Save "Save The Words": A Quick Marketing Case Study

If you spend any time on the web and are connected to relatively erudite people (aren’t we all?), chances are you’ve been sent the link to Save The Words, a new website developed by marketing communications company Y&R's Singapore office. Save The Words is an advertising campaign created to stimulate sales of the latest version of the Oxford English Dictionary in Malaysia.

There’s a reason the site has gone viral–it’s creative and cute. Users can choose and “adopt” a word to keep it alive or just click on words and learn their meanings. When they find a word they like enough to adopt, they promise to use the word, “in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible.” There’s even an option to purchase a t-shirt with the chosen word on it.

Verbal branding consultant and word expert Christine Harkin enthuses that it “simply shimmers with brilliance” and “greets its audience with a protest-connoting march of signs which all cluster in the foreground and beg readers, “pick me!” While I agree with Ms. Harkin (disclosure: I have worked with Ms. Harkin previously and she’s an esteemed colleague) that this is a clever idea, I can’t get quite as worked up about it as she does because the execution, from a communications and web usability standpoint, diminishes my experience. Plus, I’m not fully on board with the strategy either.

Here’s what’s bothering me:

The Flash-based design will be difficult for some computers and mobile users. Flash also makes deep-linking impossible and individual words unsharable – a tragic missed opportunity in today’s social world.

Designers love small font sizes and light grey type but it’s impossible to read, especially for older people who read and write a lot and love words (aka the site’s target audience). The fixed font size on the site is not only deadly for older eyes, it's a usability no-no for the disabled too. On the FAQ page, the link to the Facebook group doesn’t go to Facebook, but to the Oxford Press online store; creating possible confusion and frustration for users.

The red arrows that indicate that the screen moves in all directions are so small that it’s hard to see them. Plus there’s no language to tell users that the screen can move in all directions. The main navigation is extremely small and hard to read. Also, two words–no search.

It’s assumed the user will figure things out by clicking around which quickly becomes a tiresome exercise. Not answering users questions - such as what this site is about or specifically where they can buy a dictionary is frustrating. If users are searching for an interesting word to help them say a particular thing there’s no thesaurus function to help them do that. What’s also missing are some fun facts about word usage and the dictionary–the brand image and relationship with the Oxford English Dictionary isn't really being strengthened here.

Registering and Lack of Social Interaction

It’s clear from a marketing perspective why users are required to register but it can be a turnoff for some people, especially since there’s no apparent reason here why they should have to. If user information is being collected it should be integrated on the site to show people who've adopted words and it should be fun and social–read Facebook and Twitter–in terms of who has taken on the most words, etc. 

“One of the problems we were facing,” says Creative Director Edward Ong, who reportedly came up with the idea in a bar with friends after work, “is that many people prefer to use the online dictionary. So we thought, why not get them to develop a love for words online and push them back to the physical dictionary?” Aside from a brief mention in the FAQ section the website does little to push users back to the physical dictionary or reward them for using one. I wonder if it’s actually doing the opposite by allowing them to fall into the web again.

Ong claims that there have been 3 million website mentions of this site and a 12 percent increase in sales of the dictionary since the campaign launched so the things that are irksome for me about this site may not be an issue for most people. I've certainly seen some interesting words get slung about on the internet this past week and anything that helps increase awareness of the richness of our language can only be a good thing.

Y&R, (formally Young and Rubicam), is an industry giant so I expect them to know and implement the best practices for marketing communications and web usability. I'd like to see them come up with some social media strategies to encourage use of the dictionary and/or thesaurus offline (Youtube anyone?). Hopefully they can continue to improve on the site; it could become a great resource for people and help bridge the gap between surfing the web and the tactile and delicious experience of leafing through a "real" dictionary.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

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