Commentary

Platform Positioning As A New Communications Norm

I’ve been thinking a lot about platforms lately -- and it seems as though the Web’s largest technology firms have been thinking a lot about them too.

Platforms are brand ecosystems: hardware that works best with complementary pieces from the same manufacturer; distributed software that inter-operate with one another, but not across competing platforms. Platforms represent a very popular, emerging positioning strategy that sits neatly at the intersection of branding and demand generation. Successful platforms are able to drive more revenue and instill greater brand affinity. And when a consumer first embraces a platform, it becomes much easier for that person to go “all in.” 

Perhaps it’s the holiday shopping season that has helped to heighten my awareness of platforms recently. I’ve found myself asking questions like “Would a Kindle owner want an iBook gift card?” and “Would this new Android phone play nice with an Apple TV?” Gift giving this year is a much more considered process than in years past, all thanks to the emergence of digital platforms.

Self-Identification through Platform Alignment

I was reminded of the power of platform positioning just this past week. With news that many retailers were slashing prices of Research in Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet (from $499 to $199 for the 16GB model), I decided to pick one up. I’m a sucker for gadgets, and regard myself as a technology aficionado, so this wasn’t exactly atypical behavior for me. I brought the tablet in to work to show it off to colleagues and was surprised by much of the response.

The Apple fans in the office mocked the device (and me indirectly):

“Why would you buy that?”

“$200 is a lot of money to spend on a paperweight!”

“Do you need a string and an empty can to do video chat?”

Keep in mind that none of these detractors (jokers) had ever seen or used the device they were mocking. It was 100% pure Apple bias.

They’ve gone all in. Being Apple fans has become part of their identities.

Many Points of Entry, One End Result

Examples like those are intentional outcomes. That type of behavior is exactly what these big-time tech firms are encouraging.

On the topic of platform positioning, Google chairman Eric Schmidt recently made this observation: “It seems to me that there are four companies that are exploiting platform strategies really well.” Those four companies are Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and (of course) Google. 

I think we should expect other industries to follow the lead of these pioneers.

The brilliance of the platform model is in its reach. In the case of Apple, there are many points of entry into the ecosystem. For example, if I buy an iPod, I’m almost guaranteed to purchase music from the iTunes Store. After I’ve purchased a few albums, I realize that I can only play those songs on Apple devices or through the iTunes desktop application. If I then decide to purchase a smartphone, the logical choice is the Apple iPhone -- it plays all my music right out of the box.

The model encourages an incremental investment in the platform. It’s easier for me to purchase another song from iTunes than it is to set up a Google account and buy a song through the Android music store.

It’s easier for me too to go all in.

Successful Platform Positioning and its Impact on Search Marketing

Admittedly, this macro-level brand and positioning strategy may not be immediately connected to search marketing. But it could (and eventually will) be.

A long-standing tactic that my team and I have employed is bidding on competitor brand keyword terms. When a user turns to Google and performs a search for a competitor’s brand name, we serve an ad that speaks directly to our areas of competitive distinction. Don’t go with Brand X, we’re better suited to your needs.

But what happens when that user is already locked in to my competitor’s platform ecosystem? It doesn’t matter how compelling my marketing programs are, I’m not likely to win that battle.

Overall, if we begin to see a rise in platform strategies, it could shift the balance of power to a select few online players. It would minimize the online fact-finding process, as brand-term-focused keyword searches rise. The resultant brand affinity will also tip the SEO scales to those select winners.

I think we’re witnessing the emergence of a new communications norm. Challenger brands (and my BlackBerry Playbook), beware.

4 comments about "Platform Positioning As A New Communications Norm".
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  1. John Mallen from JMC Marketing Communications, November 23, 2011 at 7:11 p.m.

    Excellent piece on platforms. Not only brings to mind the emergence of a powerful marketing strategy, but also memories of when I was a kid. Some guys were Chevy types. Others were Ford typs. While all cars look the same, you're right: there are these fierce Apple fans and just as virulent PC types.

  2. Ken Headrick from Pelmorex, November 23, 2011 at 10:31 p.m.

    I disagree as I think you are using platforms in the wrong context. You start this piece and I think you are thinking of vertical integration more than platforms with your example. Platforms are products that have developer ecosystems around them that allow the product to be extended by others and that provides value for the platform. In this case with Apple, which failed at being a platform the first time despite what you refer to as hardware components that work well together, but became a platform company with iOS via the App Store. Windows is a platform. Windows Server, Unix, Linux are all platforms that people build things on top of. Facebook is a platform for apps. Android is a platform which developers build apps for and can even modify the code of the platform. Your Blackberry Playbook is an example of someone who wants to be a platform with its app store but isn't being successful at it because their development environment is terrible. The joke of the Eric Schmidt comment is he left Microsoft out intentionally for competitive reasons and despite the many times it is quoted, nobody seems to pick that up. And I don't think of the 4 listed companies as pioneers of platforms given that those with a good memory of the IT industry know that they are just the current examples and while they are applying the concepts in new ways (Facebook and social), the pioneers of the concept come long before these rather young companies.

  3. Ryan DeShazer from GSW Worldwide, November 24, 2011 at 9:41 a.m.

    John - thanks very much for the kind words.

    Ken - you know, you're right. I've mis-labeled this. "Ecosystem" would be more appropriate than platform. I had written another section on Facebook and its development platform, but struck it for the sake of brevity.

    That said, I do think these are all related topics and I don't believe my thoughts are invalidated. From a communications perspective, a development platform can be so lucrative because of the consumer adoption (the "going all in") and brand affinity.

    Thanks for keeping me honest, and up late at night before Thanksgiving. ;)

  4. brian cohen from Launch Ventures, November 25, 2011 at 9:10 a.m.

    You're actually both right!

    To a great extent this "platform" analysis you posit has both the traditional "positioning" elements and tech developer ecosystem elements knitted tightly together which makes a relationship both economic and emotional. Sounds like the ultimate in winning customer/partner long-term strategy!

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