Organization language versus customer language

If you want to communicate with customers on the Web you must use their language.


Recently, I made some presentations to the European Commission. They currently have an excellent initiative focused on massively reducing the number of websites and web pages they have. Their initial aim is to delete about 50% of their content. A manager from one section told me that they had deleted 95% of their content and that now things were much better.


The European Commission faces very similar challenges to those of many other large organizations around the world. How to be relevant and useful on the Web? How to develop and maintain trust?


I’m from Ireland and am particularly aware of the importance of the European Commission / Union. When I was a young child in 1973, Ireland joined the European Union. It was a momentous occasion. From then on Ireland slowly moved from being an impoverished, autocratic and church-controlled society to a democratic, open, prosperous and vibrant one.


Sure, we have challenges today but they pale in comparison to the challenges Ireland faced 40 years ago. Great progress has been made and the European Union was the engine of that progress.


I have a keen interest in history. It’s easy to forget that Europe was the barbarous continent. That European peoples exhibited a savagery and brutality unmatched in human history. The miracle of the European Union is that it tamed the beast of extreme nationalism. (Although the poison of xenophobia and racism is always seething somewhere under the surface.)


I have met many people who work for the European Commission over the years and a characteristic that I have noticed again and again is their sense of idealism. Their children go to schools of every nationality and their parents seek to serve the European ideal.


And yet … Day by day they struggle against the tribes of the organization and the silo mentality, against a bureaucracy that is mired in complexity and unnecessary process.


“I loved what you said,” one woman told me after a talk I gave. “It’s so true.” And then she laughed. “But you would never have a chance of working for the European Commission. They’d fire you straight away.”


Another man took me aside. “Did you know,” he said, “that they’re trying to ban the use of the word “austerity” within the European Commission?”

“No,” I replied.

“They want to replace it with “Growth Friendly Fiscal Consolidation”.


Sorry, European Commission, you can’t ban austerity. Last month, according to Google, there were 300,000 searches for the word “austerity”. Do you know how many searches there were for Growth Friendly Fiscal Consolidation? 28. Yes, 28 searches. (And those were probably by the people who invented that silly phrase.)


The exact same approach was taken in 2009 during the Swine Flu epidemic. “I would suggest you call it ‘novel flu’” a Commission spokesperson stated back then. Novel flu? And the Commission today wonders why it is disconnected from the people it is supposed to serve?


Many government websites are riddled with propaganda. Smiley, hand-shakey pictures of politicians and senior figures. Content explaining in excruciating detail what the government is doing. Bucket loads of ‘news’ (that is not news) and press releases about projects that hardly anyone is interested in.


To become relevant on the Web, governments must dump all this junk, start speaking in language ordinary people understand, stop droning on about what it’s doing for people, and instead let people quickly and easily do something useful.

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