Are you a professional or a user?

I've never been fond of the word 'user'? It lacks the caring qualities of a much more appropriate word, customer, and even evokes images of substance abuse.

On making this point, I'm asked what I'd call people benefitting from a service or application without handing over their hard-earned. Well, customers of course. In such situations they're simply paying with a different currency, such as their personal data and/or attention, which the supplier of the service does its utmost to monetize.

But in one instance, I like that evocation of substance abuse. Of addiction. Of misuse.

Do allow me to explain and let's see if I've just been critical of you or a colleague. Please go easy on me if I have, my intentions are honourable.

I had the privilege of speaking with 150 Masters students at Imperial College London yesterday, taking their Technology in Marketing module. All marketing activity in 2012 is underpinned or impacted by technology, and thousands of tech vendors tempt us with thousands of marketing and PR applications, tools and services. And we buy them. Lots of them. The question is, are you a professional or a user?

What's the difference?

Well my dictionary defines a professional as a person competent or skilled in a particular activity. The CIPR's mission includes this statement: "We enhance the reputation and understanding of the public relations profession and the professionalism of our members..."

A professional understands the tools they wield.

A professional engineer understands the equations employed by her software in stress engineering a bridge. A lawyer understands the legislative framework in which they draft contracts. A doctor understands the scientific basis of the electrocardiogram. A PR professional understands the algorithms employed by their social analytics software of choice, and its empirical basis.

I was recently invited to endorse an analytics service – one of those that likes to score social media activity – but I was given scant information for its empirical basis. The supplier alluded to an unreferenced research paper. All I know about the "research" is that it involved a selection of unlisted brands over an unknown time span on unknown social platforms for some unknown geographic region in unknown languages. And there was no mention of peer review.

What's more, the service is a so-called black box. In other words: "We'd like to tell you how it works but we can't, sorry – commerically sensitive you know."

I can't endorse this product until my questions are answered. And it obviousy can't have any PR professionals amongst its customer base. Just users.