Marketers, stop the hate! Customers are not the enemy

Summary:Guest editorial by Susan EtlingerBack in the seventeenth century, soldiers would spend the cold winter months in towns and garrisons until the weather cleared enough for them to venture back into the field (in Italian, nella campagna) to resume fighting. And that’s the origin of the modern word campaign, a term much beloved by marketing and sales people to signify an organized series of events designed to sell products and services.

Guest editorial by Susan Etlinger

Marketers, stop the hate!

Back in the seventeenth century, soldiers would spend the cold winter months in towns and garrisons until the weather cleared enough for them to venture back into the field (in Italian, nella campagna) to resume fighting. And that’s the origin of the modern word campaign, a term much beloved by marketing and sales people to signify an organized series of events designed to sell products and services.

In fact, when you think about it, a lot of the language we commonly use in business has its origins in warfare: targeting and capturing leads comes to mind; I’m sure you can think of others. And yet the groundswell in customer activism and the availability of social technologies has permanently shifted the power dynamic between seller and buyer.

So why are we still treating customers like the enemy?

Oddly enough, the word customer is just as old as campaign, but with a very different history. Customer was in use as early as the fourteenth century to refer to someone who “frequents any place of sale for the sake of purchasing.” The idea was that the seller and buyer had a relationship of custom —of habit and trust—that endured over time. What could be more collaborative than that?

But it’s not just the language of sales and marketing that’s out of kilter today. Technologists are the culprits too. Consider Customer Relationship Management; User-Generated Content; or our habit of referring to what people do online as clicks and page views. At best these terms are clunky and ambiguous; at worst they’re dehumanizing.

Would you ever consider “managing” a relationship with a friend? Do you refer to the Mona Lisa as “content?” Would you call someone as a “user” or an “audience” or a “follower” in normal conversation? (If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, email me. We need to talk.) Oh and by the way, I am a huge fan of Twitter. I just find the term “follower” a little creepy.

The way we communicate and classify information matters, because it frames our thinking. Otherwise there would be no Digg, no de.lic.ious, no hashtags; no folksonomy, no endless wrangling on Wikipedia, no Google. And, for that matter, no arguments about what change is, or democracy, or what it means to be a maverick.

Seven centuries of linguistic evolution won’t change overnight. But I do want to propose that if we’re serious about social collaboration as a new model for commerce, culture and innovation, we need to develop a language that doesn’t undermine the very goals we’re trying to achieve.

I don’t have the answer—but I bet you do. And isn’t that what social media is ultimately all about?

Susan Etlinger (Twitter: setlinger) generates content on marketing and media at Horn Group, a digital communication agency founded in San Francisco. She also writes on parenting and child development at Silicon Valley Moms, BabyCenter and her personal blog, The Family Room, a resource for families and friends of children with special needs.

Word derivations courtesy of The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: 1971).

Topics: Google, Collaboration

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