Gini Dietrich

Users, Stakeholders, Target Audiences…Or Just People

By: Gini Dietrich | October 23, 2012 | 

You may have noticed a new feature here that comes out on Sunday mornings.

Very creatively called, “The Three Things,” Howie Goldfarb, Michael Schechter, and I provide links to one article, video, or podcast we think the other should pay attention to that is outside our professional comfort zones.

A couple of weeks ago, Howie suggested, “Robbie and Ruthie Talk about Pickles” from the Ad Contrarian blog.

If you missed it, I’m going to hope Ad Contrarian author, Bob Hoffman, doesn’t mind my posting it here.

The phone rings

ROBBIE: Hello.

RUTHIE: Robert, it’s your Aunt Ruthie.

ROBBIE: Hi Ruthie.

RUTHIE: Hello, darling.

ROBBIE: What’s up?

RUTHIE: I’m calling to ask a favor.


RUTHIE: My pickles are selling very well, and Big Save says they’ll put them in their supermarkets all across the country, but I have to do some advertising. So I thought as long as my nephew is a big shot advertising man, maybe your company could make an ad for me.


RUTHIE: So here’s what I want the ad to say… Aunt Ruthie’s Pickles are homemade, they taste wonderful, and we use fresh ingredients.

ROBBIE: Well, okay, but we really need to think a little more about this.

RUTHIE: Um…okay…what?

ROBBIE: Well, first we need to understand the consumer.

RUTHIE: The consumer?

ROBBIE: It’s a…a person who buys things.

RUTHIE: Everyone buys things.

ROBBIE: Right…

RUTHIE: So how is a consumer different from a person?

ROBBIE: Um…it’s not.

RUTHIE: So why don’t you just call it a person?

ROBBIE: Okay, so it’s a person.

RUTHIE: Okay so you have to understand this…person. Why?

ROBBIE: So we can know how they use your product.

RUTHIE: They eat it. How else do you use a pickle?

ROBBIE: Well, yeah…but why do they eat it?

RUTHIE: Because it tastes good. (PAUSE) Robbie, are you okay?

ROBBIE: I’m fine. You see, we have to analyze who we should be talking to in our advertising. We call that a target audience. Should we talk to women 18-49 or men 25-34 or…?

RUTHIE: Why don’t we just talk to people who like pickles?

ROBBIE: Well you see, the perception of your brand has to resonate…

RUTHIE: My what?

ROBBIE: Your brand…it’s the personality of your product…

RUTHIE: My pickles have a personality?

ROBBIE: Well, it’s not the pickles that have the personality, it’s you, it’s Aunt Ruthie’s Pickles…

RUTHIE: My personality? I’m a pain in the ass. What the hell does anyone care about my personality?

ROBBIE: But Aunt Ruthie’s is your brand.

RUTHIE: I thought Aunt Ruthie’s was my name.

ROBBIE: And your name is your brand

RUTHIE: So why don’t you just call it my name? (PAUSE) Robert, are you having that problem you had back in college?

ROBBIE: You know I’ve committed to never doing that again…

RUTHIE: So why are you talking like this? Is this how you talk in your company?

ROBBIE: Well, yes. You see, Aunt Ruthie, we believe advertising isn’t really about selling your pickles. It’s about developing a relationship between the consumer and your brand by having integrated communications that create advocates by over-delivering on brand expectations and creating relevant brand conversations…

RUTHIE: You know, honey, your cousin Stanley majored in English, maybe I’ll just ask him to write the ad..

ROBBIE: No, no….I’ll..

RUTHIE: Robbie, darling, you know I love you, right? And I would never say anything to hurt you. But listen to me, darling. You people are crazy.


Customers as People

I have you read this because Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Square (the company that lets you take credit card payments via your iPhone or iPad), recently wrote a letter to his team about their use of the word “users” to describe customers.

Just like Robbie wants his Aunt Ruthie to do, we tend to think of our customers as users, target audiences, stakeholders, and demographics while forgetting they’re people.

