Zeenat Rasheed
Ruminations on marketing, digital, social and 2.0.
Word of the Year: what does this mean for marketing?

Happy new year! As 2009 dwindled to a close and we rang in 2010, everyone was publishing a list: the bests and worst of the past year; how the decade met or failed expectations of the 21st century; predictions for and trends to expect in 2010, and so on.

In recent years, one of the more interesting annually-bequeathed titles to watch out for has been The Word of the Year. As a lover of language and words, I have personally always been curious to know which word will be given the honor of defining and encapsulating the essence of year. But this year  I wondered: what does the WotY mean for marketers? Can this Word give marketers a temperature of societal or cultural mood? To what extent can it predict socioeconomic trends that impact big business?

I decided to find out. Surprisingly, during my research I realized that there are actually four major Word of the Year lists compiled in the United States and each has a different methodology for selecting a Word.

1) American Dialect Society (ADS) is dedicated to studying the English language and seemingly originated the concept of Word of the Year in North America as it has been producing the list since 1990.

Words are nominated and voted on by ADS members who are all linguists and philologists looking to capture the impact of the biggest political or socio-economic news stories. So, as you can see, except for the 2003 WotY, metrosexual, the Words are less about cultural trends and may be less relevant to marketers (although one might say that the increased cynicism associated with these Words may be cause for concern about the national mood as a whole!)

[FYI: the Word of 2009 and Word of the 2000-09 decade will be voted on by ADS tomorrow - January 8, 2010. My guess is that the WotY will have something to do with Twitter, Obama, H1N1 or Teabagging, and the WotD might be social media (the Word of the 1990s was web). We will see!]

2) Global Language Monitor (GLM) is a company that uses complex algorithms to document, analyze and track words. Based on software that tracks word frequency, context and appearance in global print and electronic media, it announces a Word of the Year, as well as phrases that were popular.

This methodology is the exact opposite of the ADS, as it it is entirely free from opinion and is based purely on statistics.

3) Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (MWOD) started publishing a Word of the Year in 2003 (probably as a marketing ploy, there are rather few ways for a dictionary to promote itself!)

From 2003 to 2005, the Word of the Year was that which had the most online searches and page-hits. However, in 2006, MWOD changed its selection process and instead asked users to vote for the Word of the Year. Then, this year (2009) it reverted back to the methodology of using the number of dictionary lookups for WotY. Clearly, a serious publication like MWOD preferred to be a barometer for the nation’s true curiosity about the meaning of concepts such as Democracy and Integrity, rather than stoop to cataloging the nation’s favorite pop culture references, such as truthiness and w00t, both of which still have not made it into the dictionary.

4) The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), which is published by American editors over at the Oxford University Press, has been selecting its own Word of the Year since 2005 when it launched its official blog (although the Oxford University Press has been selecting a British Word of the Year since at least 1906). It seems that the blog and WotY list may have been started as a way to counter Merriam-Webster in the online lexicographic space.

A team of editors at NOAD compiles a list of words that have entered the language or changed significantly in their meaning using their own knowledge, reader contributions, and their own proprietary and ever-changing database which tracks word usage. They keep shortlisting the list it until they have arrived at the final word.

So what does this mean for marketers?

As a Word that largely reflects trends and news stories that are given attention to by the media, I think the GLM list is probably more useful to marketers. At the end of each year, we can see what quantitatively caught the national (and global) media’s attention and infer what this means for consumers and the market.

For instance, at the start of 2007, it was clear that the 2006 WotY, sustainability, had become a key issue in the national media, and that paved the way for an increased green consciousness, an explosion of hybrid products and services, a rise in using ecofriendliness as a corporate PR tactic, and acceptance for films like Wall-E. In 2009, Twitter gained national recognition and was the first tech/social media word to make it to this list, proving that it (and social media) has established itself as a game-changer for communication, media and technology. Marketing people everywhere: pay attention. Start understanding Twitter and its repercussions for your brand, your customer service, your listening mechanisms, your HR practices and your public relations.

For a Word that might best reflect what people are curious about, the NOAD Word of the Year, with its nice mix of editorial judgment and actual numbers of dictionary searches, may be the best predictor of changes in human behavior and consumption patterns, although they tend to be somewhat prescient.

For instance, in 2005, news of podcasting was all the rage but it wasn’t until two or three years later that the technology became widely spread and adopted by the public at large. Similarly, as a word, locavore (2007) didn’t quite catch on but the concept has begun to take root, as Michelle Obama plants a White House garden, trends in remote-farming increase, and the global obsession with Farmville grows. Interestingly, however, it seems that NOAD recognized the need for picking more ’sticky’ words, because the 2009 Word of the Year was unfriend, chosen for of its (obvious) “currency and potential longevity“. I hope NOAD sticks to its original philosophy though; predictiveness is far more interesting (at least in hindsight) than currency!

So, marketers: keep an eye on the Global Language Monitor and New Oxford American Dictionary Words of the Year. They’re not rock-solid indicators of what is to come, but with 2009’s winners being Twitter and unfriend, they do provide a candid snapshot of the national consumer psyche and help us hone in on major trends, and force us to reflect on what these changes — such as the increasing penetration of social media, acceptance of changing technology, and the development of online social mores that differ from in-person communication — mean for consumers, brands and marketers.

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