Is it user, customer or member?

Words matter. You might not think about it much, but how you define the people buying your services shapes how you feel about them and how you describe them. In particular, it can shape your attitude towards them.

Depending on your business model, you might define these people are users, customers or members. But what do these words really mean? What associations do you have for each of these definitions? And is it possible that those definitions influence how you treat people and how you choose to grow?


Is user a sign of abuse?

Many view the word “user” as negative. It can be interpreted as someone who just takes. Others might not even consider the meaning of the word but still imagine a one-way relationship where they are providing a service to their users without getting anything in return. This can indirectly cause a company to put less effort into communicating with its base and create an unequal relationship between the two.

Internet companies often define their viewers or downloaders as users. This word may imply a definition of the relationship, or addiction, to the service. Yet, it might be a fitting way to describe a group of people that many heads of internet companies rarely meet in person. This can be an impersonal way of describing the base of your cash flow.


Are customers there to be served?

Another frequently used word is customer. It does not mean a lot by itself, but add culture and context to the word and you have the implication of servitude to someone who is providing you money for a product or service. Not that you need to grovel, but you get the picture. The slogan “the customer is always right” does not imply respect for the vendor’s insight.

For some companies, the use of the word customer might put them second to the customers’ wishes. The problem with this is that many customers do not know what they want. Many, like Steve Jobs, even point out that it is not the customers’ responsibility to know what they want. If that is the case, then maybe it is worth challenging our perceptions around the word “customer”.


Do you think of a bear hug when I say “member”?

It might mean “one of us”, or that you have special rights. It could mean you are one of the tribe. If that is the case, you are doing more than just buying a product or service, you are joining a set of values. But are you aware of that or are you silently agreeing to others’ values without questioning them?

Some might associate the word member with associations—groups of people joined by a common bond, belief, interest or value. Others might connect it with having special rights. Companies can take this as an opportunity to treat their best customers. However, how do you make the brand stand for something while at the same time including all potential members?



Think about what you call those that buy your services and products. User can imply addiction; customer can imply servitude; member can imply tribe. Can you write down associations for the words you are using? Are they fitting? How do they shape your business decisions?

How do your words shape your actions?


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