Dorsey tells the story of being in a Square board meeting when new board member, Howard Schultz, asked him why they call their customers users.

He says:

The term “user” made its appearance in computing at the dawn of shared terminals (multiple people sharing time slices of one computing resource). It was solidified in hacker culture as a person who wasn’t technical or creative, someone who just used resources and wasn’t able to make or produce anything (often called a “luser”). And finally, it was made concrete by Internet companies whose business models depended on two discrete classes of usage, a paying customer (often purchasing ads) and a non-paying consumer (subsidized by viewing the ads).

He goes on to say elevating the term to “customer” and away from “user” automatically creates a better environment for customer service because you begin to think of them as human beings and not just a statistic.

He challenges every business owner to do the same.

So, I ask you, how do you describe the people who buy your product or service?

A version of this first appeared in my weekly Crain’s Chicago Business column.


This Wednesday, October 24, join Mark Story for a Livefyre Q&A to discuss his book, “Starting Your Career as a Social Media Manager.”

He’ll be live from 12-1 ET so set a reminder and then come hang out in the comments to ask him questions about love, life, and his book.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • rdopping

    I still like “user service” more than “customer service”. It just has a nice ring to it, doncha think? I call the good ones clients and have a whole litany of great words to describe the other ones.

    • @rdopping Great words? Or bad words?

      • rdopping

        @ginidietrich Hahahahaha…..great ones!

  • OK, I just laughed so hard, I think I woke my husband up way early than he wanted!  That was awesome.  Also, I love Square and whether is the user or customer experience, it’s a darn good product that’s really easy to use.  
    It’s always interesting to find out how companies label their customers.  Target insists on calling them guests and the term customer is a serious no-go from cashier on up. We just use the term clients.  
    My favorite has to be Applebee’s who uses Heskett’s terms to define customers in their orientation packet.  A few years ago, I had the chance to review some of their orientation documents (friend was a manager) and in the orientation package they called those who were company-friendly “apostles” and those who weren’t “terrorists”.  Now that’s a way to frame customers to new employees!! 🙂

    • belllindsay

      @HeatherTweedy Good God – go big or go home, eh? 😉

      • @belllindsay  @HeatherTweedy a recent thebeancast podcast had a great discussion on Square. Oh and Bob Hoffman and @ginidietrich are panelists every so often so you should subscribe and listen.

        • @HowieG  @belllindsay  thebeancast  @ginidietrich Thanks for tip, Howie!

    • @HeatherTweedy You laughed at the Robbie and Aunt Ruthie? I love Square, too! Anytime a cab drive in Chicago uses it, I praise them. They are so smart to use it – no credit card fees to the cab company.
      Um, terrorists? For real? I feel like I should be on a mission to be named a terrorist at Applebee’s.

  • belllindsay

    Apparently I now have a new classification: Luser. I like it! 🙂 And I *loved* the Aunt Ruthie’s Pickles post when I read it on The Three Things – “My pickles have a personality?” made me laugh out loud!

    • @belllindsay you do know @adcontrarian  is one of the good guys. Like me, our industry peers hate us for outing wastage, deceit and basically fleecing clients. Unlike Bob I don’t have $100mil in billings a year to show for it. Sigh

      • belllindsay

        @HowieG I did some research on him after reading that, interesting guy – watched a few talks/interviews he’s done. You’ve got a lot of years left Howie, You’ll reach $100mil soon. 😉

        • @belllindsay  @HowieG Someday we’ll have $100MM in billings to show for it.

        • @ginidietrich  @belllindsay someday I will have 10k in billings and a free pencil from a vendor.

        • belllindsay

          @HowieG  @ginidietrich HA!! I’ll send you a pencil. 😉

        • @ginidietrich  @belllindsay  @HowieG – @adcontrarian was on a recent (I think last week’s) episode of @mitchjoel ‘s podcast. You will all like the episode. 🙂

        • @katskrieger  @ginidietrich  @belllindsay  @HowieG  @mitchjoel Dang it, you beat me to the mention!

