10 years, 10 months ago

Multi-Sided Platform Strategies

A multi-sided platform business has the following characteristic features.

1. The platform serves two or more distinct categories of customer. For example, a credit card platform serves both cardholders and merchants. For example, a heterosexual dating agency serves both men and women.

2. The platform provides a mechanism for connecting customers from different categories. The credit card increases the potential interaction between cardholders and merchants, as well as processing the transactions. And the dating agency brings men and women together.

3. The value of the platform to one category of customers depends on the quantity and quality of the other categories. For example, the value of a credit card to the cardholder depends on the number of merchants that accept the card. Meanwhile, the value of the card to the merchant depends on the number of cardholders.

Under certain circumstances, it might be possible to build one side of the platform first. For example, if you had some brilliant idea for a entirely new kind of credit card, and had a lot of funding and a persuasive sales team, you might conceivably be able to recruit a large number of merchants into the scheme before you had any cardholders at all. Or imagine persuading a group of men to invest all their spare time for two years building a nightclub that would (when finished) attract the hottest women in the city. But this strategy requires a considerable degree of confidence and trust. So in practice it usually makes sense to build up both sides at the same time.

There are various strategies that can be used to create a multi-sided platform. Sometimes it is possible to start small. When Frank McNamara created Diners Club in 1950, he started in a small geographical area (Manhatten), with 14 merchants and a few hundred cardholders. Within a year, he had 300 merchants and 40,000 cardholders.

When American Express wished to enter the market in 1958, it needed to create something quickly that could compete with Diners Club. One way to do this was to acquire and consolidate some existing schemes. But the key element to the American Express’s success was a marquee strategy – recruiting the most desirable customers (e.g. business travellers on expense accounts) and the most desirable merchants (e.g. high status hotels, restaurants and stores).

A marquee strategy depends on a degree of exclusivity, real or imagined. In a multi-sided market, you don’t gain directly from the number of people on your own side, since they may be competing with you for the attention of the people on the other side.

American Express is now much larger than Diners Club. So much for first-mover advantage then. The most desirable customers are not necessarily the ones with the greatest willingness to experiment with a novel platform. Novel platforms tend to attract early adopters and low-value customers (AltaVista, MySpace, OnSale). Once the platform concept is understood, a new entrant may be more successful in recruiting the high-value and mainstream customers (Google, Facebook, eBay).

Among users of Facebook and Twitter, a gulf is emerging between celebrities and other users. Facebook is currently experimenting with charging a fee for ordinary users to send messages to celebrities. According to the Independent, Facebook plans to keep this money itself. Presumably the only benefit to the celebrity is helping to filter incoming messages. And of course many celebrities are now dependent on Facebook and Twitter for maintaining their public profile, so they are not able to walk away.

The growing distinction between different categories of user marks a transition from same-side network effects (which assume a single category of user) into a multi-sided platform. Linked-In is another platform that is making this transition. Linked-In gets much of its revenue from the recruitment business, so it is essentially a market-making platform. Whereas Facebook and Twitter remain largely audience-making platforms.

(For the distinction between market-making and audience-making platforms, as well as a third category of demand-coordination platforms, see David S Evans.)

I shall be talking at the IASA UK Architecture Summit on 26th April on Architecting the Multi-Sided Business. There is more extensive coverage in my Business Architecture Workshop. Please contact me if you have any practical challenges in this area.

Pieter Ballon, Platform Types and Gatekeeper Roles: the Case of the Mobile Communications Industry (2009)

Mark Bonchek and Sangeet Paul Choudary, Three Elements of a Successful Platform Strategy (HBR Blog Network Jan 2013)

David S. Evans, Managing the Maze of Multisided Markets (Strategy+Business Fall 2003)

David S. Evans, The Antitrust Economics of Multi-Sided Platform Markets (Yale Journal on Regulation, 2003)

David S. Evans and Richard Schmalensee, Failure to Launch: Critical Mass in Platform Businesses (Sept 2010)

Thomas Eisenmann, Geoffrey Parker, and Marshall W. Van Alstyne, Strategies for Two-Sided Markets (HBR October 2006)

James Legge, Facebook now charges you for messages sent to celebrities and people you aren’t friends with (Independent 7 April 2013)

Lisa O’Carroll, Facebook starts charging users up to £11 to contact celebrities (Guardian 8 April 2013)

Geoffrey Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne, A Digital Postal Platform: Definitions and a Roadmap (MIT Jan 2012)

Richard Veryard, The Component-Based Business: Plug and Play (Springer 2001)

Understanding LinkedIn Business Model (BMI Matters May 2012)

11 years, 3 months ago

Showrooming and Multi-sided Markets

As a retail phenomenon, #showrooming exposes a conflict of interest between online and traditional retailers. Many shoppers will examine a product in a traditional store, and then buy it from an online retailer or discount warehouse. The first retailer incurs costs – including cashflow, wear and tear on the product, as well as unproductive use of staff time and knowledge – while the second retailer takes the revenue.

