Why Participants Matter in Performance Marketing (Part 2)

Part two of a four-part series on the “new” Performance Marketing

Part II:  Vocabulary as a Revolutionary Change

Posted by Daina Middleton, CEO, Performics

In my previous post, I talked about the history of consumerism, which originated in Europe and then spread to the Americas propelled by World War I and II. Today’s world nowhere resembles post World War I society or even the 1960’s era of the new TV medium. The introduction of broadcast media was the last big evolution of our industry. First radio and then television drove the creation of the first marketing text books along with the tools, processes and language we still use today. All advertising supported content models created when broadcast media emerged are evaporating as the internet continues to reshape the industry. While mass media may survive, the rules participants, brands and agencies use have all changed. It’s time for a new Performance Marketing model to take center stage. 

I’m advocating for a revolution that begins with changing the words we use on a daily basis. As I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, vocabulary might seem like a nit in the scheme of things, but in fact it is profound because it lays the foundation for the marketing program and sets the tone for the ensuing engagement.  Every day marketers use words like consumer, audience and target.  Where did these words come from?  It seems as if they have been forever part of our language despite the fact they are derogatory, insensitive, even insulting.  Words like target, audience, and consumer, don’t accurately reflect the participatory culture, and imply a dependence that simply doesn’t exist today. How many times a day do you use a word you don’t really think about or even know much about?

Dated philosophies dominate our marketing language. Education institutions and curricula have been late to catch up. Some marketing departments are beginning to consider new language, tools and processes, but we need radical change and we need it now. I’m not alone in thinking about banning the word consumer from our vocabulary. The recent economic downturn has spawned numerous conversations about consumerism as a label and the negative connotations associated with the word. This downturn is not unique in that respect; historically, recessions have invited dialogue about the topic. In January 2009, Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary authored a piece on why Consumerism is a Dirty Word, “It’s Time to Drop The Consumer Label,” and Performics recently published the results of S-Net, a study of 3,000 social networkers that uncovered shifting expectations.

Whether you’re a marketer working in an agency or on the client side, try to eliminate the word “consumer” from your vocabulary for a week. I personally like to use the word “participant” instead of consumer, but the importance of thinking critically about word choice outweighs the specific words we choose.

Regardless of those individual preferences, let’s formally condemn some of the outdated, inappropriate and troubling terms in use in our industry by discussing some of the inherent problems and baggage they carry. Although nine out of ten marketers don’t think critically about the industry terms they use every day, the vocabulary choices we make can provide a powerful tool to set the stage for brands to more effectively engage with participants. Let’s start with the seemingly universal yet problematic term we as an industry use to describe ourselves.


By relationship, a marketer sits atop the old hierarchy and initiates the one-way communications that define the old hierarchy. The classic definition of marketing, according to Websters, is about promoting something, and this is the root of the problem with this term. This term fit nicely during the industrial age when, as Seth Godin put it, we made meatballs by the billions. Companies only needed to tell someone about the meatballs – that’s it, our job was done. The focus was the message, but this model doesn’t fit in today’s participatory culture. Our job today is to facilitate conversations. People want to talk with other people first and foremost – let’s help them to do that. I don’t have a problem continuing to call ourselves marketers per se, but let’s change what it means to be one.


Targets are “fired at or marked for attack.” Really? Even as we claimed to be consumer advocates in the past, does this describe someone we want to champion? Advertisers and agencies should consider the derogatory nature of the term target before using it out of habit. Targets are also defined as objects of ridicule or criticism. If we want to engage participants, I’m thinking this one has to go.


Let’s be honest, we’d all like to believe there’s a big stage and people are sitting on the edges of their couches anxiously waiting to see our television commercial. But in the wake of DVRs, there’s no audience anxiously awaiting our messages. A hundred years ago, our attention span averaged 20 minutes; one minute for each year of age up until age 20. According to the BBC News, “The addictive nature of Web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds.” In light of this new reality, a stage is not sufficient. We better be in the business of building relationships – not flash in the pan 9 second performances.

So, whether you’re a marketer working in an agency or on the client side, do me a favor and try to eliminate the word consumer from your vocabulary for a week, because changing our language makes us stop and think.

Planning a marketing relationship with someone who has a set of sophisticated tools at their disposal is fundamentally different than planning one for people sitting on the edge of their seats just waiting to hear the next clever “big idea.” Instead of planning staged performances, let’s begin creating interactions that enable the new “participant” to have access to the information they need at the right time in every stage of the relationship. This is the new Performance Marketing. 

Daina Middleton is CEO at Performics. Contact her at daina.middleton@performics.com.

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