Why social media sites want “users,” not just “customers”

What if you own and operate a social media property, like recent commentor C.H. Low of Orbius?  Well, it’s true that people will always be “people.”

But owner/operators are actually looking for “users.”  Some people detest the term user, but the analogy fits.

O’Reilly’s Jimmy Guterman blogs, “…there are only two industries that refer to their customers as users:  high tech and illegal drugs.”  Now, I’ve never dealt illegal drugs.  (Except for playing Dope Wars on my old Palm Pilot.)  But I can surmise how the industry works, primarily from watching American Gangster and reading Malcolm Gladwell:

  • A dealer uses the product, but only to ensure that it works
  • Mavens provide peer-level affirmations of quality.  Connectors help publicize and expand distribution.  Salesmen are, naturally, salespeople.
  • A dealer must protect the franchise.  They set up territorial boundaries and reselling only happens with authorization.
  • Users do not share in the profits of the operation.  Their benefits are limited to product use.
  • A dealer wants a user to become addicted, i.e. locked in.  But not to a point of overdosing and thus generating zero future value.  However, if this happens, markets are large enough to find new customers.  Sometimes territories must expand to fuel the franchise’s growth needs.

Brands must be careful to not become unwitting distributors of dealer content.  That’s why you don’t need a “Facebook strategy” or a “Twitter strategy.”  You need a business plan and marketing strategy instead.

Individuals must be careful to not develop addiction to either technologies or applications.  Unfortunately, addiction is very real and not limited to grey areas like a gambling website; can you step away for a full day from your Blackberry, checking your blog stats, or jumping on Twitter?  Staying focused on utility will help.

And owner/operators must stay in tune with their users to create a positive environment.  We’ve already seen examples like Facebook changing Beacon’s opt-out approach, MySpace working with state AG’s to protect children, and Twitter curbing spam accounts.

Sites having users works, as long as a healthy value exchange ensues.  I’m a grocery store customer and a potato chip consumer.  But I’m a social technology user, and I’m OK with that.