Categories: Content Marketing

Have Words Like “Engagement” Become Meaningless? The Suspension Bridge Effect and How to Overcome It

Categories: Content Marketing

Have Words Like “Engagement” Become Meaningless? The Suspension Bridge Effect and How to Overcome It

Apr 2, 2015

Internet content is becoming “numb.” The worldwide web has increased from one page to 4.57 billion indexed pages since going public in 1991. Blog posts, digital magazine articles, web copy and social posts account for much of that growth, yet most of it seems…vacuous and pointless, to put it nicely. The readers feel numb and indifferent. Great content has always been the exception rather than the norm, but the internet magnifies norms. Unlike a print editor or publisher, the web turns nothing down. The cheapness of publishing often cheapens what’s published.

After writing for my 200th company a few weeks ago, I started to analyze the sources of numb content because I want to fight it. I call one source the “Suspension Bridge Effect.” It helps to explain why words like “engagement,” “connection”, “innovative,” and “personal” have lost their meaning. Like one little hole in an air mattress, their ambiguity deflates whole pieces of writing and entire marketing campaigns. To dismiss them as “buzzwords” and move on is to gloss over how we choose and use words.

My goal here is to illustrate what the Suspension Bridge Effect is and show how content marketers can overcome it. This is a piece about how we can re-imbue words with power – and hopefully create content that is alive rather than numb.

Simulating the SBE

Imagine a vast, thundering river. Your audience is on the left bank and you are on the right bank. Whatever your intention – to sell, inspire, educate or entertain – you have to bring audience members across the river such that they share your perspective. Content is an invitation to a new perspective.

Marketing words and writing are the “suspension bridges” that allow individuals to cross the river. When a company grows dramatically, the public gets exposed to their marketing language. It appears in news media, social media, conventions and conversations. Other entrepreneurs and marketers start to borrow that suspension bridge.

Why? One, the language is already associated with a successful company, so it seems powerful. Two, companies want the public to know they’re in the same space as this champ. The competitor talks about “engagement,” so we need to tell everyone that we do “engagement” too. Three, originality feels dangerous. Often, companies that try too hard to brand new terms and language get ignored because nobody knows what they’re talking about.

So, tons of companies use the same suspension bridge, but for each company, that word means something different. “Engagement” in a CRM company versus a mobile game company versus an HR consulting firm versus an event planning company versus [fill in the blank] means something different. The more marketers appropriate a buzzword, the less the public understands what the word means. Consequently, the Left Bank becomes reluctant to cross the bridge. Why would people share your perspective if they can’t distinguish it from 200 other perspectives?
This is the Suspension Bridge Effect. It destroys the power of words by spreading their meaning too far and thin. The Left Bank no longer understands what’s on the Right Bank. The Right Bank loses the ability to empathize with the Left Bank – a marketer’s insistence on using words no one can understand is good evidence of this.

When a company dares to create a new suspension bridge, and succeeds, companies flock to it. The process repeats.

Two Types of SBEs

Now that you have a visual of the SBE, let’s talk about how to recognize and cure two common cases.

The Suspension Bridge Adjective. This is when a buzzy adjective is used as filler. The best example is the indiscriminate use of words like “innovative”, “disruptive”, “pioneering” and “leading edge”. Another common case is when marketers toss words like “real-time”, “personalized” or “customer-centric” before words like “solution”, “platform” and “service.”

Think about the last time you saw the word “innovative” in a press release, piece of web copy or a self-promotional blog post. Did it change your perspective about the company or its technology? Did you suddenly realize, “Wow, they do make ground-breaking stuff!”? Or, more likely, did the word numb you – did you even notice it?

Consider these two lines:

  • A: Acme Company, the leading-edge maker of highly innovative and real-time mobile widgets,…
  • B: Emca Company, a provider of mobile widgets,…

Who do you trust more? Why is Acme so much more self-aggrandizing than Emca? Did those three bolded Suspension Bridge Adjectives tell me anything useful? Hell no.

