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Customers, Consumers, or Users: How to Name Your People

Jim Babb
Jim Babb

Ask any modern marketer about the keys to success, and chances are they’ll tell you that a customer-centric strategy is essential. After all, in today’s competitive landscape, if you’re not paying attention to your customers’ needs and wants, someone else will be.

But here’s the catch: Not every marketer actually has customers. Some have users. Others have fans. Still others have readers, enthusiasts, clients, partners, contributors, guests, or a combination of any of these. The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s too important to overlook. Marketing depends on knowing who your people are, identifying them accurately (and with intent!), and using that framework to build meaningful relationships with them.

Whatever word (or words) you use to define your people, that term establishes a mental model that helps teams focus and align. And as you encounter your people at different stages of their journey, you’ll know right away how to approach them—at point A, they’re customers; at point B, they become contributors. Having clear definitions in place lets you dial up or dial down different elements of these relationships—and your goals—as needed.

Some Popular Ways Marketers Define Their People

Customer: Someone who purchases your product
Customer - high company goals, low identity of people, low experience of people

It’s business 101. A customer is a person who buys something from you. If your people are customers, your relationship involves specific transactions. There’s a concrete goal: You want them to make a purchase. Knowing this will help frame your approach to creating strategies for turning a single purchase into multiple buys.

Zappos is a classic example of a customer-focused brand. Not only are they known for carrying a wide selection of shoes, bags, and clothing, they’re downright legendary for their customer service. From their generous returns process, to their 24/7 phone line (Yes, you read that right.) it’s clear that Zappos is all about its customers.

Some pitfalls to be aware of when defining your people as customers: Focusing on transactions alone doesn’t give you a full view of the customer as a person, or the range of experiences they bring to your checkout cart. It’s also true that the person who clicks BUY NOW isn’t necessarily the person you need to impress—people are often buying for others. So it’s important to take steps to really know who your “customers” are, what they want or need, and what goes into their decision making.

Consumer: Someone who consumes your product
consumer - high company goals, low identity of people, high experience of people

Not to be confused with the customer, a consumer is a person who actually uses/consumes your product. If your people are consumers, you’ll want to focus less on the point-of-sale transactions and work on understanding why and how they use your product in real life.

For example, Zappos customers often buy shoes for their kids, spouses, and as gifts. When it comes to sales of children’s shoes, the consumer (kids) differs from the customer (adults, often parents or guardians). This is an important distinction, and shifting your marketing mindset from customer to consumer or vice versa can have an enormous effect on your strategy. As an example, the insight that men’s deodorant was mostly being bought by women sparked the famous Old Spice campaign, “The man your man could smell like.”

Audience/listener/viewer/reader: Someone who absorbs your content
Audience - high company goals, low identity of people, high experience of people

If you’re in a content business, your consumers may be better defined as an audience, or as listeners, viewers, or readers. That means you can build lasting relationships with your people by producing the content they want and delivering it where, and how, and when they want it.

By defining your people this way, you’re demonstrating a commitment to the people who experience the content you make—and by extension, to the creation of the content itself. A podcast might rely on sponsors for revenue, but it won’t gain sponsors by making content only for sponsors. Instead, it should make content for its audience, thereby increasing its reach and attracting sponsors.

And with more content than ever, on more platforms than ever, modern audiences are notoriously fickle. Framing your people as audience, listeners, viewers, or readers—instead of mere consumers—is a better way to emphasize engagement and loyalty.

User: Someone who uses your product
user - high company goals, low identity of people, high experience of people

The term user started out as a way to distinguish between consumers (of physical products) and those who consume digital products and interfaces. Thank Silicon Valley for this one. Now, however, the concept of users has expanded. In its broadest sense, a user may not buy anything, but they do make a deliberate choice to interact with a system—whether that’s an app, a VR game, or a multi-purpose e-commerce platform.

Identifying people as users lends itself to relationships based on their desire to engage with your product at every touchpoint. That means your goal is to create the best experience possible across all possible touch points—it’s not just about a single product or interaction. It’s about the total user experience.

Many DTC brands like to use the term users. Although they may sell a physical product, they also sell content, an experience, even social interaction or live events. Calling their people users frames the relationship in a more complex, less transactional way than calling them consumers would. An exceptionally ambitious example of user focus is Instagram, which aimed to increase total user growth without a revenue goal. And it worked pretty well.

Demographic group (i.e. parents, tweens, millennials): People who fit a measurable demographic
demographic groupe - low company goals, high identity of people, low experience of people

By defining your people using a demographic, you make it easier for them to find you, and vice versa. The more specific your demographic definition, the easier it becomes to build community, establish relationships, and give your people exactly what they want.

