Buzzwords are blankets.
The first time we argued about the term ‘digital transformation’ was three, maybe four years ago.
We were positioning a business and at the point where we were trying to describe the change in the world. The big secular shift that demanded action.
Someone pitched ‘digital transformation’ as a term that kind of fit the bill.
Someone else said it didn’t actually mean anything and using it would signal our client was selling snake oil.
Another someone else argued that people were already using the term and it signals something big. Something fundamental. The kind of thing the CEO pays attention to.
We went at it for a bit and in the end included it in an option. The client loved it.
So we had the same argument with them, warned them it might fall flat and eventually decided to take it to market. It was hard to tell if using the term was the right move back then.
To be honest, it still is.
Where do buzzwords come from?
In the years since, we’ve seen and used that term in all sorts of markets for all sorts of reasons – good and bad – and it’s generally become a non-controversial idea to base your story around.
“We sell six completely disparate things that barely integrate but we need to make it all sound like one big thing.”
“We sell a kind of automation that doesn’t really matter but we need people to think it does.”
“We have 17 days, 13 hours and 14 minutes to re-position the business.”
“We have four strong opinions in the executive team and a completely unempowered person refereeing the meeting.”
This is how bullshit spreads.
A hundred different marketers pick a term off the shelf for a hundred different reasons in a hundred different markets.
Next thing you know, we have a meme. A buzzword.
“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”— Morgan Housel (@morganhousel) May 22, 2019
— Kahneman. Applies to so much.
But while I used to roll my eyes at buzzwords, I’ve come to appreciate that the most important thing about them isn’t how marketers use them – it’s how people with actual skin in the game use them.
See, it’s the people putting their necks on the line, leading something like a ‘digital transformation’ initiative who really need the buzzword.
It’s the CIO who needs everyone to just back off and let her make the decisions that need to be made. Sure she could get into the details of migration and architecture and re-tooling. Or she could say ‘cloud-first’.
It’s the head of digital engineering who knows the business couldn’t possibly compete with startups the way they work now. She could say we’re taking a big risk by changing all our processes. Or she could say ‘devops’.
It’s the CMO who’s realized it will take nothing short of a complete overhaul to make customers want to engage with the business. She could say we’re going to use tools we’ve never used, frameworks we’ve never tested and workflows we’ve never experienced. Or she could say ‘CX transformation’.
Yes, vendors jump in on the buzzword bingo and take advantage. Of course, you do.
But let’s be perfectly honest about cause and effect here. CIOs, CEOs and CMOs don’t use these terms because marketers made them up.
We use them because they need them.
So what is the point of using a buzzword?
The real function of a buzzword is to make big change more palatable.
There’s a whole lot of money, time and risk involved in initiatives as big as ‘digital transformations’ – loads of them fail – and someone’s got to be accountable.
So if you’re in a big, old, public, unwieldy enterprise that’s misaligned internally and terrified of regulations, you’re going to want to make your plan sound like the safest, surest bet since sliced bread.
You’re going to want to call it something familiar. Something they’ve heard said.
Something they can say without looking stupid/risky/crazy/unreliable/unpredictable.
The term ‘digital transformation’ has currency because leaders and executives need to communicate that what they’re doing is socially acceptable and likely to succeed.
It’s of a zeitgeist.
It’s a safety blanket around an agenda that is necessarily complex, technical and risky.
So if you’re using a buzzword to mask your own business’ failure to make strong decisions or to pretend you’re something you really aren’t, I wish you luck. You’re going to need it.
But if you’re using a buzzword to give your buyers the ammunition they need to get internal buy-in for actual sensible change, they’ll actually appreciate it.