The cure is to remove the empty adjectives. In the press release or web copy, you describe the purpose and function of the technology to illustrate that it’s innovative. In content marketing, you create a suspension bridge that no one else can copyit consists of good stories, not an abused buzzword. To be clear, when I say “story,” I am talking about real events that have a beginning, middle, climax, end, characters, etc. You know, real stories.

The Suspension Bridge Noun. The SB Noun is usually delivered within a value proposition. Here are some common examples:

  • We power deeper connection and engagement with your audience.
  • Increase sales efficiency and productivity
  • Widget C powers marketing personalization automation
  • We ensure customer success across all touch points
  • Engage your audience with data-driven marketing insights [Combo: noun and adjective SBE together]

These lines come from my head. If your company does use one of these generic taglines, consider it worrisome that a random writer came up with it under these circumstances.

These are trickier to deal with than SB Adjectives because you have to replace rather than delete them. Step one is to define the nouns you currently use. I call it the “What does that mean?” game. I play it daily.

Let’s say we make text message technology for marketers (random choice), and let’s do this game with the first bullet: “we power deeper connection and engagement with your audience”. “Connection” means that marketers can send text messages to people. Maybe “engagement” refers to the feedback marketers get from those text messages. We keep track of who opened the text message, where, how quickly, etc. so we learn which messages attract readers. So in simple language, “We let you send mass text messages to your audience. We show you how people react to those messages.” You might spice this up a bit…but if you revert to SB Adjectives and Nouns, no one knows what you’re talking about.

From plain, understandable English, we can create stories about how “connection” and “engagement” actually work. For example, what if a medical mission in Nepal used our tech to reach people in rural communities where cell phones are common but other digital tech is not? It could be a darn good content marketing piece about how the tech was used to reach patients, treat common ailments and save lives.

We started by using the same Suspension Bridges as everyone else – connection and engagement. We broke them down into definitions that make sense. Then, we found a story that illustrates why this technology is important. It happens to be a story that no one else can write or use – therefore, it’s unique and could be powerful, if the content is done well.

Don’t Hate Buzzwords – Just Understand Their Limitations

The Suspension Bridge Effect illustrates that buzzwords are problematic because they can’t change people’s perspectives. When we read an ambiguous buzzword – especially in a blog post or article that was supposed to inspire, inform and entertain us – we instead go numb. With enough exposure to the Suspension Bridge Effect, we grow numb to most content. That is bad for the entire marketing world.

Some writing still overflows with meaning and courage. We tell people about this content, not just for the sake the dopamine it produces, but because we believe people will be better for reading it. This content tells great stories that can’t be found anywhere else. It overcomes the Suspension Bridge Effect.

Although I used B2B examples to make my point, consumer examples abound, and I hope to discuss them in the future. My goal is not to disparage buzzwords and discourage their use altogether. Buzzwords are useful. Consider “software-as-a-service” or SaaS. Using that one abbreviation, I can communicate a lot about a company and its business model. I just can’t distinguish that company from other software companies. Or, consider my recent blog post about “user-generated content,” a.k.a. “UGC.” With a marketing audience, that word allows me to talk about a whole category of content without awkwardly redefining it in every sentence.

When we communicate with the Left Bank of the river, let’s choose words that haven’t come to mean everything and therefore nothing. Let’s have the courage to create and define new words when English fails capture what we see. Let’s break the mystery around marketing language by returning to the basics. Who, What, When, Where, Why and How still rule.

My favorite antonym for “numbness” is “liveliness.” If we build suspension bridges from stories instead of buzzwords, I think we can make the internet a far livelier place.


Richard Ellis
Contributor Bio: Richard Ellis is a writer based in Park City, Utah. His clients include high-tech startups, venture capital firms, healthcare organizations, marketing agencies and media brands, and has had his articles featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Ad Age, VentureBeat, TechCrunch and other publications. If you ever see the terms “best-of-breed”, “leverage”, “value-added”, “robust” or “customer-centric” in an article, Richard didn’t write it. A snowboarder, mountain biker, kettle bell enthusiast and yogi, Richard has a passion for the outdoors and fitness.
No comments found.
Leave A Comment