HomeBlogAre Your Keywords Descriptive or Prescriptive?

Are Your Keywords Descriptive or Prescriptive?

Author: Elisa Gabbert
Last Updated: November 18, 2021 | Marketing Ideas

There was an interesting post on Kenny Hyder’s blog this week about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive marketing. He’s borrowing a concept from grammar and linguistics, topics close to my heart!

Descriptive grammar aims to describe the way people use language without making a judgment on what’s right or wrong. For example, it might describe in what contexts and in what regions the construction “noun + be + -ing verb” (as in “You be trippin'”) is used.

Prescriptive grammar, on the other hand, aims to systematize language use with rules; a prescriptive grammarian would categorize the above usage as incorrect English, the correct version being “You are tripping” (or, in some interpretations, “You tend to trip,” “You are frequently tripping,” etc.).

Linguists, as opposed to English teachers, generally favor a descriptive approach to language and grammar, since it allows us to observe and document change and novel usages as they happen, rather than deny or resist the inevitable evolution of language.

Kenny brings up this distinction in relation to Chevrolet’s recent decision to wipe out uses of “Chevy” in its marketing:

Recently, Chev­ro­let told its emplo­yees that they were to no lon­ger to use the word “Chevy” in an attempt to con­so­li­date their brand. I am not going to even try to unders­tand their thin­king on this decision. All I can come up with is “WTF?”

Not only has Chev­ro­let been using “Chevy” to brand them­sel­ves for years, “Chevy” is a part of its customers’ ver­na­cu­lar. I can’t remem­ber the last time I heard someone refer to their Chevy as a “Chevro­let.” It just doesn’t feel right.

His point is that Chevrolet is approaching marketing from a prescriptive standpoint—trying to tell its customer base what to call their cars—instead of embracing the nickname that its loyal customers have been using freely for years. I agree with Kenny’s claim that “This is a clear and obvious mis­take on Chevy’s part because they are trying to con­form to a rule they think ought to exist.”

I immediately thought of another way that the descriptive/prescriptive divide applies to marketing: keyword research. Many web marketers make the mistake of assuming they know what their customers call their products. Or they try to use insider, industry jargon in customer-facing marketing materials. This creates a language gap between you and your potential clients. At best, they’ll feel slightly alienated or confused by your web content. At worst, they won’t be able to find your site via search at all.

If you rely on “common sense” rather than active, comprehensive keyword research to write your marketing copy and pay-per-click creative, you run the risk of talking past the people you’re trying to reach. Don’t assume consumers use the same terms to describe your products as your employees and peers in the industry. (The SEO Boy blog touched on this recently in a post about jargon.) To find out how real people talk about your company:

  • Use keyword suggestion tools
  • Look at keyword referrers in your web analytics
  • Monitor social media mentions of your company, products, and market space

For example:

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Keywords

The moral of the story is, listen to your customers. Don’t tell them how to speak or they may get flashbacks of 8th grade English.

More Online Marketing Highlights from the Week

Amp up your Twitter power with this list of 50 power Twitter tips from social media maven Chris Brogan. A few highlights:

A lot of @replies shows a lot of humanity/engagement.

Use Twitter as a personalized communication tool, not another blast.

Promote other people 12x to every 1 self-promotional tweet.

Danny Sullivan live-blogged an interview with Martha Stewart about Twitter. I’m weirdly fascinated by Martha Stewart. Apparently, all her tweets are here own, but she only tweets for five minutes per day. She doesn’t use acronyms, but she does tweet recipes. LOL, Martha!

At Stay on Search, Elizabeth Marsten outlines five tones you can take in PPC ads to “shake things up,” including aggressive and funny, with good examples.

Have a good weekend!

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Meet The Author

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream’s Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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