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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 at 2:39 pm

How to Handle Jargon and Acronyms

By Jeff Sexton
August 13th, 2009

JargonHere’s an issue/question that arrived in a comment to my post on Playing an Idiot Online [emphasis mine]:

“Brilliant post. We get this all the time, when designing websites for our clients……..But our clients will often use the line “but my customer understands this terminology, these acronyms, my customer is from a particular niche and they all use this terminology”…….It can be hard to argue this point, the client knows their customer better than us…… Yes usability tests would be a good way to prove to a client this problem, however it can be very difficult to find users who fits the persona.”

Thanks for the comment, Hamish, and I’ve run into that situation a few times myself.  So here are a few strategies for dealing with that which have worked well for me:

In working with the client

  • Properly frame the discussion: “So what you are telling me is that if prospective clients come to your site and are not as familiar with these acronyms and terms as your “ideal candidate,” your OK with turning those prospects away and losing the sale?” Ultimately, it’s their site, if they want to only speak to “insiders” and the hard core, then that’s a legitimate business decision, just frame the question in business terms so they can acknowledge the bottom-line costs to such a strategy.
  • If the client relents when you ask him the “are you willing to lose the sale” question, suggest that you create and link to early-stage and newbie-friendly material. There is certainly no harm in taking an industry term and giving a fresh nuts-and-bolts analysis of it.  At best you’ll get a chance to demonstrate your expertise; at the least, you’ll get some keyword rich and internally linked content.
  • Perform a Marketing Copy Autopsy on a piece of their current collateral.  Pull out all the self-applied labels and adjectives to show them how the jargon is really just covering up a lack of substantive content.  That should open up the client’s eyes, and if the autopsy reveals copy with substance, that’s a good sign that maybe the client is correct in their customer-knowledge assessment.
  • Do what Seth Godin suggested in the first place: get a flip cam and interview some past or current client customers.  Don’t just test to see if they know the terms, but ask about the implications involved.   Knowing what a graphics card is isn’t the same thing as knowing why it can be critically important to have a powerful one if you’re looking to play hard core video games.

In crafting the clients Web copy

  • Spell out acronyms at least once per main landing page, so if, say, COTS was a heavily used acronym, the site would say Commercial Off-the-shelf Technologies, once in a while, as sort of a reminder or lifeline for the reader.
  • Insist that no more than 1-2 terms or acronyms appear in any sentence. The problem is often not just that jargon or acronyms are used, but that they are triple and quadruple stacked on top of each other in complex-compound sentences.  That’s when you end up with something like this: “Drawing on our long-term experience as systems integators, solid relationships with our suppliers, and a commitment to the successful execution of the concept of COTS in mission-critical applications, our reputation — and our customer base — has grown.”  Whew!  Even rough familiarity with the industry terms isn’t enough to save most readers from having their brains “go splat” while reading those kind of sentences.  The more complex and technical the material, the more you need simple sentence structures.
  • “Aerate” the text with videos, graphs, and photos that provide a sensory experience of the most important technical terms or acronyms.  Imagine a sidebar or box that shows a COTS case study, complete with before and after pictures of the off-the-shelf consumer item and its new military cousin along with a cost comparison showing the savings involved.  As another example, I suggested showing beam shots of the different power LEDs in my product page critique of BalckDiamond’s Headlamp.

An now for a dissenting opinion.

Legendary copywriter Bob Bly has a well known article titled, “Six Things I know for Sure About Marketing to Engineers.”  Point number five plainly states that:

“5. Engineers are not turned off by jargon—in fact, they like it. Consultants teaching business writing seminars tell us to avoid jargon because it interferes with clear communication.

This certainly is true when trying to communicate technical concepts to lay audiences such as the general public or top management. But jargon can actually enhance communication when appealing to engineers, computer specialists, and other technical audiences.

Why is jargon effective? Because it shows the reader that you speak his language. When you write direct response copy, you want the reader to get the impression you’re like him, don’t you? And doesn’t speaking his language accomplish that?

Actually, engineers are not unique in having their “secret language” for professional communication. People in all fields publicly denounce jargon but privately love it. For instance, who aside from direct marketers has any idea of what a “nixie” is? And why use that term, except to make our work seem special and important?”

As I said, if you are narrowing your focus to a special group of insiders – or at least want to appear that you’re doing that – then an unapologetic use of jargon can work great. But I’d still try to test working in a few of my bulleted strategies ;)

And here’s a little desert video on advertising terms – fair warning, though, George Carlin’s language may not be workplace appropriate:

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Comments (14)

  1. [...] Here’s a good discussion on the use of jargon and acronyms in marketing content. The discussion is just as relevant for online marketing, maybe more so. After all, with online marketing you are not just selling, your are selling and optimizing. And if you are using acronyms for your optimization efforts it means that you expect searchers to perform search queries for those acronyms at the search engines. Will they? If they do, will they search for the acronym more often than the term it represents? [...]

  2. In so many business writing courses I teach, I hear complaints about jargon. If one uses an industry-specific term, it’s wise to write it out first and place the acronym in parentheses. Orient a reader.

    Jargon drives business people crazy. We should avoid meaningless, overwritten bloat. Here is a more information on jargon, and also a handy tool to test web copy for it:

  3. People are either embarrassed or annoyed when they don’t understand acronyms or jargon. These are not emotions which contribute to persuasive sites. If in doubt, test all jargon via direct user testing. I do agree that in a narrowly defined audience it can work, but if you must use it then there is NO excuse not to simply put hyperlinks (or text tags) on ALL jargon or acronyms to explain them. On at least the first instance of their use on every page. To test your acronyms in a direct user test, PUT hyperlinks on them and watch for clicks, do not assume they will tell you what they don’t know, especially if they are technical or “experts”. Sometimes we make up hyperlinks to see if a particular user will click on them, demonstrates their willingness to click…

  4. It is always better to avoid Jargons when dealing your customers because you are doing business with common people and should talk with them in a common language,a language in which they are comfortable.Obviously you do not want them to get embarrassed with your acronyms.It will be like Greek and Latin for them.

  5. Run an A/B split test between the version with jargons and acronyms, and a new version that explains the product in plain english.

    And don’t assume that your engineering products are being bought only by highly-qualified engineers. Even NASA has staff who are not actually rocket scientists…

  6. I believe jargon (technical terms) are useful for B2B marketing campaigns. However, an individual or company should not use technical terms for B2C marketing campaigns.

  7. Thanks for the comprehensive response Jeff :)
    I like the idea of linking to a glossary. Like you say, also good for the search engines.
    I think it would be a good idea to apply a TITLE-attribute to the “text link” so users can find a definition on hover, without leaving the page or loading popups…..though I have my doubts as to how familiar users are with this feature……but also good for the search engines.

  8. Great post. Agree 100%. Enjoyed the George Carlin video as well. Not sure if you’ve seen our corporate jargo quiz. It’s not quite as funny as Carlin, but a lot of people have enjoyed it. Here it is:

  9. Paul,

    That’s awesome! Thanks for posting the link.

    - jeff

  10. wonderful post~
    i can’t agree you more.
    we’d better avoid talking with your clients in Jargons.
    I think speaking common language makes you close to your customers.

  11. Yeah, great post, it’s so difficult to handle jargon, especially in french.

  12. I believe jargon are useful for B2B marketing campaigns.

  13. The use of jargon is useful if the audience is only made up of experts. Since that is usually not the case, I agree with your suggestion to create a link to newbie-friendly material.

  14. To test your acronyms in a direct user test, PUT hyperlinks on them and watch for clicks, do not assume they will tell you what they don’t know, especially if they are technical or “experts”.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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