Feature Story

A World of Customer Networks

by David Rogers

In an age transformed by digital technologies, the relationship between businesses and customers has 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 this digital age, businesses need a new model for customers. Rather than mass marketing to a herd of isolated individual customers, businesses need to focus on creating value for and with customers' networks.

To do so requires focusing less on the daily developments of new technologies, and more on the underlying behavior of networked customers—the behaviors which shape, give meaning and drive the adoption of successful digital innovations.
In researching my book, The Network Is Your Customer, I examined patterns of technology adoption across the Internet, and compared the digital strategies of hundreds of businesses across dozens of industries, from consumer to B2B to nonprofit. After two decades of evolution 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.

Each of these network behaviors can form the basis of a customer network strategy that can be used by business to innovate 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 smartphones, search engines or networked TVs, we want it all and we want it now. By offering cloud-based, mobile and location-aware digital experiences, businesses can create real value for customers. Case in point: Bank of America, which is positioning its consumer banking around on-demand banking services via phone and mobile devices.
  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 with online video, gaming, blogs or other media, businesses can earn new customers by producing or curating content that entertains, informs or answers a specific need. Case in point: Home Depot, whose YouTube channel has attracted millions of views by offering simple how-to videos that show customers how to undertake household projects, with products available at Home Depot.
  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. Through recommendation engines, filtering algorithms and data mining, businesses can offer personalized experiences that value and engage customers more deeply. Case in point: Netflix, whose Cinematch recommendation engine helps customers find the "backlist" movies that make up 60% of the company's rental activity.
  4. The CONNECT strategy: Become a part of your customers' conversations. Customers today are constantly sharing ideas and opinions in social media, offering rich insights and shaping brand perceptions. Companies can benefit by joining these social media 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: Intuit's TaxAlmanac, a wiki that was started by the company with 150 articles and grew into a resource of over 170,000 pages, thanks to the work of a customer community of professional accountants.

Whether selling banking services or movies, house wares or software, any business can use these five network strategies to achieve its 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.

David Rogers teaches digital marketing and strategy at Columbia Business School.

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