An organization is a form of group. Groups can be elitist. Groups are always trying to define who is in and who is out. To a great many organizations, the customer is on the outside. To be a success, then, a Web site must live on the outside.

“It is understandable that management began as a concern for the inside of the organization,” Peter F. Drucker writes in Management Challenges for the 21st Century.

“When the large organizations first arose…managing the inside was the new challenge. But while the assumption that management's domain is the inside of the organization originally made sense—or at least can be explained—its continuation makes no sense at all. It is a contradiction of the very function and nature of organization.”

These are strong words from one of management's most important thinkers. But they are words that many organizations do not heed.

Many organizations simply can't stop thinking about themselves. When talking to customers, many professionals—either consciously or subconsciously—use language as a tool of exclusion.

After my last newsletter, I received an email from Nancy Speroni, a director of Web development at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She wrote, “Most health professionals (MDs, nurses, etc.) use very strong medical language both personally and professionally. It has always been a challenge for me to convince stakeholders in a Web project that it is not ‘dumbing down' to develop a Web site that patients (target users) can understand.”

I have worked with medical organizations and I have found the exact same problems. These problems are universal. The Catholic Church has stopped saying mass in Latin. Unfortunately, many Web sites might as well be written in that ancient language, for all the sense they make.

Why is this? Do organizations deliberately set out to antagonize and alienate their customers?

I don't think so. But there is a lot of comfort in the group. When professionals are chatting away, complex language and jargon act as a bond. It is a price of admission to the profession. It can also make for faster, more effective communication.

But the public Web site is on the outside. It is for the public, not for the organization. It should be written in the language your target readers feel most comfortable with.

Troubled artists may get away with saying that they only write for themselves. That approach gets you nowhere in business.

The Web is transforming the organization in that it is forcing it to be much more outgoing. Gone are the days when organizations could behave like royalty, launching products as if issuing royal commands. The Web has turned the theory that the customer is king/queen into a much greater reality.

The Internet is a network. The heart of a network is its connectivity. The world is becoming more and more of a network—a very connected place. To make a connection with someone else you must “speak the same language.”

It is up to your organization to speak the language of your customer, not the other way around. If you publish organization-speak on your Web site, you will end up talking to yourself.

PS: In my last column, I was critical of the IBM Web site, primarily because it used the classification United Kingdom to cover both the United Kingdom and Ireland. I suggested that it should use “UK & Ireland.” To my pleasant surprise, when I checked the IBM Web site, the change had indeed been made. I also received a phone call and email apologizing for the problems I had.

In an age when customer service is often poor, I have to say I'm impressed with IBM.

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image of Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern ( is a content management consultant and author. His latest book is The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online, which teaches unique techniques for identifying and measuring the performance of customers' top tasks.