Get Your Marketing Team Fluent in Your Customers’ Language

Credit: Getty Images by voyata

Perhaps your ideal customer speaks English and your marketing team does, as well.

Or you have an international customer base and your marketing team has English and Spanish speakers in the Americas, but French, German, Dutch and Hebrew in EMEA — then Mandarin and Korean in APAC.

So you think you have this language thing covered. Far from it. Getting translations right for an international audience is only the beginning. Your marketing team must also be fluent in the customer’s trade language, mental levers and word preferences — all lingua francas that exceed national boundaries.

Fakers, Back Off

This is true for both B2B and B2C. A friend of mine told me about bringing his son on a business trip to Malaysia a few years ago. At dinner one night, he was able to speak the language of international trade at dinner with a business contact, while his son discovered his own common language with the business contact’s son — the video game Minecraft.

Just as language can bond, it can divide, as well. When I first got into software, I needed to quickly learn the language, or I would undermine my credibility in any conversation I had or copy I wrote within the industry. I wouldn’t be considered competent, I would be considered a faker.

If you don’t speak your customers’ language, you will quickly turn them off. Take this Steve Martin joke …

“This lawn supervisor was out on a sprinkler maintenance job and he started working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ gangly wrench. Just then, this little apprentice leaned over and said, ‘You can’t work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7” wrench.’ Well this infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual, and he reads to him and says, ‘The Langstrom 7″ wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket.’ Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, ‘It says sprocket not socket!’”

Martin’s reaction from the audience — a few nervous chuckles but mostly dead air.

The Marketing Version of Dead Air

Many brands are paying to (unintentionally) tell a version of Martin’s joke right now. And their reaction from customers is likely the same reaction Martin was getting from his audience — dead air.

And that was the unspoken punchline for Martin’s joke. It’s funny because it’s not funny. He set the joke up by saying he didn’t usually gear his material to the audience, but a plumbing convention was in town so he’d make an exception. The punch line at the end when no on laughed was, “Were these plumbers supposed to be here this show or … ?” And then, uproarious laughter.

Because people intrinsically know that when you don’t speak someone’s language to them, it is so wrong, it’s funny.

And yet, marketers do it every day. For example:

Getting Your Team to Speak the Right Language

For marketing leaders, the first step is being aware of the role language can play in subconsciously signaling to your customers that your brand and solution are a right fit for them.

The next step is increasing your marketing team’s “fluency.” This can be especially challenging when members of your team are in a significantly different demographic than your ideal customers (for example, Millennials marketing Medicare, which is unintentionally alliterative) or come from a different industry (marketing is marketing, but B2C luxury property marketing is a different language than B2B enterprise software sales, a lesson I learned early in my career).

A few ideas for increasing your teams’ understanding of customer language:

  • Flip the Script — The most important thing is understanding that the focus should be on putting the customer first. “We were talking about ourself all the time, and not ever talking about our clients or our prospects,” said Karen Thomas-Smith, VP, Provider Marketing and Reference Management, Optum. By shifting that focus, Thomas-Smith’s team wasn’t only able to speak the customer’s language, they were able to take a thought leadership position and teach potential customers how to adapt to the shifting healthcare marketplace. As a result, Optum generated closed-contract revenue of $52 for every dollar invested.
  • Increase Customer Intimacy — The more familiar your marketing team is with the customer, the more naturally they will speak the customer’s language and notice when marketing copy your agency creates just doesn’t resonate. So encourage them to read and watch the same magazines, newspapers, websites, movies, shows, etc. that the customer does. Have them ride along on sales calls. Create personas. Interview customers. Conduct keyword research. Engage in A/B split testing of marketing copy to see which is most effective. Form a customer council you can bounce ideas off of. Anything you can do to break the artificial wall between marketer and customer.
  • Create an Internal Dialogue — A fun exercise as an icebreaker in team meetings is having them bring in ads that don’t speak their language when they are the target customer. If you’re brave enough, go through examples from your own company. Go through training on identifying and crafting effective messaging as a team. When someone reviewing a marketing campaign says, “I wouldn’t like that,” challenge them and remind them they’re not the ideal customer — so it shouldn’t necessarily be written in their language. Above all else, make your team aware of this inherent challenge in marketing and communication, so they can overcome it.
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