Oct 032011
Do we have customers or just users

“I was on your mailing list for general info, for spams and scams etc which were helpful. Suddenly it changed and now the business format is not useful to me” said an lady when unsubscribing from one of my newsletter mailing lists.

The lady concerned had been on one of the mailing lists for over ten years and, once upon a time, had been a paying customer for my old business, PC Rescue. Although we’d only earned a $100 off her and that was seven years ago.

While it’s sad to lose a subscriber – you don’t run a service business for twelve years without caring about those who use your services – the question is was the lady really a customer?

This is an important distinction where many of us are giving away much of our knowledge for free; are our users really customers?

For the social media and web2.0 sites, this is easy; users are the raw material for their aggregated and segmented data feeds and audience, the customers are the advertisers. This is just a modern twist on the broadcast model that sustained the radio and TV industries for most of the 20th Century.

Many of those social media platforms aren’t making much money from that data and there’s a good argument those who are have been wildly overvalued by investors.

The value of user data, whether it’s aggregated or identifiable appears to be nowhere as high as most of us think, unless you intend to rob your users’ bank accounts.

Overvaluation of your customer, or user, database is a common problem for smaller businesses too. If you’re the local plumber, computer repair guy or coffee shop then the value of any mailing list is probably way overstated – the only metric that ultimately matters to the business is how much money you’re making from the customer.

If you care about the people that you deal with, this may be a hard reality to face but those who visit your shop, subscribe to your newsletter or download your free e-book aren’t your customers, only those who are prepared to pay are.

This is something we have to understand in this era of abundant free information and online services. The challenge for most of us is how many users we can convert from being window shoppers and freebie seekers into customers.

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