Five Strategies for Business Growth in a World of Customer Networks

December 9, 2010

In a world awash in digital technologies, customers have changed. From our smartphones to our social networks, today’s digital tools link all of us in a web of constant interaction that is changing our relationships to each other, and to organizations of all kinds. To thrive in our digital age, businesses need to re-imagine their customers not as a mass of isolated individual actors, but as customer networks. Rather than fixating on each day’s latest technology, businesses need to focus instead on understanding customers’ networked behavior.

After two decades of the Web, and with over a billion Internet users around the world, we can clearly identify five core behaviors of networked customers — accessing, engaging, customizing, connecting, and collaborating. By understanding and leveraging these core behaviors, businesses can pursue five strategies that will create value and produce the products, services, and business models that will thrive in a networked future. These five strategies are:

  1. The Access strategy: Be faster, be easier, be everywhere, be always on. Customers seek to access digital data, content, and interactions as quickly, easily, and flexibly as possible. Whether from our smart-phones, search engines, or networked TVs, we want it all and we want it now. By offering mobile, location-aware, and on-demand experiences, businesses can create real value for customers. Case in point: Nike+, which links runners’ shoes with their computers, so they can track and share their data in the world’s largest running community.
  2. The Engage strategy: Become a source of valued content. In an environment of abundant media and rampant ad-skipping, businesses that want to earn customer attention need to create content that customers will actually want to consume. Today, every business needs to think like a media business. Whether aiming for a broad audience or a narrow niche, businesses can earn new customers by producing or curating content that entertains, informs, or answers a specific need. Case in point: IBM’s Innov8, a videogame designed to help sell enterprise software that quickly became its number one marketing tool.
  3. The Customize strategy: Make your offering adaptable to your customers’ needs. Networked customers are not looking for cookie-cutter experiences, identical content, and mass-produced products, especially in the digital realm. By giving them tools to customize products, services, and content to suit their interests, businesses can add real value that will differentiate them from competitors and engage customers more deeply. Case in point: DonorsChoose and Kiva, two charities that have thrived by letting donors select the specific people and projects they want to fund.
  4. The Connect strategy: Become a part of your customers’ conversations. Customers today are constantly sharing ideas and opinions in social media conversations, offering rich insights and shaping brand perceptions. Companies can benefit by joining these conversations — either in popular forums like Facebook and Twitter or by creating their own forums where customers express themselves, vote, and share ideas. Case in point: The Ford Fiesta Movement, an online community where car fans were enlisted to try out a new car and generated huge brand awareness before its launch.
  5. The Collaborate strategy: Invite your customers to help build your enterprise. Customers seek to collaborate on collective projects and goals through open platforms. Beyond just sharing in conversations, networked customers are working together to design clothing, write computer software, and elect political candidates. By creating platforms that invite and motivate customer collaboration, organizations can unleash tremendous innovation and creativity. Case in point: Apple’s App Store for the iPhone and iPad, built by a network of over 50,000 amateur and professional developers all over the world.

Whether you sell shoes or news, software or healthcare, any business can use these five strategies to achieve their key business objective — be it to drive sales, enhance innovation, reduce costs, gain customer insight, or build breakthrough products and services. Because today, whatever your goals and whatever your business, the network is your customer.

This post was originally published in the Huffington Post.

David’s new book, The Network Is Your Customer: 5 Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age, will be published by Yale University Press on January 11, 2011. Download a free chapter, or pre-order the book now.

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