Acronyms Destroy Culture and Alienate Customers

I'm Greg, and I'm a recovering acronym user

You are reading Greg’s weekly email about creative, digital, social, and cultural signals worth noting, and sometimes a dumb viral video worth sharing with your friends. Today’s email was written to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould in 1981. Follow @gregswan on TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.


Acronyms – an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word – suck. Acronyms destroy culture and alienate customers.

Elon Musk famously sent an email to that effect back in 2010…

Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don't want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees. - Acronyms Seriously Suck, Elon Musk (2010)

No matter how you feel about Elon, it’s hard to argue that there’s a level of human capital put into establishing acronyms that makes it hard for new people at your company to learn what the hell you’re talking about. And certainly, it can make it challenging for your customers to understand WTF you’re talking about on the outside.

When I worked on the U.S. Army marketing business, we had an entire spreadsheet of acronyms and initialisms we had to learn just to communicate with our clients, who used acronyms as a primary communication device.

I’m going to need to see the BLUF on the TO for AAB before we send the AAR to USAREC ASAP” is legitimately an email I have sent to my teammates before. And I’m ashamed of it. The onboarding process was intense for my new team members. And we all filled our heads with those trivial definitions we no longer need years later.

Many of us have experienced stress and confusion with acronyms at our companies and increasingly, in day-to-day business transactions where you will have a company refer to an acronym or a process named by an acronym that you don’t understand. Maybe you’re like me and you feign understanding – but there’s no way you understood. Maybe you asked for clarification. But no matter what, that little shortcut for a few words added up to more problems than it solved.

This consumer-facing acronym confusion happened to me this week dropping my car off at my auto dealer for an appointment. When I called to check on its status the next day, I was told they didn’t have a record of my service time. They said I must have made the appointment with the BCD and instead should have called the APD. Of course, the dealer had called us to set up the time and sent an email confirmation, but that sentiment of “well, you shouldn’t have called the BCD” was incredibly confusing and frustrating.

*NOTE: It’s important to note, I’m not actually sure he even said BCD or APD. I have no idea what the actual letters were. And I do not care to know. When your customers are spending big bucks, don’t make them learn your vernacular. Speak theirs.

If you’ve bought a house or used the healthcare system recently, there’s a chance you ran into a lot of internal acronyms and initialisms tossed out in everyday language and communications. Consumers find themselves needing to learn the shortcuts to navigate the culture of home-buying or receiving medical care, only to find they never need to know those acronyms ever again. It’s a lot of wasted brain space and can be taxing for consumers.

You would be shocked how much time it doesn’t save to just spell out the words you mean

Sometimes it can be fun and even a sport to learn the taxonomy of a company’s inner workings for a consumer, like the diner lingo at your favorite breakfast joint (e.g., “a stack of Vermont”). Or the secret menu at In-N-Out Burger. Or a custom order at your favorite coffee shop. But when you try to force your internal cultural lingo on external audiences, you are eroding their trust, creating purposeful confusion, and testing their loyalty.

On the agency side, I’ve noticed any time we have a new business pitch suddenly that company is immediately abbreviated into an acronym or initialism for all file names, Teams channels, server folders, and job codes. That’s fine at first or for a few clients. But once you have a new team member show up after years of internal shorthand, it creates a massive barrier to catching up.

When it comes to general and long-used marketing terms like ROI, KPI, NPS, SEO, and SEM, we can give those a pass. They are worth learning and have come to encapsulate more than their spelled out definitions. But we’re all guilty of encapsulating internal terms with unnecessary internal terms, and it needs to stop. You would be shocked how much time it doesn’t save to just spell out the words you mean.

BRB LOL

Texting culture has only furthered our adoption of acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations, and shortcuts. Older generations love creating “translation keys” for text slang and talk about it as a foreign language, then eventually adopt it. Born out of message boards and chat apps like ICQ and AIM (which are acronyms, btw), the fascination with shifting slang online through acronyms is a nostalgia sport for memes and media at this point.

