‘E-mail’ is uncool, and other language lessons for the digital age

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As brands consider their digital marketing strategies, one thing they have to think about is the way they use language online. Proclaiming that “if technology is a pimp, our language is its favorite bitch,” panelists at SXSW on Sunday offered a few communication tips for brands online.

Don’t wait for style guides to catch up

According to Merriam-Webster, “email” should have a hyphen. But that doesn’t mean you should follow the rule. “Even if people don’t quite understand the rule, they’re still going to make a judgment,” said Gail Marie, content editor at ad agency McKinney.

“I don’t think at a digital agency we should be hyphenating ‘email,’ no matter what the dictionary says,” Kristina Eastham, communications manager at digital ad agency Digitaria, said. Similarly, she suggested that using “Web site” instead of “website” can be a marker of uncoolness.

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The new sign you’ve made it: You invented a word

“Historically, brands have gained marketing fame by bastardizing English,” Eastham said, mentioning examples like Apple’s “Think different,” the “Got Milk?” campaign and “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” Now, she said, the biggest sign of success is “if you can work a word into the English language based on your brand or technology” — Googling, friending, liking. “When somebody says ‘Instagram that,’ everybody knows what it means.”

Sean Carton, who teaches about digital communication at the University of Baltimore, noted that Facebook has actually changed the definition of the word “friend.” “Ninety-nine percent of the people you’ve friended are not your friends in the traditional sense,” he said. “They’re just not your enemies.”

Some tech concepts still lack words. “I don’t know what to say when someone writes me an email to introduce me to someone I haven’t met,” Eastham said. “I hate saying, ‘Nice to ‘meet’ you.’ I think it sounds so tacky.”

Carton expressed the desire for a shorter way to say “WWW.” He’s heard someone try “triple dubs,” but perhaps not surprisingly, that hasn’t caught on.

What’s next: Text becomes visual

With the rise of visual forms of expression like Tumblr, Instagram, animated GIFs and Vine, brands have to learn to write short and differently (just when you thought you mastered 140 characters…) Fast Company’s Neal Ungerleider said he’s seeing more and more emojis in reader comments on Twitter, and if Google Glass takes off we’ll see text overlaid on real life experiences.

(Editor’s note: The GigaOM Style Council endorses and enforces all the stances advocated by the panelists.)

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Images sources: Mlkshk, someecards

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