The Polarizing Oxford Comma Explained

Defended as a signal of clarity, ridiculed as an unnecessary annoyance, nothing ignites the fire of a grammarian quite like the Oxford comma. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a teacher, colleague, or boss who was particularly passionate about the subject, then you may know that this punctuation easily ruffles feathers (just like the misunderstood semicolon).

So, what is an Oxford comma? The Oxford comma, or serial comma, is used primarily to separate and add clarification to the last item in a list.

The Oxford comma traces its roots to the Oxford University Press, where it was traditionally used by its writers and editors. In the United States, many follow the Associated Press style which never formally adopted its use, making the Oxford comma optional in American English.

This seemingly minor grammatical tool can play a major role in communication. Many awkward conversations have been saved due to the transparency of the Oxford comma. For example, texting your friend about your color options when shopping for a car:

“The dealership has the Jeep Wrangler available in green, silver, yellow and blue.”

Does that mean that the car can be purchased in yellow and also in blue? Or is it available in an elegant, combined yellow and blue option?

Here’s how the sentence would look by inserting an Oxford comma:

 “The dealership has the Jeep Wrangler available in green, silver, yellow, and blue.”

By placing the comma after yellow, it clarifies that these are all separate options and that you’re choosing between four colors.

The practice of omitting the Oxford comma was most likely an effort by many publications to save space. While in many instances using the Oxford comma is a personal preference, there are times such as the above where it’s necessary to avoid ambiguity. 

For another example, we can turn to a court ruling last year. A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for Maine dairy truck drivers hinged entirely on the use of the punctuation mark. According to Maine state law, workers are not entitled to overtime pay for the following activities: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

Note the end of the opening line, where there is no comma before the “or”. Without a comma, the “packing for shipment or distribution” is a single activity. Truck drivers do not pack food, either for shipment or for distribution – therefore they argued these exemptions shouldn’t apply to them.

In fact, the appellate court ruled in favor of the drivers saying that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers. The missing punctuation mark cost the dairy company an estimated $10 million.

The debate will continue to rage on over whether Oxford commas are necessary all the time; in the interim, this ruling upholds the practice of using them when they’re essential to prevent ambiguity.

What do you think? Are you pro-Oxford comma as the standard, or only in specific situations?

Copywriting: When less is more

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

The above sentence is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who allegedly bet his friends that he could write an entire story in just six words. As the apocryphal story goes, he wrote the one-sentence story on a bar napkin, passed it around, and promptly collected his winnings.

Regardless of whether Hemingway wrote that story, it reminds us of an important writing maxim: longer does not always equal better.

When an organization is trying to market itself, there is a tendency to over-explain, using lengthy paragraphs to describe every bit of the service or goods being offered. The logic is: telling people about what you do is good, so telling them more must be better, right?

What that approach fails to acknowledge, and what Hemingway’s baby shoes story illustrates, is our ability to extrapolate meaning from small amounts of information. We often forget that the average person can take context clues and hints of information and create full, fairly accurate pictures.

Advertising has often been ahead of the curve on this concept. When radio was king, television was in its infancy, and Life Magazine was on every coffee table, print advertisers believed in guiding audiences every step of the way to win a sale.

Check out this old classic:

Photo courtesy of  Amazon

Photo courtesy of Amazon

Now, look at how LG advertises a washing machine today:

Photo courtesy of  LG

Photo courtesy of LG

LG knows that giving a small taste of the story is better, because it makes the audience want more.

Ad copy and marketing copy are not entirely the same. While you can be a little oblique in ad copy, when you’re trying to position an idea, product or organization within a specific market, “oblique” can come off vague. But the overarching point is this: You don’t need a lot of words to get your message across effectively; you need the right words.

Whether you’re writing an email blast, web copy, or a press release, you can assume readers will know “this is a sales pitch.” So, skip some of the introductory language that most consumers don’t need or want. By the same token, don’t waste time or words trying to pretend it isn’t a sales pitch.

Concise, precise writing has another effect. Brands that can make their points efficiently project a confidence that doesn’t come across from a brand that feels the need to over-explain itself. Confident brands don’t spend countless words trying to convince their audience that they’re good at what they do.

Let’s try an exercise. Imagine two investment firms. Company A is based in New York City, Company B is based in Chicago, both founded 15 years ago with teams of impressive experience. By sheer coincidence, both firms launch new websites on the same day.

Company A’s homepage has a nice image of a sailboat, and underneath it has a block of copy:

“Company A is a leading financial advisory firm headquartered in New York City. We have many years of experience in the financial services industry, providing the best level of service of any firm in the country. We work with our clients to give accurate, intelligent, forward-thinking advice that is based on the priorities our clients have for the investments that they currently maintain, whether in stock markets, real estate, bonds, or other vehicles. Our staff is comprised of qualified professionals who have spent many years as financial advisors, and who have all earned significant important accolades and awards during their careers in the financial services industry. We are available to offer financial advice to every kind of investor, at every income level from those with small retirement nest eggs to upper echelon investors who own millions in assets. Our solutions provide a clear, understandable, easy-to-grasp path to wealth and prosperity.”