But back on the company culture side, I highly suggest we all try to avoid acronyms and initialisms in our internal teams and at our companies. I was ranting to my friends about Elon Musk’s take on acronyms eroding culture earlier this week AND THEN Instagram’s Jon Youshaei brought it up at his Digital Summit keynote yesterday. Maybe there’s a chance as we revisit our work style of 2021 and 2022 we can reduce confusion for all.

So that’s my rant on acronyms. I’m Greg. I’m a recovering-acronym user and doing my best to spend the extra few seconds to type out full words. Will you join me? -Greg


Here’s what else I’m tracking this week…

TikTok, the Only Social Media Platform Without Stories, Is Testing Stories: One of the biggest outcomes of the invention of Snapchat was the realization that “Stories” – short form content that disappears after 24 hours – is highly prized and valued in a social media world where everything you post lasts forever.

So it’s not a surprise that Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and even LinkedIn have introduced similar types of Stories-inspired content vehicles. It’s with that knowledge and understanding that we shouldn’t be shocked whatsoever that TikTok is testing Stories in multiple countries. Will it stick? Will it launch and then be quickly killed, liked Twitter’s Fleets? We’ll keep a close watch to see.

FYPM, The Glassdoor for Influencers:FYPM (short for F**k You Pay Me) is a platform where influencers can anonymously share their experiences collaborating with different brands and search crowdsourced compensation data, making it easier to figure out what price to charge for their services. It’s like Glassdoor, but purpose-built for the needs of the influencer community. The aim: to have creators be paid more equitably.

As the NYT reported this week, “It’s part of a shift where creators are increasingly trying to assert themselves in their business dealings with brands and gain a more level playing field. Among the tools that have proliferated is Collabstr, a marketing platform that lets creators post brief biographies about themselves and list their pay rates. Social media pages like Brands Behaving BadlyWe Don’t Work for Free and Influencer Pay Gap call attention to bad deals and potentially exploitative brands.”

The Best Snapchat Filter of 2021: Last week Snapchat launched Magic Karaoke, an AR-app that transforms your face – or any photo from your camera roll – into a deepfake singing video experience that has to be experienced to be understood. It even works on statues, pets, anything that resembles a face. Snapchat has continued to push augmented reality into the mainstream at an unrivaled pace, and now they are wading into the deepfake space with this filter that is hilarious, shareable, and pretty dang accurate. Try it here.

Would You Pay With Your Palm Print? Amazon has expanded its biometric scanning technology to stores across the U.S., including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Texas – paying users $10 in promotional credit if you enroll your palm prints in its checkout-free stores and link it to your Amazon account. Amazon says its palm scanning software “captures the minute characteristics of your palm — both surface-area details like lines and ridges as well as subcutaneous features such as vein patterns — to create your palm signature,” which is then stored in the cloud and used to confirm your identity when you’re in one of its stores.

Picture Phones and Flying Cars in the Twin Cities: I have a favorite Gates quote that says, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” It’s both a practical and philosophical insight that works with emerging technology, cultural adaptation, and modern marketing. So it was fun to read What Minneapolitans in the 1920s thought the Twin Cities would be like in 1980, and imagine their disappointment in today, with no monorails sliding along the lakes, no double-decker highways, no atomic-powered flying cars flitting between Minneapolis heliports, and more.

Key quote: “For by 1980 there will undoubtedly be a device whereby two persons talking over the telephone may be able to see each other in mirrors suspended over the instruments." The article ended with the suggestion that such a thing might not be popular.

Reads of the Week: 1) How TikTok's Algorithm Figures Out Your Deepest Desires; 2) How Hate “Clusters” Spread Disinformation Across Social Media; 3) An interview with @PetFinderNames; 4) Why Bored Ape Avatars Are Taking Over Twitter; 5) American Shoppers Are a Nightmare.

Quick Hits:

See you on the internet!
Greg

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