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Chasing Jargon: Why Can’t We Just Call Them People?

Every industry has a bunch of special business terms that they know, love, and often revere. However, few of our customers, clients, prospects, or targets use the words and phrasing specific to our professions. In fact, regular folks are so unimpressed with (and uninterested in) our super-secret nomenclature that the very use of this insider vocabulary often alienates the people we most want to impact – our target audience.

The worst offense seems to lie in the language we use to describe our audiences, consumers, or targets. We carefully label them in ways that fit them into our professional lingo. We call them everything—anything—but what they actually are: people, humans, persons, men, women, and children. Instead, we like to put labels on them that both depersonalize them and reimagine them as we wish they would be.

Don’t Believe Us?

  • Marketers call them consumers (generic) or audiences (specific), or targets (pretty aggressive)

  • Retail calls them shoppers (generic) or patrons (preferential)

  • Research calls them respondents (passive) or participants (active)

  • Sales teams call them leads (generic) or prospects (optimistic)

  • Digital marketers call them users (UGH)

  • Doctors call them patients (generic), sufferers (more serious), or victims (dire or decreased)

  • Hotels call them guests

  • Politicians call them voters (generic) constituents (party lines), or supporters (preferential)

  • Financiers call them investors

  • Attorneys call them clients

  • Restaurants call them diners (generic), guests (fancy), or patrons (this place is expensive!)

  • Clubs divide the world into members and nonmembers. Sometimes, guests are allowed in.

  • Bankers call them customers

  • Airlines call them passengers

  • Theatres call them audience members

  • Sports venues call them ticket holders or attendees (or box holders if you’re lucky)

  • Broadcast media calls them viewers

  • Print media calls them readers

  • Audio media calls them listeners

  • Movie theaters call them moviegoers

  • Religions call them worshippers, or if they are a member of a church, and the pastor is very old, a congregant

And there are many more, we’re sure.

Customers Are People, Too. Seriously.

These industry terms are meant to be aspirational. They do help each industry think of their group of customers or audiences in terms of what they can become to the business or organization. As a rule, industry-speak is wildly optimistic, and in all fairness, we often need that kind of aggressive optimism to keep us pointed in the right direction.

However, these terms have mutated from insider jargon to catch-all terms that we also use when talking to our customers. These are the euphemisms for people that we encounter every day online and in print. We hear these terms on TV, and we listen to the labels on podcasts and radios. This language is so ubiquitous that if we hear marketers or professionals talk about actual people, it feels, well, weird.

But when people hear themselves referred to as patients, passengers, or viewers, it’s worse than weird. It’s abstract and depersonalizing. It intentionally categorizes those people as “other.” It creates an “Us and Them” mentality. It’s a ploy to prop up authority and leadership, but it often results in disinterest or isolation.

On a recent flight from Atlanta to Harrisburg, a flight attendant started speaking to everyone who had boarded the plane. He started out with the regular cabin speak (“We want to welcome all passengers”) but tripped up in the middle. He couldn’t remember where the flight was going and had to pause for a moment...and then another...until several people shouted out, “HARRISBURG!”

The flight attendant laughed and, to win people back, he remarked, “You people never let me down.” He used drone-like corporate-speak to talk to passengers (a language so disinteresting that even he started to ignore what he was saying.) But when he was paying attention and fully engaged, he used personal language to talk to the people on that plane.

Better Writing for Real People

Industry speak also has content marketing implications (as you knew it would). When we bury ourselves in siloed terminology, we speak in an insular language designed to push people away.

Over the years, countless clients have insisted that we use industry terms in place of people-centric language because business language is “more professional.” We must refer to them as attorneys, not lawyers. We must say guest, not person checking in. The rules are strict, and the protocol is relentless.

But in SEO, we must strive to use the words ordinary people use. After all, we don’t search for airline tickets for two passengers, we search for two people. We don’t want seats for two audience members, we want seats for two people. And only hard-core hotel aficionados will ask where their guest room is.

Here’s Your Content Marketing Homework

Next time you’re writing content or copy (A.K.A. words) and you’re trying to think how your audience (A.K.A reader, the person reading the text) thinks and speaks, just stop. Cross out all the industry lingo and replace it with regular spoken English.

Your homework is to stop talking to yourself and start using language that is accessible and comfortable for the people who matter the most … your customer, shopper, respondent, lead user, patient, guest, voter, investor, client, diner, member, customer, passenger, audience, attendee, viewer, reader, listener, movie goer, and worshipper.

Want to read more blogs about digital strategy? Check out these Cup O Content articles.


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