Respect your users: treat them as self-aware, intelligent humans capable of critical thinking
Users now frequently consult >10 sources of information prior to making a purchase. These are not the actions of uninformed, barely conscious individuals...
There’s a somewhat common refrain in the marketing industry which goes something like the following: “dumb your messages down for the masses.” This is a notion I completely disagree with and think is not just disrespectful, but actually a terrible idea that can now actively harm your brand’s reputation and results, fast.
It is something that particularly gets under my skin and I believe a backwards ideology in the modern business world and current society as a whole. I simply do not agree with the notion of ‘dumbing messages down.’ In a world of infinite choice, this now has the unintentional byproduct of making your brand seem cheap, spammy and untrustworthy. If you are a writer for example, it ensures your ideas seem banal/unimportant. Unless you are a legacy CPG brand like P&G and built in the era of mass, still trading on historic appeal and whatever goodwill it took a century to build, this approach is destined to be lost in obscurity. To seem cheap. To not win anyone’s hearts or minds. Average products for average people are over. So is average content and advertising for average people. Use it liberally if your goal is to be ignored and quickly forgotten.
You absolutely can have thoughtful, creative, clever messaging and still be perfectly understandable to existing users and potential prospects. Is it easy? Of course not. But I believe not doing this and instead biasing to treat users like drooling idiots at best, farm animals at worst is far more risky. Nothing makes people’s blood boil more than when they sense what you’re doing is specifically a byproduct of viewing them as cattle. This doesn’t just manifest by forcing customers to sit through long, drawn out customer service hold times. Your messaging can elicit precisely the same sentiment, and at scale, with just a few clicks from a likely well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided (or poorly managed) comms professional. Especially now in a digitally-connected, always-on world.
Simplicity is elegance and a hallmark of sophistication
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. - Albert Einstein
Great communication is something that at first glance looks deceptively simple to do right, but is for sure one of the most difficult skills to master. Speaking of simple, effective messaging is just that. And simple is very much a different thing from unintelligent or necessitating one of my favorite midtwit biases of constantly underestimating the intelligence of others (in this case, your audience and customers).
Let’s show another fun example, this bit in the Simpsons perfect parodies how underestimating audiences manifests in writer’s rooms at big media conglomerates.
Of course, the above suggestion from the executive HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) of adding a dog to Itchy and Scratchy ended up being cut immediately as it ruined the cat/mouse creative dynamic of the show which made it enjoyable in the first place. And of note here, the writers were portrayed with a similar level of exaggerated egghead archetype to balance the executives similar midtwit portrayal. But even with their clear high levels of intelligence and creativity, they still didn’t try to dumb down their art, which of course kids in the fictional Simpsons universe clearly loved.
Hello, fellow kids - look how hip we are!
This concept, which is really all under the umbrella of lacking understanding of users (and perhaps humanity as a whole) also manifests when brands believe they are being “hip” by coopting language, memes and vernacular of in-groups they have no business being a part of, merely showing up to shill their wares/logo and hit arbitrary engagement KPIs handed down from higher ups (with no thought behind the “why” they even were compelled to do this).
If hitting certain vanity metric goals is somehow a must (try and get out if you’re stuck in these situations and can’t talk sense into superiors) at least go about it in a way that’s not so clearly unaware and oblivious and self-inflict a reputation management crisis. To me this is the same level of stupidity as continually underestimating your audience.
Here you’re underestimating, or perhaps not even understanding, the importance people place on their digital communities and genuine participation/connection they provide. It will never not be shocking to me billion dollar companies continue to consistently get all this so incredibly wrong. Who exactly is providing them the frankly insane consult to do things like the below?
‘Dumbing down’ is now the wrong mindset and only succeeds in taking your brand or ideas two steps backwards. It’s not good marketing or messaging, it’s simply to move towards the middle, to blend in and be boring. To be lost against the backdrop of a world of infinite ideas, pitches and choice. The opposite of the devastatingly effective approach of becoming a beacon. Beacons (the human variety) are bright, strong and confident. They attract and compel. To do this well having humanity and respect for others (which requires viewing your users as more than herd animals) is a requisite. If not, you might as well let AI (or worse) take the wheel. It demonstrates how little you think of us without even explicitly telling us tell us how little you think of us.
