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Keep the Language of Marketing a Secret?

Tech marketing leaders constantly search for better ways to align with sales and IT as well as gain greater influence at the executive table. To improve this capability, Marketo’s newest board member, Sue Bostrom, offers an intriguing suggestion – keep the language of marketing a secret.

Sue Bostrom is one of the Silicon Valley’s most accomplished marketers. A former executive vice president and CMO at Cisco, she serves on the boards of Marketo, Varian Medical Systems, Cadence Design Systems, Stanford Hospital & Clinics, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; and advises several prestigious organizations.  At the recent Marketo User Summit, Sue shared with the enthusiastic fan-base practices that contributed to her success.

One piece of advice – consider the language of marketing a “secret language”, one that we use when only when we talk to other practitioners.  When we talk to others, use ordinary language.

Since I speak the language of marketing every day, it had not occurred to me that what seems like normal conversation to us may seem like gibberish to colleagues.  Then I thought about the terms we throw around so easily. How about brand DNA, fan ratios, A/B testing, creating customer value, psychographics, listening platforms, CPM, leave behinds, personas, net promoter scores, positioning, referral premiums, authenticity, or network analysis? Maybe the language of marketing has become too technical, too insider.

As the audience left the packed ballroom following the keynote, I heard a few attendees complaining. They interpreted Sue’s suggestion as a directive to make marketing a second-class profession in the corporate world. I disagree with this interpretation. All sophisticated professions develop specific terminology. Spoken inside the community, it achieves precision and clarity. But to those outside the profession, it sounds confusing, irritating, and possibly elitist. Think how annoyed people get when attorneys use legal jargon. Here’s an example I pulled from a website appropriately called the Plain English Campaign:

“Any reference to a specific statute include any statutory extension or modification amendment or re-enactment of such statute and any regulations or orders made under such statute and any general reference to “statute” or “statutes” include any regulations or orders made under such statute or statutes”


Using plain language when we speak to non-marketers is not “dumbing things down”.  It does not diminish our worth to use ordinary language.  It increases the chances that we will be understood. It shows respect for our colleagues’ experience in other areas.

What are some ways we can communicate more clearly with colleagues in other business functions?

  • Substitute ordinary language and analogies for buzzwords: when eCommerce was just beginning, Sue told her fellow executives that the website would “sell while they slept”
  • Explain with data: for many business concepts, numbers can be more objective and clear than wordy explanations (but avoid mind-numbing, execution-level detail!)
  • Use visuals: the old maxim that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true because pictures allow someone to grasp many aspects of a situation simultaneously –  especially good for communicating complex concepts

Sue Bostrom is a marketer who earned a seat at the highest leadership table. And let’s face it, not many technology marketers have. I think we should heed her advice.

(P.S. Congratulations to Marketo on the launch of their new social marketing release and to CEO Phil Fernandez on the publication of his new book, Revenue Disruption).

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