Why Every Company — Big or Small — Needs a Platform Strategy

 In Strategic Agility

Business ecosystems have existed since the beginning of humankind. These communities of customers, partners, suppliers, content providers, investors, and others who interact with each other are a natural manifestation of the way we buy, sell, and trade with each other. Yet in today’s fast-paced and interconnected world, the health and robustness of your business ecosystem is more crucial than ever. Today’s businesses now live or die based on how well they cultivate and connect those who they do business with.

Just look at the seven most valuable companies in 2019—Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (parent company of Google), Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba and Tencent. Each created their success by deliberately and aggressively building powerful platforms to connect customers, content providers, suppliers, and others to each other.

To be more specific, the Amazon and Alibaba platforms connect sellers and customers. Apple connects app developers with users. Facebook connects people with each other, and with the advertisers who pay for it all. Google seems to connect nearly everyone in the world, in hundreds of different ways. Microsoft connects legions of developers, hardware manufacturers, and customers.

These examples are platform powerhouses—companies that connect millions, or even billions, of platform members. However, even if your company is small, or low-tech, you can build a thriving platform to connect the people and entities that drive your business.

Managed well, your business community can accelerate your company’s growth and insulate you from market upsets. Your community can alert you to emerging trends, provide you with word-of-mouth advertising and innovative new ideas, and create new sources of revenue. It can be a flywheel of stability or a catapult to exciting growth opportunities.

On the other hand, a poorly managed or neglected community can hold you back, or even put you on a downward spiral of diminished reputation, calcified ideas, and declining sales. I’ve observed several common mistakes companies make in managing their business ecosystem. Some underinvest in nurturing and maintaining their platform, letting other priorities get in the way. Some apply inadequate safeguards to vet and guide community members, so a few members spoil the value for others. Some fail to set the vision and strategy for their platform, so it develops in an aimless and haphazard way. Some fail to create value for all participants, so their community slowly shrinks or becomes irrelevant to its members.

No matter what business you are in, you should be thinking about who’s in your community now, who you would like to have, how you would like them to gain value from it, and how you can make it easier for them to gain that value. In other words, you need to develop a robust strategy for attracting and connecting the community members who will be most beneficial to you and to each other.  

Follow these five steps (and access this framework for more details) to build a vibrant, self-reinforcing community that can propel your company’s success:

Step 1: Take inventory. The first step is to identify, at least in broad terms, who is already in your ecosystem. Some members may be obvious to you, such as customers whom you talk to frequently, or suppliers

who come to your annual conferences. Others may be less obvious. One company I know did not realize that there were developers who specialized in adapting the company’s software to niche industries. These developers were flying under the radar, until someone took a close look at who was connected to, benefiting from, or doing business with the company.

Step 2: Attract and connect your ideal participants. The second step is to decide who you would ideally like to have in your community. You want people and organizations to join your community whose goals are compatible with yours and who can help you reach your own goals. Developing clear criteria for who your ideal members are will make the process of growing your community more targeted, efficient, and effective. For example, if you’re trying to build a community of app developers, you want to attract the best of the best, with a particular set of skills. To attract these developers, you may wish to hold a hackathon or a contest. You may also decide to tailor your market messaging and the design of your platforms to appeal to the particular type of developers you seek to attract.

With today’s technology tools, it’s certainly easier than ever to connect and strengthen your community, but it can require a leap of faith. You can’t be sure who will join, and how they will interact with and do business with the other participants. You need to nurture and encourage the members you want to keep, while ensuring that bad actors don’t cause problems. And, there may be current members of your community who will not play a role in your ideal future. For example, unprofitable customer segments, channel partners who deliver a bad customer experience, and fraudulent players. Develop a plan for how to migrate away from these less-desirable community members.

Step 3: Assure participants get value. The third step is to paint a vision for how community members will derive value and contribute value. People and organizations that participate do so because they derive value from participating. There are myriad forms of value, including making money, gaining referrals and relationships, learning, demonstrating skills, and gaining access to information, suppliers, and customers. Community members also contribute value. Some members pay and some members make money—and some members both pay and make money, depending on the situation

. Some members contribute knowledge, endorsements, reviews, products, time, and the like, while others consume these things, and some do both.

For example, OCEARCH, a nonprofit that focuses on shark research, has developed a robust platform, centered on its top-10 ranked science app, Global Shark Tracker. The platform’s members include professional fishermen, who run expeditions to catch, tag, and release sharks; university researchers who collect and analyze data on sharks; brands like Yeti and Costa, which have contributed $40 million to fund expeditions (and, in return, have benefited from 12 billion annual earned media impressions); and K-12 school children, who use OCEARCH’s lesson plans to learn math and science using real-time shark tracking data. The sharks each have their own names, Facebook pages, and Twitter handles.

It is easy to imagine that the kids get more engaged in their math problems when they are talking about a real, 4,000-pound shark (like Mary Lee, Oscar, Grey Lady, or Cisco), and they can see up-to-the-minute information on where the shark is swimming. By connecting fishermen, researchers, brands, and kids in a powerful, symbiotic platform, OCEARCH creates value for every platform member.

Of course, you may not have a value provider as captivating as a shark! But it’s imperative that all participants are enjoying and contributing their own type of value. You may not always know what is transpiring in your communit

y, and much of the “give and get” between members may be beyond your control. However, a sound strategy can put you on track for a healthy, self-reinforcing community that drives your company’s growth.

Step 4: Create physical or virtual engagement platforms. The fourth step is to create a means for current and prospective community members to easily interact with each other—and with you—and to gain value. Many of your community members may already be interacting with each other, but there are things you can do—running events, creating technology platforms, and providing connections and referrals, to name a few—to enhance and stimulate that interaction and to help community members both give and get more value.

Airbnb has created a platform that makes it easy for owners to safely rent out their homes or rooms and for guests to find a safe, comfortable, and convenient place to stay. Ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft have created platforms that facilitated the creation of new jobs and new forms of transportation. Even a small company like mine, Setili & Associates, can gain great benefit from connecting members of its community, so that they can build relationships and learn from each other. We’ve hosted events, introduced clients to each other, and developed a network of consultants who contribute to each other’s work and growth. Whether high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech, there are things you can do to enhance the value and vibrancy of your community.

Step 5: Listen, observe, and enhance. The final step is to continually listen to community feed

back and to enhance your platforms to assure members get the value they desire. The most successful communities work to enhance member value and to make it easier for members to interact with each other to gain value. They look for unexpected sources of value, and when they spot these, they replicate or expand them.

For example, when Salesforce first began to host events, they were surprised that attendees were more interested in hearing from each other than they were in hearing from Salesforce representatives. Salesforce recognized this unexpected success and took advantage of it. Customers are now among Salesforce’s best salespeople, problem solvers, and application developers. The most recent Dreamforce gathering attracted over 170,000 participants, who attend in order to interact with each other.

Facebook is another prime example of continuous listening and enhancement. At any moment, Facebook is running hundreds of different A/B tests. They keep what their platform members value and discard the rest.

Conclusion: Make enhancing your business community—your ecosystem—a priority, starting now. And, just as important, once you’ve got your community humming along, don’t lose steam and neglect it. A well-managed community, especially if connected by a well-designed platform,  creates tremendous value for your company and for your customers, suppliers, content providers, and other stakeholders. By solving common problems, sharing information, and helping each other to respond to market upsets and opportunities, your business community can be a powerful driver of fearlessness and growth.

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