If you work in marketing you’re probably hearing the word ‘consumer’ all the time. You might read consumer reports, watch consumer news or be asked for consumer insights.
Even if you’re not in marketing you’ve probably heard of consumer rights. But, what exactly is a ‘consumer’? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a consumer is:
- a person who buys goods or services for their own use
- a person, organization, country, etc., that uses something
This seems like a fairly sensible way of distinguishing between those who buy something for their own (or their family’s use) and those who purchase items for their company’s use. When differentiating between B2B (business-to-business) marketing and B2C (business-to-consumer) or speaking in an abstract way using the term ‘consumer’ makes sense.
However, this is not how we most often hear, or indeed use, the word ‘consumer’ today. We most often hear the word ‘consumer’ when talking about trends and marketplaces.
The Problem with Calling People Consumers
People are human beings and not simply functions of their economic value. By overusing the word ‘consumer’ where ‘people’, ‘customer’ or ‘potential customer’ might be more appropriate we are denying the humanity of our audience from the get-go.
The word ‘consumer’ creates a barrier between the company and the customer – between the people who work at the company and the people who buy from the company.
Words have power and no matter how hard we try we are subconsciously influenced by the words we use to describe people and which we hear people being described as.
Why We Should Never Call Customers Users
When people arrive on a website we often call them ‘users’. If you work online or are a developer, designer or web content writer you probably use this word every day.
Within digital teams, we find ourselves saying things like ‘users prefer orange buttons’, plotting ‘user journeys’ or trying to improve the ‘user experience’. But if you were to use this word outside of the online world people would look at you like you were mad!
That’s because in the ‘real world’ user is often spoken in a derogatory manner to describe drug users or those who take unfair advantage of others. This negative association is hardwired into the brains of many. Thus there’s a significant risk in using this word to describe our customers or anyone who visits and interacts with our websites.
So . . . What Should We Call Them?
If we’re being robbed of our trusty old terms ‘consumer’ and ‘user’ then what word should we be using? Well, the answer is that we shouldn’t be using just one word at all. We need to think about the situation and choose an appropriate term within the context.
When talking about the marketplace in general . . .
As marketers, we’re often looking for insights to help inform and support our marketing strategies. These may be gathered from external reports, provided by a market research agency or the results of our own research. When presenting our findings and talking about the marketplace it’s tempting to use the term ‘consumer’ as in the below example.
- “56% of consumers in America use voice search.”
The problem with this is that the first thing you’re saying about these people is that they’re consumers. Before you even start to think who they are (people) where they come from (America) you’re classifying them as consumers. Now let’s look at an alternative:
- “56% of Americans use voice search.”
By removing the word ‘consumer’ the most important thing is their status as Americans not their status as people who purchase products. This subtle change helps humanises them and encourages empathy in our subconscious minds. They are Americans (maybe like us). What else are they? Women? People in their thirties? iPhone users?
Sometimes, we don’t have any identifying data about the people we’re referring to such as that they’re ‘Americans’. In this case, why not just use the term ‘people’?
However, it could be argued that there’s no value in referring to people by such generic terms and by doing so we are in danger of dismissing and disrespecting their individuality.
When talking about people who are using our website . . .
When someone is using your site it may seem obvious to just call them ‘users’ but this can have an unintended negative impact. In addition to the negative connotations of this specific term, the use of any single word to describe a wide range of people with a variety of wants and needs is counterproductive to addressing those needs.
The more targeted we can get in our terminology to describe the people who visit our sites, the more likely we are to remain on target in our approach to serving them.
So, whether you’re a developer, a designer or a content writer try to be specific when referring to the people who are using your company’s website.
The specific terminology you use will depend on your website structure, your customers and your business model. However, here are some examples to get you started:
- Prospective Customers (for non-logged in users)
- Customers (for logged-in users)
- New Customers (for those in the purchase funnel)
Depending on the context you can break these cohorts down based on factors such as their product, device or location. Use the data to determine who you are talking about.
In conclusion, this may seem like a lot of fuss for two simple words, especially ones used internally within a company. However, success can often be found in the simplest things and isn’t the success of your marketing efforts worth a small change?
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