When Marketing People Go Amok
Someone at TechEd let the buzzwords get out of hand
By Esther Schindler
Microsoft's TechEd conference is the company's annual opportunity to demonstrate its latest technology to customers, to show how to use the tools available today, and to explain Microsoft's current direction. The keynote presentations get most of the headlines, because that's where the "news" is announced: a release date, a new feature, a change in company emphasis.
TechEd also has an exhibit floor, here in Boston, with third-party vendors plying their add-on software for Microsoft technologies, and incidentally supplying a steady profit to tchotke manufacturers. If you want to win an iPod, you need to be seen wearing a set of Moose deelieboppers on your head, emblazoned with a company name. (I looked at one dubiously. "If you have a pet," the vendor suggested, "It can look really good for holiday photos.")
Primarily, TechEd has hundreds, hundreds of technical "breakout" sessions, covering everything from CRM to SQL Server to programming methodologies. "Breakout" is, perhaps, a bad term for this relatively young crowd, who are dangerously close to acne, but what the heck. This is the meat of the conference: not good for headlines, usually, but the best way to learn about deploying Microsoft's Dynamics CRM across an enterprise, or to get tidbits for security in Windows Vista.
The full session descriptions and their speakers are only online. The lone attendee, standing in a hallway with 12,000 of her closest friends milling past, is left to figure out which session to attend based on the "cheat sheet" that stuffs into the back of your name badge. There's so much going on that the summarized schedule is a fat wad, 56 pages long. All you know is the time (1:30-2:45), the track and session code (DEV208, in case you do want to look it up on the PC), the room, and the presentation title ("SQL Server 2005: Storing Complex Managed Objects").
The geeks probably shouldn't be permitted to come up with the names of their own sessions, I admit. They're too close to the technology, so a developer who works on Avalon, oh excuse me Windows Presentation Foundation, oh I mean the .NET Framework 3.0... anyway, the Microsoft developer probably is too close to the technology to come up with a title that is catchy, perky, relevant to the event's "theme," and descriptive... not to mention readable in 6 point type. That's why marketing people were invented; they know how to make things sound appealing.
But at this TechEd, the marketing people got out of hand. The buzzword cauldron definitely boiled over. I am tempted to believe that three or four of the people in charge of the TechEd schedule had a few too many margaritas and, in a giggly hour that they won't remember afterwards, came up with session titles like -- I am not making these up! -- "Introducing the 2007 Microsoft Office System: Amplify the Impact of Your People" and "Optimize Your Core Infrastructure: Manage Complexity, Achieve Agility, Protect Information and Control Access." They are real sessions. I'm not sure what it means to "amplify the impact of your people," but it sounds both loud and painful. Oh, did you mean "help your users"? Why didn't you say so?
Never Trust Anyone Who Uses "Transition" as a Verb
What's really irritating about the buzzwords gone ballistic is that they obscure the real content. These sessions really do have valuable, useful information that can help an IT department do its job. During a terribly-named session, I learned quite a bit about what Microsoft is doing with virtualization technologies and why they think it's important. (I think that was part of the "achieve agility" session. "Agility" is in; "rich user experience" is out. Maybe you missed that memo.)
Despite my snarky attitude, there's a serious lesson in this. Marketing is no longer able to summarize and simplify complicated subjects. While a good buzzword instantly creates positioning in the reader's mind, it can also obscure the intent by meaning nothing whatsoever. Marketing information, particularly about IT and other technical topics, has to illuminate the subject, not be an exploding flashbulb. Good copywriting is supposed to help you understand, not replace the understanding.
In addition to her role at IT Business Network , Esther Schindler is also the lead perpetrator of a document well-known among PR professionals, Care and Feeding of the Press. She really, really hates substandard marcom, and appreciates it enthusiastically when it's done well.