Language is complicated, and in the context of shifting cultural norms, it gets even more complicated. So the question comes up: Is it OK to swear in our content marketing?
We had a bit of a dust-up on Copyblogger a few years back, and every once in awhile the topic comes back up again.
The question: Who decides what kind of language is appropriate for a blog, podcast, or other content marketing? Where is the line, and who gets to draw it?
In this 25-minute episode, I talk about:
- A controversy over swearing on Copyblogger
- Whether it’s ever a good idea to offend readers
- The public discourse, cultural norms, and why it’s ok to be offended
- Demographics vs. psychographics — is it true that folks over 50 are less comfortable with swearing?
- Tribe-based marketing from one of my favorite content marketers
- The potential risk in not offending any readers
- How to make the call for your own content — to swear or not to swear?
The Show Notes
- The original post with the controversial bio wording (the bio is now changed): 6 Proven Ways to Improve the Conversion Rates of Your Call-to-Action Buttons (I know, you can see why it was controversial!)
- Bob Bly’s thoughts on the issue: Are You a Digital Potty Mouth?
- Joanna Wiebe’s thoughts on the issue: Swearing, Euphemisms, and Writing Something that Actually Sounds Like You
- One of my favorite content marketers, Nancy Boy (they really do have fantastic soap)
- My Remarkable Communication 2009 post about Nancy Boy (this site is in the process of being switched over to Rainmaker Platform, at which point it will be unspeakably gorgeous)
- If you want your own unspeakably gorgeous site, here’s a link to the Rainmaker content and business platform
- I always love it when you say hi over on Twitter @soniasimone!
Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital.
I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.
Note: Links to extra resources are in the Show Notes!
So one of those questions that comes up a lot, along with “how long should blog posts be” and “how often should I publish,” is:
Is it OK if I swear on my blog?
I don’t swear on this podcast, because I have been informed that iTunes doesn’t like it when we swear on our podcasts, and I want this to reach a wide audience.
Once again one of those rules of thumb of digital sharecropping — if I’m going to take advantage of iTunes to reach a wider audience, then I have to follow their rules.
Every once in awhile this comes up on Copyblogger, harkening back to well-known copywriter and teacher of copywriting, Bob Bly, who was very unhappy with us for running a post by Joanna Wiebe, in which she used the term “mofo” in her bio.
The post was superb, by the way, from Joanna Wiebe: 6 Proven Ways to Boost the Conversion Rates of Your Call-to-Action Buttons. Lots of deep analysis and specific examples, which she’s so good at.
The quote isn’t in the post any more, because author bios get updated as the writer’s professional situation evolves, but at the time it was this:
Where startups & marketers learn to convert like mofos.
This wasn’t something we in Copyblogger editorial found particularly controversial, then or now, just to give some context.
So Bob is very smart, and he has a lot of experience, and he felt very strongly that this cheapened the content. One of the comments he left was,
If it might offend even one in a hundred, why risk it, when you can say the same idea without the profanity?
In his (strong) opinion, there are standards of public discourse, and not swearing is one of those standards.
He wrote an entire post about it, quoted here:
I contend that in articles published online and offline on business topics, it is completely unnecessary, and people do it primarily to look cool and hip to their counterparts.
But by doing so, they turn off a large segment of their readership, me included … mostly the 50 and over crowd.
If you are a marketer, I would warn you not to alienate oldsters, as we control most of the money in the United States.
A survey reported on the Joshua Kennon web site found that households where the head was age 35 and younger had a median net worth of only $65,000.
By comparison, households where the head was 55 to 64 years old had a median net worth of $880,000 – nearly 14X richer.
So Bob’s case is (partly) economic — is it bad business to swear in our content?
Turning people away
In terms of this question about turning your audience away, I’m reworking my Remarkable Communication site to run on Rainmaker finally after putting it off, and I feel like a complete moron about it. The only part of the process that was tricky was finding all of my old login information. The migration took something like seriously maybe 20 minutes. So I’m sprucing up the sidebars and and reworking things like the About page, but I am so excited to be able to share it with you soon. I’m really happy, it looks so amazing. My goal is to use Rainmaker strictly out of the box without getting help to set it up.
I ran across a post I wrote about a soap company called Nancy Boy.
Now, Nancy boy breaks all of the email marketing rules for content.
