The Art of Smogging

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by: Alain Thys

Which would you consider to be the minimum acceptable level of education for your customers? Primary? High-School? University? Post-Grad?

If you think this is a non-sensical question, think again. At SAP or Samsung it looks like you need at least a university degree before they want to talk to you. Microsoft, Disney (!?) and Starbucks even require a post-graduate.

Have I been smoking something I shouldn’t have? Not really, but I have been "SMOG-ing". SMOG (aka. simplified measure of gobbledygook) is a formula developed by Harry McLaughlin. It allows you to measure the readability of a text by translating it into a score. This score reflects the years of formal education a person needs before being able to understand what is written.

Using the SMOG calculator of The Literacy Trust in the UK,  I have randomly run a SMOG for a few international brand’s. For this I used random paragraphs from their "About Us" pages. This on the premise that if they were truly customer centric, the language they used should be understandable by the average customer checking them out. 

Here are the results:

Score Education Level
Nintendo                         10.49 Some High School
General Electric  12.49 High School Graduate
Google     13.07 Some College
McDonalds                        13.25 Some College
IKEA                                13.35 Some College
Honda 13.49 Some College
Nike 14.40 Some College
Citi 15.00 Some College
HP 15.76 Some College
Porsche 15.85 Some College
Samsung 16.69 University Degree
SAP 16.69 University Degree
Disney 17.66 Post-Graduate Studies
Microsoft 17.75 Post-Graduate Studies
Starbucks 18.49 Post-Graduate Studies
I do not claim any scientific rigour in this analysis as the numbers will probably shift if you run them on other texts by these brands. Nonetheless, I think these results are intriguing to say the least. Apparently you do need a post-graduate degree to read the Starbucks or Microsoft  About Us statements. 

As I haven’t heard of Starbucks making a similar request to serve you coffee, I don’t think this is because consciously shun the "less" educated.

I think it is much more likely that the people who have been writing these texts have post-grads themselves and simply project their use of language on the rest of the customer universe. Thereby forgetting that most customers drinking coffee are not as academically gifted as they are (or may not even speak English as a first language).

So here’s my question to you. Do you know your SMOG score? And if you do, have you got guidelines for the numbers to hit? If you don’t I suggest you quickly set them up, so you don’t enter McLaughlins land of gobbledygook.

After all, customer-centricity starts with simple things. Making sure your customers understand what you write, is one of them.
PS. To my relief, Futurelab’s About Us scored 12.49 which is in line with our not-always-english-as-a-mother-tongue-speaking audience. Still, we will be vetting every part of the website to ensure we haven’t gone astray.