Further, boring is over. We are weird. As my friend Seth Godin states in his appropriately titled book We All Are Weird:
But what happens when mass disappears? When we can connect everyone, customize and optimize–then what happens to normal?
Normal is so ingrained in what we do every day that it’s difficult to notice that your tendency toward the normal is now obsolete.
Weird means unique. Weird means contemplative. Weird means being unafraid of straying from groupthink or what you were taught as a child. You should start from the assumption your audience is weird and intelligent. Treat them respectfully, like actual human beings not drooling idiots. Ensure they feel we’re all on the same team, part of a tribe. People who wear crocs, are super passionate about Minecraft, ride their Peloton religiously or order a new iPhone immediately after watching a livestream from Cupertino what I’m talking about. Brands must respect their users and social communities and participate in a way that shows they’re there to be a contributor not purely a bloodsucking leech (it breaks my brain how many go out of their way to make their brand perceived like this - why would anyone of sound mind and body wish to accomplish such a goal?).
My friend Jeremiah shared the below thought during the early social web days, and it stuck with me as it remains true today.
Those who ignore the party/conversation/network when they are content and decide to drop in when they need the network may not succeed. It’s pretty easy to spot those that are just joining the network purely to take –not to give. Therefore, be part of the party/conversation/network before you need anything from anyone. Start now, and continue to build relationships by giving now: share knowledge, help others, and become a trusted node and connector, not just an outlying ‘dot’ of a comet that swings in every 4 years or so.
Brands that underestimate and think little of their users of course have still not internalized this core tenant of how we socialize online. You can’t just take, you also must give, and earn permission and respect (something impossible to accomplish with dumbed down messaging) before you can sell.
Beyond social: how you approach comms from top-down really matters
Everyone is now very aware it’s easily possible to find answers and conduct research themselves, as we all have devices in ours pocket that perform instructions ~120,000,000 times faster than the best Apollo era computers. You wouldn't be wrong in saying a modern smartphone could be used to guide ~120,000,000 Apollo-era spacecraft to the moon, all at the same time. We’re all already cyber-enhanced humanoids connected to the total sum of human knowledge, on-demand instantly. So understand and trust that people will now get up to speed themselves without your permission and fact check messages and promotional claims. The data agrees: US customers now consult, on average, 10.4 sources prior to purchasing (research via Google from a bit ago, the number is likely even higher now). This is not the behavior of an unintelligent, unaware species or society.
And if users are still confused and can’t find a search result that helps, the internet makes it absurdly easy to ask questions via a social platform of choice. So, either you show up and provide clear answers (where appropriate) or others will do this for you. But when you do show up respectfully, you’re now forging connections with users who previously may have seen you as a soulless, mechanistic entity purely interested in profits and value extraction. All that gets easily disarmed when you participate genuinely and with real humanity and empathy. Pure upside to do this.
To dumb down is in vast majority of cases to shirk your potential, turn off customers and, equally detrimental, be taken less seriously in your industry. There’s simply no reason to go out of your way to make any single individual or group feel inadequate in a public arena such as social where hundreds if not thousands or millions are looking on. Which talking down to people universally accomplishes. Yet, as I type this right now, countless users are being frustrated by automated bot replies from brands, which are nearly always seen as disrespectful, essentially encouraging customers to throw the towel and choose a competitor, now always just a click away. This is of course just one example of many, but it’s such a powerful one as it illustrates how some are literally automating and scaling up exactly the thing you shouldn’t be doing even 1:1 in the first place. In so many cases brands are building systems that (unintentionally) work against them, 24/7 in the name of “efficiency” advised by the likes of management consultants whose philosophy on life champions additional billable hours above all else, no matter the cost.
To reiterate as it can’t possibly be stressed enough: being clear and concise (while also making your team easily accessible) is not the same thing as dumbing down or neutering creative. As communications professionals we’re paid to find the right way to accomplish our messaging goals and ensure chosen language is viewed respectfully, without condescension and in a desired and appropriate light.
Final note on this one: it is my pet peeve when anyone at a conference dumbs down their presentations, especially in the marketing/tech category. I’ve almost never, if ever been in an audience at a conference where attendees felt what they were getting was too advanced. Just the opposite: attendees take twice as many notes and bring home lots of fresh ideas to research. It’s 100% of the time speakers presenting basic, previously shared or clichéd advice that gets a negative reaction.
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