The downside here is that strict demographic definitions can exclude a lot of people. For example, you may dig into your data and discover that women make up 70% of your customers. That’s a significant majority, but you probably don’t want to develop a marketing strategy that’s designed to alienate the 30% of customers who are not women. You should also be aware that your demographics may change over time, sometimes unexpectedly. Or your business goals could change, resulting in a total shift of which demographics you need to target. Consider La Croix, which spent the ‘80s and ‘90s selling itself to Midwesterners as an affordable, down-home drink, and is now the favorite drink of young celebrities and influencers from Los Angeles to Manhattan.

Persona or identity group (LGBTQ+, conservatives, environmentalists): People who self-identify as part of a group
persona or identity group - low company goals, high identity of people, low experience of people

In some cases, your people already have a group identity—complete with name, shared goals or interests, and aesthetics. That makes the modern marketer’s life a lot easier: by identifying your people by the term they chose themselves, you make it clear that you speak their language. You’re not a stranger trying to sell them something they don’t need, you’re a friend with whom they share common ground. Just make sure your people’s group identity really reflects your brand’s purpose, and that serving a specific group makes sense in the context of your mission and product.

By using group identity terms, you de-emphasize the nature of your relationship and interactions. The way people interact with your product or services matters less than the fact that they fit into a group.

Branded name: A custom word that reflects your brand values or unique experience
branded name - high or low company goals, high identity of people, high or low experience of people

SoulCycle’s “riders” are customers. They buy things (SoulCycle classes and gear). But the brand is focused on building a community, and lifestyle, around fitness and indoor cycling. By choosing to refer to its people with a unique branded term, SoulCycle not only synthesizes their intentions internally, but also externally as a part of their marketing strategy.

If you decide to name your people in this way, choose carefully. Whatever term you come up with will have to be something your people identify with and are willing to use self-referentially. Also, consider your long-term goals and the diversity of your business: Does the term capture the scope of what you do? What if you expand into other, unrelated areas?

Here’s an example of how this term wouldn’t work. Zappos sells shoes, and people often wear shoes when they walk. But calling their customers “walkers” would be a big miss. For one thing, “walkers” sounds almost like you’re talking about zombies. For another thing, Zappos doesn’t just sell shoes for walking. They also sell running shoes, hiking boots, dancing shoes, clothing, bags, and other accessories. Most important of all, the value proposition they offer is the fact that they have outstanding customer service and a wide selection—not that they are walking experts.

Business model terms: A word that reflects the way your business works

Depending on how your business works, some or all of your customers might be subscribers. Or, if your business involves providing direct services to others, especially professional services, it might be more accurate to call your people clients. You could also have buyers, sellers, suppliers, or partners. You know your business best, so be sure the terms you choose reflect what you do and how you do it.

Person: You know, a human being

Red Bull has drinkers, customers, consumers, readers, viewers,  fans, and even users. But people or person is a term they use, because their mission—to “give people wings”—comes to life in many different ways. This all-encompassing term can give you a holistic view of your people and how you engage with them.

It takes a strong, distinct POV to simply identify your people as people. Otherwise, the term is so broad it becomes meaningless. Purpose-driven brands with clear, easy-to-articulate missions have the best chance of success with this term.

How to: Identify your people

Start with the core purpose/mission of your company. Is there a name that best reflects it?

Let’s say you have a yoga company that creates streaming content available by subscription, and your mission is “Teaching everyone yoga.” Here, you might identify your people as students—that emphasizes the element of learning. But if your mission is “Creating premium classes for people who are passionate about yoga,” you might use the term yogis instead, to focus on the practice itself. Or, if your mission is “Building a vibrant virtual community around yoga,” users or members would be good options.

What if you don’t have a clear, single purpose or mission? Then, you’ll want to pick a term that most accurately describes the way you interact with your people, whether that’s customers, viewers, or subscribers. (But also, it’s important to define a core purpose or mission. So maybe put that on your to-do list.)

If your business serves different groups, you may need different terms to describe all of your people. For example, Etsy’s people include buyers and sellers. An app with a free and premium subscription tier will have users and subscribers. Marketers should be clear about who’s who, and how their needs differ.

Remember, also, that choosing a name for your people doesn’t mean that your relationship to those people must exclude elements of other relationships. Your people may mostly be viewers, but there may be times when they’re also customers. The point of naming your people isn’t to encompass absolutely everyone you serve and everything you do, now and forever.  That isn’t possible. The purpose is to make a considered decision that reflects your company’s core focus and establishes interaction guidelines that can be translated across touchpoints. It’s a way of ensuring a more authentic and strategic brand voice and experience—and better outcomes for you, your team, and your people.

So, what do you call your people, and why?