Users Not Customers

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[Note: This review originally ran in Advertising Age on November 21, 2011, and is reposted here by kind permission]

Once upon a time, when you wrote up concepts, you could refer to the people you were talking to as “viewers” – people viewed TV, they viewed print, they viewed out-of-home. Of course, they didn’t view radio, so sometimes you had to call them listeners.

And then someone pointed out that the point of advertising wasn’t just to get people to view or listen to anything really. The point was to get them to buy something. So we started referring to them as customers.

But then someone realized that “customer” was too limiting a term. Because “customer” only referred to the transaction: they’re the customer, you’re the seller. And people don’t buy just because they want to buy (unless their name ends in “ardashian” I suppose). They buy because they have some sort of hunger that will only be met by your product.

That’s why words matter. Because they betray deeper meaning. And that’s why Aaron Shapiro’s book, Users not Customers is so interesting and important.

Shapiro’s shift in nomenclature from the idea of customers – that is, buyers – to users, is fundamentally valuable for two reasons. First, “user” is frankly more of a digital term, as opposed to a CPG term – and CPG language has dominated the marketing vocabulary for decades. People use Google, twitter, facebook – they aren’t customers of them. So Shapiro’s book is important because it’s another signal of the cultural shift towards the digital in everything. We’re no longer applying CPG terms to digital entities in order to understand them, we’re applying digital terms to the CPG world to make them function better in the new reality. (I know; like you needed another signal about the digital shift, right?).

The second reason this is fundamentally valuable, is because it identifies a deeper kind of transaction: “customer” defines the relationship purely in the transactional terms of buying and selling. That’s a lot less important to the buyer than it is to the seller – mainly because “buying” does not solving the buyer’s problem. Indeed, it’s an extra step the customer has to take on the path to solving their problem. They have to become a customer so that they can then become a user.

Focusing on users leapfrogs past the transactional stage and to what the person needs, and focuses on becoming the solution to that need in the person’s mind. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of every brand? To have people who think of your product as the best tool for meeting their need that they absolutely, positively must have on hand at all times? Isn’t that more valuable than just being a piece of commerce?

That observation is at the heart of Users not Customers. But Shapiro, the CEO of Huge, a digital marketing agency, and former tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, however, doesn’t stop there. Because once he’s made sure you understand this idea of the value of the paradigm shift to users from customers, he then dives into its deeper ramifications. Like how companies need to re-structure themselves within this new “user-centric” framework. Like what kinds of people they need to hire within that new organization. Like how they need to think differently about the very products they introduce.

Because just as the shift is not simply one of nomenclature, it’s also not merely a matter of marketing. It’s a fundamental change to the way one does business. Everything in a corporation is touched by this idea that you are pursuing users, that you are making products that people will use, not just buy.

As a result, Mr. Shapiro has produced something of real value for marketers. It’s well-written and has just enough case studies to help bring his theories and observations to life. The examples themselves are from a variety of industries and only a few of them are from Huge’s client list. Plus there are handy summaries at the end of each chapter that readers can refer to after reading – making this an even more valuable tool, one that will no doubt turn many of his customers into users.

Users Not Customers: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business by David Kirkpatrick was published by Penguin Portfolio on 10/27/2011– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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