris Brogan might be less receptive to your initial pitch but might have greater need because the relatively small handful of tools he’s using leaves more opportunity.

The second tool, BuiltWith, requires you to manually assess each site from a little button in the Chrome toolbar. Let’s take a quick look again. First, Chris Brogan’s site:

chrisbrogan_com_—_Building_the_Digital_Channel_-_Beyond_Social_Media 2

Note that it picks out that he uses InfusionSoft for marketing automation and runs WordPress with its stats module. He also uses Shareasale and Avantlink for revenue. This tells you something about his business model and what he’s promoting. His website is a direct commerce engine, powering his business; we know this because InfusionSoft is a higher-end small business marketing automation system.

Now compare with my site:


I’m using lots of analytics tools to measure my audience but doing relatively little with them. There’s an entry-level marketing automation system, LoopFuse, which indicates that I’m not running this website as a business, just a personal blog. I’m studying my audience carefully, but not investing heavily in the tools I’d need to make the website a full-time business.

From a competitive analysis perspective, who constitutes the greater “danger”? Without a doubt, Chris Brogan, in the sense that he’s taken the time to invest heavily in his site to make it a real business. My site is personal in nature and while I measure lots of stuff, I’m clearly not intending to do much with it at the moment.

Once upon a time, in the era of Sun Tzu and the ninja of old, you would need to send spies into enemy encampments to understand what was going on. Today, just install a couple of browser extensions and know what you’re looking for – we’re all giving away our secrets right on our homepages.

Check out your own site. Check out your competitors’ sites. See what they are telling you!

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When conferences aren’t enough

At a certain point in your journey to becoming a competent marketing professional, you’ll find yourself at a marketing conference. Conferences are terrific places to meet new people, to get exposed to new ideas, to jump headfirst into a topic area and see what’s available, at least at good conferences. Think of conferences like a buffet restaurant with a thousand different dishes. You can have the experience of snacking on a little bit of everything, or have a few exploratory bites and dine on a familiar, reassuring dish.

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At some point later in your career, you will wonder whether conferences are enough. Or you’ll reach a point where it feels like conferences might not be generating the same sense of enthusiasm and “ah-ha” moments that they once did. The answer for your continued growth as a marketing professional at that point is not more conferences. It’s at that point when you will want to start thinking about more formal training, from workshops to entire degree programs.

The turning point that will help clarify when you’re approaching that point (so that you don’t get overly frustrated or feel like you’re wasting time and money) is simple to diagnose: when you find yourself struggling to organize everything you’ve learned. What you typically get out of conferences and related events are little hints, tips, tools, and tactics. They’re the equivalent of little dishes, like the samples from the buffet or perhaps a tapas restaurant.

Your ability to make use of all of those tools and tactics is dependent on understanding a big picture context of where they fit into your overall marketing strategy. If you feel like you’re drowning in tips and ideas, that’s the point at which conferences aren’t enough. Neither are blogs or social media posts or any other “snackable” content going to be helpful, as they’ll just add more stuff you can’t organize and contextualize.

When you reach that point, go in search of strategies and frameworks instead. Formal education can provide some of them – instead of reading blogs every day, consider taking a timeout and reading something like the Portable MBA in Marketing or other solid business textbooks to get those bigger frameworks.

Once you have those bigger picture strategies and frameworks, then you’ll find that reading blogs and going to conferences becomes a pleasure again, as every new tip and tactic fits neatly into your framework – and when you find something new that doesn’t fit in the frameworks you know, you realize that you’re exploring new territory. That should then be a sign to seek out or create a framework around the new topic area so that you can quickly learn it.

That’s my preferred long-term strategy that will help you learn marketing as quickly as possible and keep making it a joy rather than a burden.

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