Something Smells, If You Know What I Mean

I ran across a recent article in Discover Magazine describing how difficult Richard Feynman found it to describe magnetism effectively. While coming up with a solid definition may be too difficult, we can find many ways to talk about magnetism. The Cloud is similar. We can’t always define it, but we can talk an awful lot about it.

Often times we find it hard to define new concepts. Words fail us because they can only do so much to convey their meaning. The rest is left to the listener to fill in the blanks, color the picture as it were. That takes solid, meaningful words with striking imagery, enough to connect the thought with the word whenever the reader sees them. Large companies know all about this through their vigorous protection of trademarks. Product Marketing also lives in a world where new concepts must be married to solid ideas.

Every morning I receive an email with the word of the day. This started long ago as an attempt to improve and expand my vocabulary, but more recently proved a stressor. Imagine discovering you’ve been using the wrong word for years, much like Don Parente did here. Thankfully in my case the embarrassment was less public for many reasons.

I received the word odoriferous and thought, “no such word!” I immediately looked it up and found to my dismay it meant what I’d always called odiferous. How could I, the once English Teacher, make such an astoundingly big mistake? Surely I had heard it or read it that way somewhere in my childhood. Obviously my parents repeated the incorrect form over my crib, instilling within me the curse of poor pronunciation or outright inability to read.

And thus I began to write my short, sad blog post, trying somehow to weave this discovery into a discussion about the meaning of Cloud, but to cover myself I looked it up once more. Looking closer at the definition I found that both forms are acceptable and no dictionary would name one as incorrect. And then it hit me; I know the meaning of odiferous (odoriferous if you’d prefer) no matter how it’s spelled. Odiferous was merely a shortened form of odoriferous, a convenience that neither reduced the meaning nor clouded the definition. People do that to words and concepts all the time. Some win out and some fade away. The winners hopefully add to the meaning.

The Cloud is many things to many people. In fact Joey Widener already discussed the meaning of cloud nicely, and I can’t add much to it. Don also gave it a whirl here. It’s even being linked to revitalizing capitalism in Ed Lucente’s post. How can something so nebulous be so tangible? How can a winner be crowned when even I’m adding to the confusion? By doing what we’ve always done. We must create the story and pair it with the customer’s need, all the while telling it in a compelling way. Then we control the meaning.

Discussing the cloud with internal organizations and customers brings about a series of challenges because we’re still in the era where the definitions are being decided. Each major player wants to define it and own that definition of what the Cloud will be. Owning the message is sometimes as easy as being the loudest voice, even if that voice muddies the message. I don’t watch much TV but I know that Microsoft thinks a lot about the Cloud. We don’t necessarily agree on a definition, but they’ve got great marketing.

As a former language arts teacher I can tell you that connotation will win out over denotation every time. If you can successfully attach an idea to a word or phrase regardless of the word’s original meaning, you can improve your odds at winning. What do geckos bring to mind? Or cavemen for that matter?

To most users there’s not much difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet. Some of us know, but does it matter? These same users now consume several Cloud services, even if they don’t think of them that way. We know what they mean when they say webmail or streaming or backups. The concept is no longer foreign. The Cloud becomes more solid.

With efforts by AT&T and others in the industry, the Cloud goes from being nebulous and without form to pervasive and ubiquitous. What we thought of as intangible is now critical to our business and a primary part of our future strategy. That’s what good marketing will get you, but it must come with the promise and delivery of the service. Those that provide the marketing and the goods to go along with it will control the meaning.

What do you think? What words have you noticed changing as a result of technology? What terms are you commonly using today that you either didn’t use before, or had a completely different meaning “back then?” We look forward to your comments.
Jeff Morgan Lead Product Marketing Manager AT&T About Jeff