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Newsletter #961: The “Lessons from a Dictionary” Issue

[Welcome back to the Damn, I Wish I’d Thought of That! newsletter. This is text of the great issue all of our email subscribers just received. Sign yourself up using the handy form on the right.]

These days it’s hard for print dictionaries to get attention. For Australia’s National Dictionary, Macquarie, staying relevant meant making up a new word. They got lexicologists, phoneticians, poets, authors, and other word experts together at Sydney University to come up with this:

“Phubbing: (verb) the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.” (See also: A word of mouth marketing stunt.)

Here’s what we can learn from their campaign to earn some love for their dictionaries:

1. Focus on what people care about
2. It’s not about you
3. The more stuff they can share, the better
4. Check it out: New words

1. Focus on what people care about

It’s no accident that Macquarie Dictionary’s made-up verb, phubbing, had to do with smartphones and social interactions. They could have promoted a new word for forgetting to rewind a VHS before returning it — but there aren’t many people talking about that. Instead, they chose a topic that’s already relevant to the folks they want to reach — one that people are already talking about.

The lesson: It’s easier to spread word of mouth by playing off of already-popular topics than to come out of left field.

2. It’s not about you

Let’s be honest. An ad for a print dictionary would have been ignored. Instead, Macquarie piqued everyone’s curiosity with the new word first — without even mentioning their product. Macquarie’s logo is nowhere to be found within the Stop Phubbing movement. They waited until word had spread about phubbing before revealing the role they played as a dictionary company, tying their product (and their message) to its etymology.

The lesson: It’s tempting to use the spotlight to talk about your stuff, but it’s better to focus on the more important, underlying message (the one people will actually talk about) first.

Learn more: Ad Age

3. The more stuff they can share, the better

Photo thanks to

Photo thanks to

Macquarie did more than create a new word — they made it a part of a movement. has downloads for posters, window decals, and even wedding place cards banning phubbing. They also created a template for visitors to fill in the blanks and send a phubbing intervention email to someone they know and a gallery for submitting photos to The Pubbing Hall of Shame. That’s a lot of ways their advocates can share the message (and it has nothing to do with dictionaries).

The lesson: You never know what kinds of stuff is going to inspire your customers to spread the word — so give them a lot of options.

4. Check it out: New words

Want to stay up to date when new words like bitcoin, cake pops, and phablet are added to the Oxford Dictionary? Check out this page for their quarterly updates.

Check it out: Oxford Dictionaries

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