Is Vagueness Killing Advertising?

Let's drop meaningless phrases like 'digital advertising' and 'content marketing'

The rise in popularity of mobile advertising, content marketing, native advertising and the continued focus on digital leads me to one question: Does anyone really know what they are?

I’ve never woken up halfway through a medical operation, but if I did, I’m pretty sure the surgeons would not be asking their assistant for a “metal wedgy thing” to allow them to see the “red blobby bit.” Professions create specific language to allow precise and rapid communication. There is no place for vagueness. It’s not creative to call something different, it’s not more exciting to coin a new word, it’s not useful to be hyperbolic and generate buzz. Whether you’re an architect or a medic, the question is what we do with these tools, not how we label them.

All the more proof that marketing— an entire field of work with no proven qualifications or metrics for comparisons of talent—is not a profession, but rather a sort of art form with more reliable income. But as technology becomes our tool, we need to move toward precision.

Marketing has changed a bit since the undisrupted 1980s. Everything has become amorphous and volatile and the meaning of a wide array of terms has become blended and blurred. The pace and scale of change afford us an excuse for our slackness, but they also create the need for more precise language. Here are three centers of vagueness and how to introduce focus.

Digital advertising: Probably the most widely used expression of the industry for the last 10 years and yet few people would agree on what it means. Technically, it would be material that is constructed only of data and has no physical elements and that uses paid-for media for distribution.

But in reality it’s become a catch-all; it seems to be more of a stylistic description for something new, something that spreads “online” and something that takes little physical form. Technically, a TV spot is digital advertising, as is a video pre-roll, interactive bus stop poster and print ad in the Wired iPad app, but a YouTube channel, tweet, Facebook page, website, viral film or an app are all not digital advertising.

Now to draw the line between these outputs is absurd. Digital agencies don’t respect this line, so how about this: Let’s banish the word digital forever. It means nothing meaningful.

Mobile advertising: We’ve never sat down to define mobile advertising. It seemed we didn’t have to—for years it was more simple. It was a form of communication that was paid for and appeared on a mobile screen, which in a world of SMS marketing and WAP Internet was pretty easy to define.

But as laptops became smaller, tablets developed and operating systems for mobile grew more complex and similar to desktop, things got messy. As mobile became the intersection of content creation, social media, maps, phone calls, NFC, email, iBeacons, search, coupons, and soon health data and payment, it’s become everything and nothing. This is a huge problem. In a world where smartwatches will soon emerge, wherever more possibilities arise, calling this mobile advertising will create a mind-set that will stifle innovation. We should think of mobile as 10 channels in one and design for each separately.

Content marketing: This term technically means using platforms to promote or sell things or change behavior, which, few people have noticed, seems to include every form of marketing ever known. Like so many marketing terms, the notion of content marketing, rather like pornography in the Supreme Court in the 1960s, seems to have been defined by knowing it when you see it.

Content marketing seemingly includes some apps, video content online, long-form copy ads and branded professionally made TV shows. It’s become synonymous with advertising that’s trying to provide a bit more information, entertainment and ultimately more value.

Why don’t we forget the words branded content and just refer to each as techniques, like we used to?

Tom Goodwin (@tomfgoodwin) is the CEO and founder of the Tomorrow Group.