Customer engagement has never been more urgent or more elusive. Real engagement – the kind that goes beyond a momentary impression to a meaningful interaction – isn’t happening on traditional channels. It’s happening today on digital platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, SnapChat, and Instagram.
To understand the future of digital platforms and what it means for marketers, we spoke with senior executives in a community of top marketers from Silicon Valley. The perspectives of these executives suggest that the pace of innovation shows no sign of slowing down.
Marketers who want to understand the future of these platforms need to understand seven P’s: people, participate, personalize, product, process, pay, and partner.
1. People. The power of platforms ultimately comes from people. For the first time in history, we have mass collaboration on a global scale. Digital and social platforms eliminate the friction in the flow of information and communication, empowering customers, employees, and citizens alike. To date, platforms have made us more efficient, but according to Ivy Ross, Head of Glass at Google, they will soon “help us be more human and do the things we love to do.” And David Rubin, Head of Brand at Pinterest, adds, “technology is ultimately about making things easier for people.”
2. Participate. The word “platform” gets thrown around a lot, but is often misunderstood. Platform isn’t just a fancy name for a distribution channel or a service delivered through the cloud. Channels are one-way pipes; platforms are two-sided networks. It’s the difference between Netflix and YouTube. Netflix has an audience and adds content incrementally. YouTube has a community and adds content exponentially. GoPro understands this well, engaging their customers not just as an audience of consumers, but a community of co-creators. According to Paul Crandall, SVP of Marketing at GoPro, the goal is “to make our customers the heroes by showcasing their enthusiasm and content on our platforms.”
To generate participation, marketers must engage more authentically, with a focus on ongoing relationships beyond individual impressions or transactions. Danielle Tiedt, CMO of YouTube, says the goal isn’t “how do I create the viral video?” Instead, the goal should be “how do I use video to create an ongoing conversation that builds a relationship?” Brands must also remember that they are members of the social networks in which they participate. Daina Middleton, Head of Global Business Marketing at Twitter, told us, “as marketers, we have historically wanted to dominate the conversation, but now it needs to be about participating, not dominating.”
3. Personalize. The ease of connecting and co-creating on platforms has a downside. The amount of information can be overwhelming. Digital platforms do the work of making the experience more personalized, relevant, and meaningful. According to Middleton, platforms are becoming more intelligent. They will proactively notify us what’s important and even work as an agent on our behalf. More and more, customers are creating their own filters. They are at the center and in control. According to YouTube’s Tiedt, “Our next challenge is to make sure the things they might be interested in, they have an opportunity to discover.” And Google’s Ross thinks that the platform will be more than a place where you connect with friends; the platform itself will feel “like a friend that knows you.”
4. Product. To date, digital platforms have been the place you go to talk about products. But the relationship between products and platforms is about to undergo a significant disruption. First, platforms are going to be more integrated into our products and services. As an example, Uber customers can now select the music for their trip directly from their Spotify playlists. Nick Besbeas, former VP of Marketing at LinkedIn, believes “the lines between product and marketing are blurring.”
Second, our products are going to start showing up in our platforms. Today, a spouse might send a reminder to pick up the milk or get the oil changed. It won’t be long until our connected refrigerator or connected car sends the message itself, most likely through a digital platform. Ross believes the convergence of digital platforms with connected devices will be “one of the most disruptive forces” as “the net is increasingly around us and on us.” The Internet of Things will soon be the Social Network of Things.
5. Process. We tend to focus on digital platforms that are customer-facing, but they are also happening internally and behind the scenes. Twitter’s Middleton notes that bid management and customer experience platforms are bringing social media, display, search, and CRM together, connecting customer acquisition, customer service, and customer retention. Companies are adopting platforms to reshape other business processes, ranging from employee communications to performance management to professional development. We believe a phenomenon is emerging that one might call “platform symmetry.” Companies that want to engage customers who use platforms to manage their lives must equally use platforms to manage their organizations. And leaders who want their customers to engage with their brands on platforms must also participate themselves. In a social age, you truly get what you give.
6. Pay. Have you noticed that payments are disappearing? The convenience of a swipe is giving way to the even greater convenience of – nothing. Thanks to digital wallets, we can download an app, pay the driver, or order a coffee without touching our wallet. In the future, we can expect even greater integration of e-commerce and social networks on digital platforms. Lara Balazs, SVP of North America Marketing at Visa, says that digital payments are creating frictionless ways to shop and pay. Where payment used to be an afterthought, it’s now becoming critical to the experience itself.
When you’re on a social network, the act of making a payment can feel a bit odd, or even unsettling. It’s part of a relational context that anthropologists call a “gift economy.” But the invisible nature of digital payments is making a new era of social commerce possible – one in which transactions are seamlessly embedded inside of ongoing collaborative relationships between customers and businesses, instead of being the culmination of a temporary commercial relationship.
7. Partner. To layer product, process, and payment on top of people, participation and personalization, companies will need to get even better at partnership and collaboration. According to Ross, customers won’t want to use more than one platform for any given purpose. Platforms and providers are going to have to work together to “unlock the connectivity” and deliver a compelling and seamless user experience. The smarter home will require partnerships with appliance manufacturers, and the connected car will require the same of carmakers. We can expect digital platforms to move beyond software platforms to business platforms with associated ecosystems, creating new opportunities for brands to form unexpected alliances.
Marketers need to continuously evolve the way they think about adding value to their customers beyond the products and services they sell. Companies that win the hearts and minds of customers will be the ones that put their customers’ passions, goals, and inspiration at the forefront. The more you engage, involve and empower your customer, the more your customer will want to engage with your brand.
A study by Adobe found that 80% of marketers believe their role is fundamentally changing, and that 40% believe they need to reinvent themselves to keep pace. According to Ann Lewnes, CMO at Adobe, new technologies like digital platforms are just the beginning. Marketing leaders need to rethink how they approach people and process. They need to attract talent in areas like data science, social media, and web analytics that didn’t exist five years ago. And they need to create opportunities for their employees to re-skill and reinvent themselves too.
Our conversations suggest that for marketers, the road ahead will not be getting easier anytime soon. Digital platforms are evolving to be more robust, relevant, and intelligent. This makes things easier for us as individuals, but more challenging for companies with traditional mindsets, structures, and practices. Customers are setting the pace in this race. Whoever can keep up with the customer will share the winners’ circle.
Originally published in HBR as "A Cheat Sheet for Marketers on the Future of Digital Platforms," by Mark Bonchek and Cara France