  • I agree with Jack
    The Economist had an article on the explosion of Chief Customer Experience Officers. It seems in most cases this fails. The reason (though not stated directly in the article) is that treating customers better costs more. So often companies give lip service. I have brought up before especially when talking with ckburgess that too often employees fall under the ‘cost’ side of the balance sheet vs ‘asset’, customers do as well.
    It amazes me that while yes there is that small group that maybe you should let go because the are unprofitable ‘users’ most customers are just normal people and businesses who pay money for something. And instead of making it easier and easier to stay customers, often businesses make it harder and harder.
    The article gave Apple and Zappos as examples of companies that don’t view customers as users. I like to think of old school NY restaurants and pubs as great examples of this. When I was in high School and College and was a waiter/bartender everyone was viewed as family. Regulars and strangers. It was encouraged to buy a round of drinks or after dinner cordials and spend sometime chit chatting getting to know them. Guess what? It worked.

    • @HowieG  OMG! I thought you meant thejackb and I was trying to find him in the comments here and then I realized you meant Jack Dorsey.
      We have a Mexican restaurant around the corner from our house. We go in there probably once a week (though I keep telling Mr D we need to slow down or I’m going to get fat). Everyone at the bar knows us, but if we eat in the restaurant, they have no idea who we are. Talk about different customer experiences. They don’t exactly do what Ken’s client does and show pictures of us to their wait staff. 
      You know who might know why the chief customer experience role isn’t working? jeanniecw

      • @ginidietrich  @HowieG  thejackb Lip service is a huge issue with the rise of customer experience as a discipline. Treating the customer better DOES cost more – short term – but can pay huge dividends long-term in increased loyalty, customer lifetime value, etc. Today, the power of the customer is what’s scaring companies. We can all shout from the rooftops, or Gini’s comment section, about good and bad experiences and our networks actually pay attention. It disappoints me when I read Chief Customer Officer job descriptions. They’re often glorified communications directors or data gatherers (with no real power). Back in the day, Marshall Field (remember him?) changed the way we shop. He understood there was only one way to really beat the competition:  “Good will is the one and only asset that competition cannot undersell or destroy.” I could go on (and on and on) but I will say at least recognizing the need for customer experience is a step in the right direction!

      • @ginidietrich Never disagree with @thejackb  for he is wise beyond his years. @HowieG

  • thebaldbiker

    @belllindsay @SpinSucks I call them “family”. Stop selling, start solving!

    • ginidietrich

      @thebaldbiker Love it!

      • thebaldbiker

        @ginidietrich Thanks for the follow. you like cycling, food and wine? I think we’ll get along famously!

    • belllindsay

      @thebaldbiker @SpinSucks Exactly. 😉

      • SpinSucks

        @belllindsay @thebaldbiker Love it!!

  • I  have a client (a restaurant) and in their pre-shift meeting the two owners show the wait staff pictures of regular customers, or describe them, and they have to come up with their names. The goal is to make sure that the people who support this business regularly are known by name by everyone. Not sure this can translate to every business, but it sure works well for them. It’s kinda like walking in and everyone yelling out, “Norm!”

    • @KenMueller That is SUCH a good idea! It’s easy when you have a handful of clients (like we do). But when you have hundreds, or even thousands? That gets a little more difficult.

      • @ginidietrich It’s really nice to walk in and be recognized, even by staff that have never waited on us before. Now they can only do this for regulars, but I imagine if someone is there for the first time, and they see regulars being recognized and greeted so warmly, it might make them want to come back and perhaps become regulars.  It also helps that the owners regularly walk the floor and greet guests, and that includes the chef who is one of the owners. A really warm environment.

        • @KenMueller If I were to write a book about customer engagement, I would use them as an example.