To complete the story, there may be another class of customer, who is happy to buy the
ex-demonstration product from the first retailer at a discounted price. Thus there are five
distinct roles in this game: the product supplier, the first and second
retailer, the first and second customer. (In addition, if the customers are using their mobile phones in the stores, we should add the players in the mobile ecosystem.)

The earliest manifestation of this I can remember was buying records. You could listen to an LP in the record store, and then get a pristine copy (without the shop assistant’s fingerprints) by mail order from a company appropriately called “Virgin”.

Many retailers believe they lose out from this phenomenon, and some have attempted to prevent it. (Ever wondered why you don’t get a good cellphone signal inside a large store?) Earlier this year, both Target and Wal-Mart decided to stop stocking Amazon devices, although continuing to stock Apple devices. More recently, Wal-Mart has changed its position, and now claims to embrace showrooming.

By singling out Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart were making it clear that it is Amazon’s role as a retailer that they regard as a competitive threat. Although Apple also sells its devices online, it is presumably not regarded as an equivalent threat. In which case, banning Amazon products looks like a gesture of despair rather than an effective tactic.

Thinking of this as a multi-sided market prompts us to look at the direct and indirect flows of value between the players. It is as if the first retailer is providing an unpaid “service” to the second retailer, and the first customer is providing an unpaid “service” to the second customer. At present these are not genuine services, but it is possible to conceive of an ecosystem in which the product supplier or second retailer paid some form of commission to the first retailer. For all I know, that may already happen in some sectors.

Wal-Mart hopes to control showrooming by encouraging its customers to use its own mobile app, which attempts to steer customers towards its own online store. I wonder how many customers will accept this control, and how many will take the trouble to resist it.

Some large High Street retailers seem to have given up the idea of stocking goods: if you like something on display, you can order it. This has long been true for large furniture items such as beds, but is becoming more common for smaller items, as Simon Heffer complains.

Meanwhile, showrooming can work both ways. Last week I ordered a book from my local bookshop, having previously looked it up on Amazon. It was 5pm Friday when I placed the order, and they phoned me at 11am on Saturday to tell me it had arrived. (If I’d ordered it from Amazon, paying extra for 48 hour delivery, when would it have arrived? Monday, Tuesday?) So that’s showrooming in reverse.

Finally, instead of selling individual products, the showroom itself can become the experience. @KBlazeCarlson sees IKEA as a prime example, and quotes Alan Penn, professor of Architectural and Urban Computing at UCL, describing the IKEA experience as “psychologically disruptive”. “Part of their strategy is to take you past everything,” he says. “They get you to buy stuff you really hadn’t intended on. And
that, I think, is quite a trick.”

Chris Petersen adds, “Instead of product centric merchandising, IKEA’s showroom is perhaps the ultimate place merchandising, where the consumer solution is focused on the most personalized dimension – the consumer’s own lifestyle and living space.” Whether IKEA can replicate this experience online in the virtual world, as suggested in Patrick Nelson’s piece, is another matter.

Kathryn Blaze Carlson, Enter the maze: Ikea, Costco, other retailers know how to get you to buy more (National Post, June 2012)

Simon Heffer, My futile hunt for a lamp in John Lewis reveals why the High Street is doomed (Daily Mail 15 January 2013)

Brett Molina, Is ‘showrooming’ behind Target move to drop Kindle? (USA Today, May 2012)

Patrick Nelson, Brick-and-Mortar’s Showrooming Scourge (E-Commerce Times, Nov 2012) via First Insight

Chris Petersen, To beat showrooming … change the showroom! (IMS results count, June 2012)

Marcus Wohlsen, Walmart.com CEO: We Embrace Showrooming (Wired, Nov 2012)

Amazon’s Showrooming Effect And Quick Growth Threaten Wal-Mart (Forbes, Sept 2012)

Related posts: Showrooming in the Knowledge Economy (December 2012), Predictive Showrooming (December 2012)

Updated 16 January 2013

11 years, 4 months ago

A Cautionary Tale

Heard an interesting story recently, from a software developer advocating Scrum. I shall omit the names of the companies and individuals, and I may get a few of the details wrong, to avoid embarrassing anyone.

Our hero was working for a mobile device …

13 years, 4 months ago

Coherence Premium

Interesting article by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, The Coherence Premium. HBR June 2010 http://www.booz.com/media/uploads/HBR_Coherence_Premium.pdf

The authors define the “coherent company” as one that “has aligned its differentiating internal…