It happens. We get busy and all of a sudden we realize that the words we’ve been using to talk about our products or brand internally weren’t quite right and somehow made it up on the website, into our marketing material and ultimately into the minds of our consumers.
This is communication debt, and it’s a scary thing.
Most of the marketers (and definitely all of the startup lovers) reading this are familiar with the concept of “technical debt,” which refers to “the eventual consequences of poor software architecture and software development within a codebase.”
It’s particularly dangerous because it compounds on itself and, if not dealt with, it can literally cause the demise of a great company with a great product.
I believe the same is true for “communication debt.” There are so many pieces that go into knowing ourselves well enough to share our story with prospects effectively. Too often companies skip steps and get to a point where they have talked themselves into a market they can’t really serve, and missed the boat entirely on the market they ultimately could add value to.
This leads to low sales, which leads to lower revenue, then layoffs, and before you know it… you’re out of business because you didn’t market or communicate yourselves effectively enough to be successful.
Avoid Accumulating Communication Debt
How can you make sure you don’t get to the point where “communication debt” is accumulating? Below are a few tips to get you started.
1. Insist On Internal Taxonomy Documents
If you haven’t taken the time to create a shared document that explains internal taxonomy, please do it ASAP! This document, at first, will be a forcing function to make sure you have the same definition for X that the product team, customer service team and engineering team do. It shines a bright light on the specific differences that could hurt you down the road.
This document is also a huge asset during the onboarding process. Getting new hires up to speed is so much easier when you can point them to a list of commonly used phrases, product terms, etc., with definitions.
2. Work Through Your Brand & Product Story
We spend a lot of time talking about stories in marketing. We work through specific campaigns all of the time, but what about your internal brand and product stories? Have you worked through them with the same diligence?
Documenting your brand story and a product story for every product you offer (for SaaS that means every pricing tier, for e-commerce that means every vertical) forces you to understand how they connect. You find that you uncover language that will help you immensely when marketing externally and differentiating yourself in market.
3. Document Your Core Values
Core values… core values… You need ‘em. If you haven’t spent the time writing them down, dialoging with the team about them and then getting them up on a wall as a reminder, you are leaving a lot of your brand opportunity on the table.
Documenting core values is another forcing function. They create a companywide conversation around words… words that are important to you, what do those words “really” mean, etc. This sort of intention around words can create great habits that help you avoid communication debt in the long run.
4. Demand Full-Company Adoption
This is the hardest part, in my opinion. Once you’ve put in the time to go back and forth and really nail down who you are, what you stand for, how to explain your products, etc., you have to demand that internally, those words are upheld and used.
When someone mixes up “platform” and “program,” call them out. When someone calls them a “user” but they are a “community member,” then call them out. If someone makes a joke and doesn’t respect the language you have in place, you call them out. It’s these sorts of bad habits that cumulate to create communication debt, and before you know it, your external selling language reflects the sloppiness you’ve demonstrated in-house.
5. Reward Those That Uphold Your Bar Of Excellence
You will find that certain employees will champion this effort, so reward them. Thank them with recognition, kudos, bonuses, etc. This is that important. We see this happen on the dev side of the house, and it should be mirrored on the business side of the house. It will create a culture that respects and rewards those that communicate effectively. This returns in spades.
I hope this has been helpful. It’s amazing to me the number of companies that let the communication and marketing language develop “organically” and then, all of a sudden, panic because no one knows what they really do. That is the same as throwing together an infrastructure that doesn’t scale. You must invest early to avoid communication debt. Trust me… you’ll have a huge advantage in market if you do.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.