Andrew Bredenkamp, acrolinx
Reprinted from Andrew Bredenkamp’s blog

I had a great time at Gilbane the week before last, where I moderated a really nice session on Content Strategy (basically how to get going with one) with Margot Bloomstein and Colleen Jones. I always find the conversations around the conference at least as interesting as the conference itself, and this time was no exception: highlights for me were the discussions with Robert Rose, who rejoices under the disruptive title “Chief Troublemaker”, and Nate and Russ from Jungle Torch, a cool SEO BI technology.

Anyway, what was most interesting talking to people in the Marketing space, and especially SEO,  was how familiar the issues were to me. I kept hearing words like “shared vocabulary”, “establishing brand voice and style”, and *everyone* was talking about keywords and keyword research.

Once again I was struck by how important “words” are in all their guises, and difficult it is to get these groups who work with words talking to each other, especially when it comes to their language—the words they use. For a start, no one says they are doing “words”. Look at all the different ways people are collecting valuable words:

  • Marketing is doing branding and thinking about the company’s differentiators. What is it the makes the product special and, by the way, what’s the product actually called (not easy to say if, like IBM or Cisco, you have thousands of them and keep buying new ones). This is usually just a list of words, but is often just “published” but not enforced outside the top 10 pages of the company website.
  • Several groups in the company might be doing SEO work, a major part of which is keyword analysis. And in a global company this keyword analysis is being repeated in every market, usually without being connected in any way.
  • To help with search, you might also start building taxonomies or even ontologies; apple is a kind of fruit, golden delicious is a kind of apple, etc. These knowledge bases, as they are sometimes called, are basically just words which a linked by simple relationships.
  • Along with SEO—making sure your customers can find your products—you also want to know if they are happy and engaged once they become a customer. So people are looking at communities, forums, social media for trending topics and sentiments around them. Of course, trending topics are just words and phrases—usually a mix of your messaging and a folksonomy your customer community uses to talk about you.

These are all topics which involve collecting and maybe structuring words and phrases, and in most cases they would be “owned” by marketing. But of course there are other groups who are working on words too:

  • translators need glossaries of terminology, including all the branding information, but also every little technical detail needs to be named, preferably consistently, so that it can be translated consistently. Small gaps and inconsistencies here will cost you for every new market you want to go to.
  • product development: whether you are building software, nuclear power stations, tractors, or washing machines your products will use words to communicate with your customers (try using YouTube with no words). All the buttons need names, UI and console messages need to be consistent, and ideally would also reflect your branding and key differentiators (yes, I know you’re short of space!).

Without some way of developing consensus and transparency for this “word work”, companies tend to waste a huge amount of effort—at best constantly reinventing the wheel, at worst groups who should be working together end up working against each other.

The great cyber-visionary Doug Engelbart wrote in his book “Boosting our Collective IQ” that one of the keys to successful collaboration was the development of “a common vocabulary”. I talked in a previous post about sharing mindsets being critical to collaborating and communicating successfully, and ultimately this all comes down to the words that you use. Simple really—in principle. In practice, it means setting up dialogues between groups in the organisation who unfortunately rarely talk to each other.

Andrew Bredenkamp is CEO of acrolinx, a software company. He has been working in global information development in one form or another for over 20 years. Firstly in translation, then research and finally as a technologist.