Written by Jim Babb

Ask any modern marketer about the keys to success, and chances are they’ll tell you that a customer-centric strategy is essential. After all, in today’s competitive landscape, if you’re not paying attention to your customers’ needs and wants, someone else will be.

But here’s the catch: Not every marketer actually has customers. Some have users. Others have fans. Still others have readers, enthusiasts, clients, partners, contributors, guests, or a combination of any of these. The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s too important to overlook. Marketing depends on knowing who your people are, identifying them accurately (and with intent!), and using that framework to build meaningful relationships with them.

Whatever word (or words) you use to define your people, that term establishes a mental model that helps teams focus and align. And as you encounter your people at different stages of their journey, you’ll know right away how to approach them—at point A, they’re customers; at point B, they become contributors. Having clear definitions in place lets you dial up or dial down different elements of these relationships—and your goals—as needed.

Some Popular Ways Marketers Define Their People

Customer: Someone who purchases your product


It’s business 101. A customer is a person who buys something from you. If your people are customers, your relationship involves specific transactions. There’s a concrete goal: You want them to make a purchase. Knowing this will help frame your approach to creating strategies for turning a single purchase into multiple buys.

Zappos is a classic example of a customer-focused brand. Not only are they known for carrying a wide selection of shoes, bags, and clothing, they’re downright legendary for their customer service. From their generous returns process, to their 24/7 phone line (Yes, you read that right.) it’s clear that Zappos is all about its customers.

Some pitfalls to be aware of when defining your people as customers: Focusing on transactions alone doesn’t give you a full view of the customer as a person, or the range of experiences they bring to your checkout cart. It’s also true that the person who clicks BUY NOW isn’t necessarily the person you need to impress—people are often buying for others. So it’s important to take steps to really know who your “customers” are, what they want or need, and what goes into their decision making.

Consumer: Someone who consumes your product


Not to be confused with the customer, a consumer is a person who actually uses/consumes your product. If your people are consumers, you’ll want to focus less on the point-of-sale transactions and work on understanding why and how they use your product in real life.

For example, Zappos customers often buy shoes for their kids, spouses, and as gifts. When it comes to sales of children’s shoes, the consumer (kids) differs from the customer (adults, often parents or guardians). This is an important distinction, and shifting your marketing mindset from customer to consumer or vice versa can have an enormous effect on your strategy. As an example, the insight that men’s deodorant was mostly being bought by women sparked the famous Old Spice campaign, “The man your man could smell like.”

Audience/listener/viewer/reader: Someone who absorbs your content


If you’re in a content business, your consumers may be better defined as an audience, or as listeners, viewers, or readers. That means you can build lasting relationships with your people by producing the content they want and delivering it where, and how, and when they want it.

By defining your people this way, you’re demonstrating a commitment to the people who experience the content you make—and by extension, to the creation of the content itself. A podcast might rely on sponsors for revenue, but it won’t gain sponsors by making content only for sponsors. Instead, it should make content for its audience, thereby increasing its reach and attracting sponsors.

And with more content than ever, on more platforms than ever, modern audiences are notoriously fickle. Framing your people as audience, listeners, viewers, or readers—instead of mere consumers—is a better way to emphasize engagement and loyalty.