I was privileged to speak at a client conference in Fontainebleau last week.  We were discussing Organic Branding and the importance of companies developing more collaborative relationships with their consumers to build brands using Social Computing tools.

Someone in the audience raised a perceptive point that brought me up short.  “Why”, he asked “do you use the term “consumer” if we’re trying to get closer to them?  Doesn’t the whole idea of consuming-that is using up or devouring- run against the grain of what we’re discussing?”  He had a good point.  Having been steeped for years in classical marketing, I use the term “consumer” naturally and unthinkingly.  However, terms like consumer, eyeballs, click throughs serve to distance us from the actual people who are out actually trying to connect and relate to others online.  They also reveal the central tension for companies using social media.  In the end it isn’t enough for someone to engage with us online or recognize or like our brand.  We really need them to buy something.  That’s the simple truth that makes it so hard for marketers to participate authentically in what is first and foremost a community forum.

Maybe part of the distancing we do as marketers comes from an awareness that we need people more than they need us.  In a perfect world we’d provide them only with the products and services they need. Most of us are fortunate to live in a world where the basic needs are met and it’s most often marketers’ jobs to create the “want”.

I think that’s why it’s important as a brand to be honest about who you are and what you do online.  If we work on actively engaging those who are truly interested in our products and services and deepening our relationships with them it will feel less like we’re seeking out “eyeballs” and more like we’re relating as human beings.

I’m still looking for an alternative word for “consumer”.  How do you distinguish people who might need or want what you had if they were aware and engaged from those who simply are unwitting recipients of your marketing onslaught?  I think the time of sweeping terms, broad demographics and generalizations is over.  I’m open to suggestions about what to call the potential buyers who are left.  Any suggestions?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

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