So, at what point did you give up on Company A’s pitch? Did you make it through more than three sentences? Probably not. You got the point – “We’re really good at what we do” – but then it kept going. Ultimately, a prospective client is going to want to find out for themselves anyway, so trying to convince them with an essay is a waste, not to mention they’re trying too hard to show off.

Oh, and note that last sentence: “Our solutions provide a clear, understandable, easy-to-grasp path...” A lot of marketing falls into the “three-element” trap. It’s generally accepted that a list of three things is more effective than one, but here our writer leans too hard on the idea without needing to come up with three elements. That last sentence features three words that all mean the same thing.

Now, let’s look at Company B’s main page copy, under a hero shot of its corporate office building:

“Company B makes wealth happen for our clients. We use experience, intelligence, and creative analysis to ensure that our advice makes sense for every investor.”

Company B’s copy is direct, confident, and persuasive. It suggests that Company B is a good choice in financial advisor without making you sit through endless run-on sentences to get there. You’re going to have a meeting with them to figure out if they can give you the services you’re looking for anyway, so why try to convince you with dry copy that isn’t specifically directed at your needs?

If brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare once said, it’s also the backbone of good professional writing. The key to successful marketing copy isn’t writing a lot, it’s making sure that what you write says a lot.

New Year’s Resolution: Adding Google Tag Manager to Your Website

New Year’s Resolutions come in many shapes and sizes. Eat less. Exercise more. Sleep better. Be more positive. We’d like to add another for your consideration: adding Google Tag Manager (GTM) to your website. Consider this a quick, crash course on the topic.

Increasing in popularity in recent years, tag management tools have become a best-practice tool to deploy on websites.

What is Google Tag Manager?

Google Tag Manager is a free tag management tool that helps marketers create and manage website tracking tags through a web app interface that is more user-friendly than manually editing your website code.

What does Google Tag Manager do and how is it helpful?

GTM makes it easier to add, change or remove website tracking tags, eliminating the reliance on IT or development professionals to make source code changes. Tracking tags can include anything from software tags to website tags. Software tags include: web analytics tracking code, ad platform tracking code, social media tracking pixels, and marketing automation code, among others. Website tags send data into the aforementioned tracking software; event tags that tell Google Analytics that someone played a video or downloaded an asset, for example.

GTM is installed across all pages of your website and serves as a container for all other tracking tags that you might need. Once installed, marketers or website managers can add, subtract or change tracking tags without needing to alter the site’s source code. The benefits of this approach include cleaner code, a more secure website, and fewer website crashes or issues.

How does Google Tag Manager work?

Google Analytics, the most widely adopted website analytics platform, does not automatically track specific website “goals”. Examples of website goals may include: an ecommerce transaction; a sales lead that comes from a Contact Us form submission; or, a visitor subscribing to an email newsletter. It also doesn’t automatically track certain website engagement events, such as: a video play; clicking through to a PDF asset; or, even just interacting with the content slider on your homepage. These tags provide better information that marketers can use to inform future efforts.

Why use Google Tag Manager versus other tag managers?

Google Tag Manager is the most widely adopted, cost-effective (it’s free!) and among the most powerful Tag Manager tools available. In addition to being free, there are numerous other reasons to select Google Tag Manager versus alternative platforms. Google Tag Manager seamlessly integrates with all of Google’s other tools, helps load pages faster, is the platform-of-choice among tag manager experts, and it’s quick and easy to implement.

As marketers, Google Tag Manager enables us to do our jobs better. Let’s be honest, not all marketing campaigns are winners. With better tracking, we can develop a better understanding of what’s working well and what can be improved. Google Tag Manager improves our ability to measure marketing success, analyze strengths and weaknesses, and make informed decisions on how to improve the quality of work we are doing.

If you’re interested in learning more about Google Tag Manager and how it can help track and improve the ROI on your marketing investment, feel free to get in touch.

Halloween’s Best Candy Brands

Halloween’s Best Candy Brands

Even if you’re past the age where you dress up and stalk around your neighborhood once a year to demand candy, you’re probably going to eat at least a couple handfuls of candy during the month of October. Which got us thinking, what is the best Halloween candy brand. We couldn’t come to a consensus – you could say it was a sticky situation –and so we thought we’d share our various perspectives.

Google Ads is Making ‘Exact Match’ Less Exact for Search Term Targeting

Google Ads is Making ‘Exact Match’ Less Exact for Search Term Targeting

Beginning in October 2018, Google’s exact match keyword targeting became less-exact for English keywords. This means that Google now allows your ads to show up for close-variants of the exact match keywords you’re targeting. This is the second time that Google has rolled out a change like this to its advertising platform.

World Cup Ads and the Power of Video Marketing

World Cup Ads and the Power of Video Marketing

The World Cup may be over, but the memories and excitement will last for the next four years until the tournament comes around again. Like many large-scale sporting events, the game itself is only part of the draw. The ads that play during commercial breaks throughout the tournament can create just as much of a buzz, and can last as pop cultural icons for years to come.

Nike has long been the leader in the World Cup ad game, and its spots provide valuable lessons for any business that wants to use video effectively.