You’re undoubtedly familiar with the term “mission creep.” It’s most often used in military terms to describe a war that’s gotten out of control, going beyond its original purpose. The world of online content has its own creep, “acronym creep.” You don’t have to work in the world of online content creation to have acronyms creep into the crevices of your work-a-day life. If you work in business, the military, or government and education at any level, you undoubtedly see your fair share — and then some.
Some see acronyms as branding opportunities: Unlikely. Others see them as repeated chances to show off their knowledge in a particular field: Yawn. For those of us who create online content, the problem is that acronyms are jargon. They get in the way of plain speech. When we are at our best, we communicate clearly to all of our readers not a chosen few. So what are some guidelines to help you decide whether to peddle the alphabet soup that people try to pass off as great business ideas, the latest degrees and certification programs, or ingenious marketing ploys?
- Is the acronym’s main purpose to prevent those who conjured the name in the first place from having to write it out on their stationery? If so, that’s just lazy. One thing bureaucracies do well is churn out acronyms. There must be a department of acronymology somewhere. Help the reading public by stamping out these acronyms before they find their way into print.
- Does the acronym make the words it represents easier to remember? Shorter doesn’t mean it’s easier to remember. Think NASA and KFC. If a clever word or phoneme doesn’t present itself, it’s probably worth forgetting.
- Will the acronym be around for a significant period of time? More than two years is my best suggestion; certainly more than a year. If not, then it’s bound to be part of the revolving door of come-and-go acronyms that readers meet during their busy days on a 60 second elevator pitch or 3 minute speed date. They won’t bother to remember. Like us, they’ve seen them all and know the next one is waiting in the wings.
- Finally, does the acronym align with your overall message and brand strategy? Bear with me as I related a story that, while not entirely parallel to acronyms, illustrates my point comically. A friend once suggested that I could easily recall his phone number as ###-UMFF. At which point, I suggested that ###-TODE might leap to mind with less effort. All these years later and phone numbers past, I still remember. And don’t you know that I bring it up whenever we get together?
A- or D+?
If an acronym passes these tests, it’s probably safe to use with caution. A general rule is that you should spell out an acronym the first time it appears on a site (if not a page) and include the acronym in parentheses immediately afterward. At a basic level, acronyms should have a compelling reason for being used. While content creators can’t keep acronymologists from getting their kicks, we can prevent a confusing jumble of letters from bogging down our readers — something that’s bound to drive them elsewhere.
by Ed Carpenter — He’s a bad mutha … shut yer mouth.