The words we use and the words we say have never been more potent. Words are now scrutinized, unpacked and shared with unprecedented speed because of social media. Words can go viral to millions of people within a matter of minutes or hours. And we take action based on the words of those we hold in esteem. The recent events in Washington on January 6th offer an extreme example of how words can incite violence. Words can also uplift, as the poetry of Amanda Gorman showed at the Super Bowl and on inauguration day. The choice of words we make can have enormous impact, even without us knowing it. We see this play out in B2B communications too.
Our client Tipalti has become a powerhouse in the world of Accounts Payable Automation – with a recent double unicorn valuation. When Tipalti was in its early stages, however, they learned a difficult lesson about words. Tipalti helps businesses pay their bills, which can be a big challenge for companies that have lots of different people to pay. Think about a company like Twitter, or an ad network comprised of thousands of websites all over the world. When these companies pay their content creators or web site owners, it’s a massive undertaking. Just getting the funds to someone in Thailand, or Bolivia in the right currency can be a challenge. Then you have to take into account tax reporting, as well as checking that the payee isn’t on an international terrorist list. That’s what Tipalti helps companies manage.
So when it came time to articuate their value proposition, they had to decide what word to use to describe these people their clients were paying. Were they Vendors? Suppliers? Payees? Initially, they started calling them vendors. Seemed like a good enough choice. Someone who’s an outside entitry that does work for you. But that seemingly innocuous word turned out to be loaded with meaning. Tipalti’s customers didn’t consider the people they were paying as vendors. That implied someone with the strategic importance of Dunder Mifflin. Or a utility or janitorial service. That was what vendor meant to them. In their minds, the people they paid weren’t vendors. That was a pejorative word.
Tipalti’s customers were paying people outside their company who were strategically important – intimately related to their success. Creators and influencers who use Twitter as a major platform, for example, are key to Twitter’s success. Without them and their followers, Twitter’s own value is diminished. They had deep relationships with these external people, and they wanted to treat them very well, because they relied on them. This extended to paying them as agreed – on time and in the currency they desired. These people were not vendors. They were PARTNERS. Tipalti’s customers were adamant and passionate about this term. It had a very deep meaning to them.
So any marketing that Tipalti had done using the term “Vendor” had missed the mark completely. It was being largely ignored by their target audience, who thought the service was meant for paying much less strategic service providers. Why do you need a solution to help you pay your office supplies or utilities? Think about that. Months of marketing budget and efforts had been way less effective because of a single word. Together with Tipalti, we figured this out, and started using the right word – Partner- and it made a huge difference in their marketing’s success.
We’ve seen this kind of thing again and again with developing businesses. The words they use can make or break them. Another example is the use of acronyms. It’s a plague on marketers, especially in tech businesses. We learned this in the early days of working with NetSuite. They wanted to use the term ERP to describe their product. Everyone in the industry and everyone in their company knew what ERP was, and it’s so much more convenient to use that term – it fits in headlines more easily and it’s simple, right? Except when we talked with their target audience – CFO’s and controllers – we learned none of them knew what ERP was. Not one. So every piece of marketing that talked about ERP was confusing at best, and alienating, at worst. Accounting was a much more understandable term.
We’ve shouted this from the rooftops many times, but we’ll do it again. Early stage businesses MUST know their customers. They have to understand everything about them. Their needs, their frustrations, their fears, their aspirations. And the words they use.
There’s no excuse for failing to understand your target audience. Using the wrong language costs you. Every word you use, on your web site, in outbound emails, in presentations, sales calls, case studies, has the ability to attract or alienate. For every business, especially B2B businesses, the wrong choice of words can hold you back. If you don’t know what every word you use means and connotes to your audience, you could be undermining your own success. Words matter. Before you use them, make sure you understand exactly what they mean to your intended audience.
Have you learned any lessons about right and wrong words in your marketing? Tell us about it in the comments!