Why Your Users Matter (Even When They're Not Your Customers)

Despite making nearly $150 billion in ad revenue in 2020, Google expends hardly any resources improving its advertising product. Why?

Because it doesn’t have to.

Instead, Google’s engineers focus on improving the product that nearly all of us use virtually every day — its search engine. By creating the highest-quality search engine on the market, Google doesn’t need to appeal specifically to advertisers. Its users are its advertisers.

Customers and users are not always the same people, particularly in the tech world. A customer pays for the product, but users are the ones who, well, use it. Harvard Business Review’s Eddie Yoon explains that end-users and buyers sit on a spectrum, ranging from “mostly the same” to “very different.” He writes:

“When the end user and buyer are mostly the same, the customer journey and decisions are relatively straightforward, like buying a coffee at Starbucks for yourself. But some categories have one buyer and many end users (think of one person ordering takeout for a large group). Finally, other categories have the complexity of opposing interests, when the end user and buyer disagree on what is needed, like taking your kid to the dentist.”

For many founders, it can be easy to focus entirely on the needs of the customer — after all, they’re the ones with the money. But overlooking the user experience is a huge missed opportunity. Here’s why.

Users are future customers

My company, Jotform, makes online forms, and in my opinion, we make them well. Because our customers are form builders, we dedicate most of our effort to developing tools to make the process easy, straightforward and customizable to their needs.

In the past, we put most of our energy into making our forms easy to make, and spent less time considering the experience of the people who actually use them. This was a mistake — our forms get more than 150 million views each month. A user doesn’t know whether the form was easy to build or not, and they likely don’t care. Their concern is whether it’s simple to fill out and submit, the functionality of the mobile version, and other factors. A user who is impressed with our product is much more likely to think of us for their own form building needs, or recommend it to others.

We learned our lesson after we saw that some of our competitors with more user-friendly features were thriving despite their clunkier technology. Now, we’re doing a much better job leveraging the value of the millions of people who come into contact with our product every day.

Users are future customers.

Purchase brands vs. usage brands

According to data from one study, which surveyed more than 5,000 U.S. consumers, brands can be categorized into two discrete clusters: Purchase brands and usage brands. Among the differences, purchase brands emphasize the “moments of truth,” which take place before the transaction — the time spent researching, shopping and ultimately buying the product. In contrast, the moments of truth for usage brands come after the transaction, during the delivery, service, education or sharing.

Unsurprisingly, survey respondents showed more loyalty to usage brands, write Mark Bonchek and Vivek Bapat in Harvard Business Review. They were stronger advocates in the form of spontaneous recommendations to others, and showed a higher preference for usage brands over competitors even when the alternative was less expensive. On average, the study found that respondents were willing to pay a 7 percent premium, were 8 percent less likely to switch and were twice as likely to make a spontaneous recommendation of the brand.

“Purchase brands try to create differentiation in brand perception in the hope it will influence consideration and purchase,” the authors write. “But usage brands are focused on how their products will make a customer’s life better.”

Advertising for a usage brand, then, is about getting useful content and experiences into customers’ hands. “The message becomes ‘Look how we can make your life better now, before you’ve even spent any money with us. Just think how much more we can do if you become a customer and use our product or service.’”

It’s absolutely possible for a purchase brand to become a usage brand, but it does require a reimagining of overall strategy — specifically, a usage mindset requires closing the gap between product development and marketing, because the brand and the experience are increasingly one in the same.

Usage brands appreciate that engagement happens outside of the scope of “the sales funnel.” As Bonchek and Bapat ask, are people actually using the product? Are they talking about it spontaneously? Do they find the content created by the brand to be relevant and useful? “A usage brand marketer would rather have a five-star rating in their online reviews than win an advertising award at Cannes,” they write.

Solving customer needs will improve the user experience

Because customers and users are not always the same, it’s also true that they sometimes have competing interests. HBR’s Yoon points out that companies with disconnected users and buyers face three main problems: The first is recognizing all the buyers and users, the second is effectively coordinating across buyers and users, and the third is understanding and aligning the interests of buyers and users.

To make everyone happy, the solution is to try to address customer needs in a way that also improves users’ experience. Writing for UX Collective, Jeremy Bird explains that focusing 100 percent on customer needs runs the risk of frustrating users, which isn’t a good idea. (Remember why Google is so effective?) Even so, customers do need to be satisfied — they are, after all, customers. But “by focusing on the customer to identify the problem to solve and the user to figure out how to solve that, we please both groups which ends up being a major win for our company as well,” Bird says.

Creating a product that appeals to both customers and users can be a challenge. But understanding your users’ interests is not just beneficial to them — it has the potential to unlock massive value for your company, too.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website aytekintank.com.

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