        • @ginidietrich gee, now there’s a subtle hint.

    • @KenMueller Ha … Norm! That’s good, Ken. My dentist did the same thing and it really does make you feel welcome … even at a dentist’s office! Imagine that.

  • Nylons

    @ginidietrich Yep – that’s the focus of a talk I’m giving this weekend – the ‘web’ is people and ‘Apathy is the Enemy of Awesome.’

    • ginidietrich

      @Nylons LOVE that!

  • Fine. Everyone on Facebook is now a person.
    Especially my two cats and all the robots.

  • lbatzer

    Could any one tell me where I need to “hang out int he comments” while Mark Story talks about his book – I am new to read Spin Sucks and have no idea.  Thanks.

  • Good stuff. I think what we call people depicts and reinforces what we think about them. I’ve always hated the term consumers. That’s so confining and demeaning. Customers is better but “client” is better yet. But, what do we call those who aren’t yet clients?
    Seth Godin calls his people (ha! HIS people?) his tribe. Dan Kennedy calls “his” a HERD. A herd? Okay, I’d rather be a consumer. Yeah, this pisses me off royally. So, what do we do? We have to have terminology for our business discussions … ways to quickly and easily differentiate the people we’re marketing to or serving and what categories they fall into. But, it de-humanizes them too.
    My previous dentist took pictures of all their clients and every person in his office would call us by our first names no matter how long it had been since we were in. Of course, not everyone can do this. But, I believe we really have to change our language when talking about our “community” or clients because our words affect our perceptions.

    • @Carmelo And I call of you my crazies.

      • @ginidietrich LOL … i resemble that remark!

    • @Carmelo The word tribe is now quite common amongst small business owners with a personal brand online.
      I personally quite like the idea of using a word like ‘tribe’ because I believe it humanises the experience a business owner has with his/her community.

      • @joshchandler Yes, I have no doubt that people have varying opinions on this. And it’s easy to be too critical of things. Thanks for the feedback, Josh! I suppose as an Italian, I never thought of myself as a tribe member. 😉

  • radiojaja

    Doesn’t this miss Aunt Ruthies point a little? All she wants to do is sell the pickle right? Call the people she wants to sell to whatever you like, but keep it simple stupid! 
    I love the part where Ruthie says people eat her pickles because they taste good. Her product has an advantage over the competition and shouldn’t that be at the centre of the marketing? 
    You can’t sell a bad product to anyone, a customer consumer user or anyone else, if its a useless product 🙂
    I wish Aunt Ruthie was my customer/client/user/partner/ whatever

    • @radiojaja The point is that Aunt Ruthie doesn’t care if they’re consumers or users or what have you, they are people who like her pickles to her. And that’s how we all should be thinking about the human beings who buy our products and services.

  • I agree. However, I also think that some companies take it too far. These days, when I travel, I invariably hear airline staff page people by asking “Guest So-and-So” to come to the gate (for an upgrade, they’re on stand by, whatever). And I roll my eyes, because 99% of the time, NO one wants to be a “guest” of an airline, especially if they’re flying coach, and chances are only if it’s Virgin America are they ok with that… somewhat. In that case, call it what it is – a passenger. Hotels have guests. Restaurants, buses and airlines do not.

    • @Shonali That’s funny. I don’t mind being called guest at the airline. I LOVE being executive platinum on American and they can call me guest all day while they let me get on the plane first.

    • @Shonali Personally, I think the word guest is better than passenger.

      • @joshchandler I don’t. Not in that context. A guest is someone who wants to be there. A passenger is someone who has to be there. But hey, we each have our opinion, right?

  • cloudspark

    @ginidietrich a-hay-men. people are people.

    • ginidietrich

      @cloudspark We forget we’re just human beings out here in the world.

  • Hah that was a funny story! I certainly never call my peeps “users”. I even struggle with calling them “customers’, truth be told, but “peeps” doesn’t cut it either. I want to call them “partners” but someone would probably smack me in my smug little mouth. Are there any other options that move away from seeing “them” just as a transaction, but won’t make people roll their eyes?

