Businesses that do business with the public frequently use specialized language that customers are unfamiliar with.

Let’s take a look at a very simple example. In the web design and online marketing industries, it’s very common to refer to someone who designs and builds websites in shorthand as a “web developer,” sometimes abbreviated as “dev” or “web dev.” So, if I’m starting up my own business as a web developer and sit down to write the content for my site, I should describe myself as a “web developer” and my services as “web development,” right?

Not necessarily. What I would really need to do is do some research into how potential clients (i.e. any business owner wanting to have a site created for their business) tend to talk about my services. When they decide to hop onto Google in order to find the developer that’s going to lead their business to online success, what are they typing into the search bar? As it turns out, nowadays the phrase “web developer” is pretty well known, thanks to increased general awareness of the industry. But there are some very commonly used alternatives, such as “web designer,” “website designer,” and occasionally even somewhat stilted phrases like “website builder.”

If I chose to just stick with that single phrase, “web developer,” I’ll likely end up being overlooked by many potential clients simply because they aren’t familiar with that phrase. Taking pains to cast the terminological net a bit wider and incorporate a larger variety of terms will help people who aren’t as familiar with the web design industry to find my site.

This is a very basic example. But many industries make very common use of jargon that becomes second nature for those in the know, but which are completely foreign to outsiders. An accountant who wants to make a page on his site explaining what “generally accepted accounting principles” are may end up not getting very many visitors if he only ever uses the industry-specific acronym “GAAP.” This is especially the case because anyone who needs a primer on the basics of GAAP won’t know the acronym, and thus will never Google the phrase “basics of gaap.” On the other hand, such a person WILL probably Google phrases like “important accounting guidelines,” or “rules for reporting business finances.”

These phrases probably sound amateurish to those in the know, the result being that they would be very resistant to using these sorts of phrases on a business website. But if the purpose of your website is to draw the attention of those in the general public who need your services, then you’ll be well-advised to humble yourself a bit and use the words and phrases your would-be customers use.

Now, this isn’t just our personal opinion on jargon. Even the federal government has recognized the need for use of clear language in its communications. The federal government has a website, plainlanguage.gov, dedicated to supporting the “use of clear communication in government writing,” and which has a history going back more than 20 years. But in recent years, it was recognized that if government agencies have difficulty communicating with one another, then the public must really be out of the loop. President Obama addressed this in 2010 by signing the Plain Writing Act, which requires federal agencies to use simple, clear language that’s easily understood by the general public.

Suffice it to say, clear and clean is better. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t also use those fancier terms. In fact, a great way to draw visitors is to give visitors the opportunity to educate themselves on your site, to make that jump from basic knowledge to intermediate and expert levels of understanding. Use those basic phrases that your customers tend to use as a starting point for explaining the more complex concepts and terms that are central to your industry.

However, businesses that strictly make their money from B2B (business-to-business) transactions should probably stick with the jargon.

As I was just saying, it’s important to use the language that your customers use. While this rule usually means that businesses should simplify their vocabulary for the benefit of their customers, it means the opposite for B2B businesses. That’s because in this scenario, there is such a large overlap of knowledge between the business and the client that they may both use the same specialized language. For instance, a medical supply company looking to sell fetal heart monitors to large hospitals may well be able to get away with using technical terms for the devices–cardiotocographs, CTG monitors, or even CTGs–rather than more layman-friendly terms such as “fetal heart monitor.”

In fact, such businesses will probably be much more successful due to using those industry-specific terms, as they know that their very narrow audience will probably be using those specific terms as well. Such is the advantage of working in a niche industry.

Not sure how to talk to your clients? Look at the emails you’ve received from them, as well as public discussions online.

In order to find out what words your potential customers use to describe your product or service, you simply need to find examples of such laymen talking about your product. Dig into your email archives for questions that previous site visitors have sent your way. If you don’t have the benefit of this sort of data, start searching online for discussion groups or even customer reviews of products or services similar to yours. What are the phrases and words that they use? What are the features that they tend to focus on? What are the most common sources of confusion that tend to inspire questions?

So what do you do once you’ve done all this research and listed all of the pertinent data? Incorporate it into your site. Use the phrases your customers use. Talk about the features that they tend to search for and focus on. Answer the questions that they most commonly ask. That’s it.

While this sounds deceptively simple, this is the heart and soul of online marketing. Link-building and advertising and social media campaigns can all make a big difference in the success or failure of a business. But, the first step in any successful online business venture is simply making a website that is useful to customers. And in order for a site to be useful, it has to speak to customers on their terms, use their words, and answer their questions.

That alone will put you ahead of the majority of your competitors.

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