Mobile Marketing and the War on Bikes: An Unlikely Comparison

This story starts with bicycling, and the “war on cars”/”war on bikes” that’s afflicted many big U.S. cities as growth, density, and increasing traffic have pushed planners to set aside more space for bikes, to the apparent detriment of pedestrians and drivers. Seattle, unusually, seems to be finding a way to a lasting peace, and I recently ran across a fascinating article “(“How Smart Language Helped End Seattle’s Paralyzing Bikelash“) that argues one reason for this is linguistic. “Pro-bike” and “anti-bike” forces were speaking such different languages they couldn’t have a meaningful conversation. The article credits a group called Seattle Neighborhood Greenways (SNG) with establishing a vocabulary that put bikes on a more neutral footing – for example, they’d say “person walking” rather than “pedestrian” and “collision” for “accident.”

And it struck me how much that story resonates with the challenges digital media face around advertising, privacy, and the limits of technology. A significant number of the words we use every day start us on the wrong foot in the privacy dance. As an industry, we should start being more careful about how we talk about what we do, to help level the playing field.

A Cookie by Any Other Name…

I’ll start with the counterargument: that the words we use don’t matter. This says that people live in a world of doublespeak and they’re wise to it: they know that when a realtor says “cozy” she means “tiny,” and “motivated seller” means “house where six people were axe-murdered.” I think that’s true of doublespeak, but that’s not what SNG did for biking — they didn’t deploy obscuring euphemisms; indeed, often they got rid of them. They just picked less loaded terms than the ones in common use.

Think about browser cookies. Cookies, long a mainstay of the digital advertising economy, and many users’ first experience with privacy on the Internet, are largely accepted. Of course that’s due to the huge value they bring to Web browsing, and the fact that browser software gives people the ability to review, control, and delete them.

But I’d argue the name played a role in that acceptance as well. If, back in the day, cookies had been named “spybots” or “trackers,” I suspect there would’ve been a much stronger push to regulate or even eliminate them. But who’d ever outlaw something as yummy as a cookie?

Targeting, Ugh!

If “cookies” is a term we fortuitously got right, what have we gotten wrong? I don’t have a list of vocab we need to work on…I have a start at one, though. And at the top of my list is the word that makes me cringe every time I hear someone say it: “targeting.”

No one wants to be targeted. It creates a mental image of spy drones hovering overhead or a bull’s-eye painted on your back. I’d even go so far as to say no decent corporation actually wants to “target” its customers or prospects — we live in an era of brands as conversations, and you can’t really have a conversation with someone if you’re simultaneously staring at them through a range finder. And yet “targeted” is still a word we (and I include myself in that)reach for far too readily when we’re looking for a way to describe ads matched to someone’s demographics, behaviors, preferences, device, network, or other characteristics.

We’ve fixed this in some digital ad contexts. I haven’t heard anyone say “behavioral targeting” in a long time, thank goodness. (That got replaced by “online behavioral advertising,” or OBA.) But if I could ban one word from our collective marketing vocabulary to improve our standing, that’s the one I’d pick.

Better Language Makes for Stronger Arguments

The mandate for the digital industry isn’t to come up with some Orwellian marketing newspeak and force everyone to adopt it. That would inevitably backfire. SNG’s success in changing the conversation about bike lanes came because their language choices felt natural, but at the same time humanized bicyclists.

We need to examine more closely the language we use for mobile marketing — especially the bits of it that come from the techie side of the industry, and really think hard about whether we’re stacking the conversational deck against ourselves before we even open our mouths.

This is an essay with more questions than answers. Do people react differently to “location” versus “place”? Or “personalized” versus “tailored”? Or (and here’s another pet peeve of mine) “consumers” versus “users” versus “people”? I don’t know, but we owe it to ourselves to investigate and where possible, pick better words to tell the story of mobile and cross-screen advertising.

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