    • rdopping

      @RebeccaTodd Nothing little about it……<grin>

      • @rdopping 17 grapes is still the record but I know I can top it.

        • rdopping

          @RebeccaTodd 19 manzanilla olives.

    • @RebeccaTodd Janet Slaboninskovech once called me a user when we were sophomores, but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about. 
      I’m glad she didn’t call me a “client.”

      • @barrettrossie  @RebeccaTodd Hahahaha … (cheapskate!)

    • @RebeccaTodd I call you my peeps.

  • dianakokai

    @ginidietrich good point!

    • ginidietrich

      @dianakokai Thanks!

  • I have sat through a million meetings where I have posed the question about whether the people in the room would be happy if they were treated the same way that employees treated the average person who used the product/service.

  • Harry Brumleve

    From the software side of the house, I can see how a software company could actually gain a lot of efficiency from shifting from the term ‘user’ to a more appropriate term. In the case of designing a system where the central concept of the system is a ‘user’, you end up having to have this ‘user’ do everything. Because there are no further distinctions between the people who actually use the system, there is really no limit to what is possible for each ‘user’ and that has to be represented by code.
    This leads to software that does everything, that has routines that act as a blanket for _anything_ that could happen, and the person’s intent is lost in a flurry of anonymity and thoughtlessness. Not only that, but systems where the user does everything are pretty hard to test … how do you even plan that?
    In building a ‘user-centric’ system, many developers focus on what the user would _want_ to do, but not _why_ they would want to do that. Addressing the ‘why’ first actually gives you a great deal of insight into the people that use your system and if you actually spend the time to go ask real people ‘why’ they would use your system, you can even begin to figure out how to sell your product well before you build it.
    This means: you only build what sells, you know to whom you’re selling, you know they will buy it … and you certainly don’t call those people ‘users’.

    • @Harry Brumleve And…if you’re a start-up, you launch with the basics and then let the people who are using your software decide what else they’d like included. Don’t try to guess. Don’t try to shove something down their throats. Listen to what it is they want.

      • @ginidietrich  @Harry Brumleve If only more startups realised the simplicity of listening. 🙂

  • I like “customers,” as a word and in real life. I like being a customer. To me it implies a lot of good things, like the freedom to choose who I’ll do business with. Business people should honor their customers. I wish I could be a customer more often and for more people. 
    So when I hear “don’t think of them as customers, think of them as people,” I understand what they’re saying, but I take it with a grain of salt. If there’s a way to be more personal, fine. But the underlying concept of “customer” doesn’t offend like “consumer” does.

    • @barrettrossie Yeah, I agree. Customer is just fine … client is okay too but that suggests a more intimate relationship that isn’t always necessary depending on the service and the longevity of the relationship i think. Customer is actually a pretty good word etymologically too i believe. if you own a costume shop. 😉 (i should check these things out before i speak!)

    • @barrettrossie I agree customer (or client as we call ours) is fine. But consumer or user or muppet (yes, it happens) drives me crazy.

  • Viken_shrestha

    RT @MartinaMcGowan Users, Stakeholders, Target Audiences…Or Just People via @ginidietrich

  • Maybe it’s from my life on the streets (not), but the word users makes me think of drug addicts. I think it’s important to humanize your customers, clients, guests, whatever. The word “publics” always drove me insane. Schools need to stop teaching that.

    • @Lisa Gerber Oh it’s definitely from your life on the streets. Whaaaaat?? It also doesn’t help the word publics in in the PRSA definition of PR. Oy.

    • @Lisa Gerber Yes, I detest the word ‘publics’!

  • ginidietrich

    @coledouglas7 Thank you!

  • twisst34

    @kmueller62 A very bright ISS will cross your sky tonight. It comes up in Northwest at 7:27 pm. Details:

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