A Case for Why Words Matter

Martin Bihl Reviews 'Users, Not Customers: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business'

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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. They buy because they have some sort of hunger that will only be met by your product.

That's why words matter. They betray deeper meaning. And that 's why Aaron Shapiro's book, "Users, Not Customers" is so interesting and important.

A Manhattan billboard is part of the book's marketing campaign.
A Manhattan billboard is part of the book's marketing campaign.

Mr. 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 consumer-packaged-goods term. And CPG language has dominated the marketing vocabulary for decades. People use Google, Twitter and Facebook -- they aren't customers of them. Mr. Shapiro's book is 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, so that it functions better in the new reality.

The second reason this is fundamentally valuable is it identifies a deeper kind of transaction: the word customer defines the relationship purely in the transactional terms of buying and selling. But buying does not solve the buyer's problem. They have to become a customer, so that they can then become a user.

Focusing on users leapfrogs past the transactional stage to what the person needs. 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 observation is at the heart of "Users, Not Customers." But Mr. Shapiro, CEO of digital agency Huge and a former tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, 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 dives into its deeper ramifications. How companies need to re-structure themselves within this new "user-centric" framework. What kinds of people must be hired within this new organization. And how companies need to think differently about the very products they introduce.

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, and 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 Mr. Shapiro's customers into users.

Martin Bihl is creative director-founder at 7419. You can contact him at martinbihl@yahoo.com.
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