I gave an example of their email messaging (link in the show notes), and I had this to say about it:
You may be thinking, wow, that’s wordy. And kind of insane. And it uses the word prevarication, they’re gonna get some unsubscribes with that one.
It’s a little like horehound candy, or stinky goat cheese. A lot of people don’t like it. Maybe most people don’t like it.
But the people who do absolutely crave it.
In 2009 I wrote about their content being “an attitude that is euphemistically called Very San Francisco.
In 2016 we speak a little more plainly — The content for Nancy Boy is … gay. It’s not just slightly gay. It’s very, very gay. Their tagline is “tested on boyfriends, not animals.” Um, the name of their business is Nancy Boy. There is no closet available here to hide in.
Now, being gay — especially in a way that’s this out — is for many folks in our culture in the U.S. a lot more controversial than swearing. “MoFo” doesn’t have much on gay.
They’re absolutely alienating many people. Many, many people. Look on Twitter or Facebook if you think everyone is super comfortable with gay people today.
And yet, to restate the point I made in 2009, they’re selling soap in one of the highest real-estate cities in the country. Soap. They still have their retail store, in the really extremely expensive and adorable Hayes Valley neighborhood.
And they have a thriving mail order business still, and they still send crazy emails. Their latest one in my in-box has a picture of a dog licking plates in the dishwasher, to highlight that they sell a nice-smelling dish detergent.
Their tribe is strong enough to support them, and their tribe loves them because they’re not for everyone. Because they’re brave enough to be a tall, proud, out Nancy Boy. I can get great-smelling soap at Whole Foods, but I still mail-order soap and some other nice-smelling things from Nancy Boy because I love them, because I feel connected to them.
What Joanna wrote about it
Joanna also wrote about this on her blog, Copyhackers, which is a good read and I’ll give you a link in the show notes.
Here’s a quote:
I always recommend that you write for the 20 to 35% of your visitors that are most likely to a) convert and b) be happier for it. I recommend that because I’ve tested it and it works. It’s not just an assumption I randomly pulled out of the air and tried once; it’s not like I applied a go-narrow principle to my business and my business alone and found that it prettymuch worked, so now I think everyone should do the same for similar results.
So this points to the same thing I see at Nancy Boy. They’re writing for their customers, not the entire universe of possible customers. In Nancy Boy’s case, their customers start in their local neighborhood, and now many years on, are made up of like-minded people from all over the place.
Another quote from Joanna:
But, without question, you are taking a risk when you use that kind of language…. With regard to risk, you’re also taking a risk when you absolutely avoid euphemisms and impolite words in your copy.
So is it ok to swear on your blog or not?
The message isn’t, “Yes, go swear on your blog.”
The message isn’t, to be crystal clear, that I think Bob was wrong on this. In fact, I really did not appreciate folks being disrespectful in the comments to him about it. They were trying to stand up for us and for Joanna, but that wasn’t necessary in this case.
The message is,
You don’t get to decide what’s relevant or appropriate. Your audience does.
The Copyblogger readership is, for the most part, 1000% comfortable with the term “MoFo.”
Is Bob wrong because he’s not comfortable with it? Not at all. We respect Bob a ton. His point of view is very valid.
We actually swear very, very little on Copyblogger, precisely because we have a large audience that’s extremely diverse. We know that there are some folks who really don’t appreciate it — that’s part of who our audience is.
But once in awhile, certain words feel like they’re important to state a point clearly. I’m not a big fan of euphemism, as anyone who’s ever heard me give a talk can attest to. So I don’t like “friggen” or “flippin.” Actually for me, my issue with MoFo is precisely that it’s a euphemism. I was taught early on as a writer to avoid them, and I try to.
So here’s my advice:
Overall I recommend that you not swear for the sake of swearing. It’s kind of lazy and not necessarily very interesting. That kind of language has a lot of power, but the power comes from holding it back to make an impact when you really want to make a point very strongly.
If your audience swears a lot and that’s what feels right for connecting to them, then make your decisions accordingly.
If your audience doesn’t appreciate it, then don’t swear ever. They decide, not you.
But if it matters, if it’s the truest statement of what you need to communicate, and that’s how your audience will read it? Then I think you’re the one who is best qualified to make that call for your audience and your situation.
I know I won’t convince Bob Bly with this argument, and I’m ok with that. Because as much as I respect him, the ones who are my true compass are my readers, my listeners, my audience.