The purpose of a company is to create value. To do this, a company has two options: They can create all the value themselves or they can create a platform where people create value for each other.
In the industrial revolution, the company was a machine, creating all the value itself and optimizing for mass production. Many businesses still use this model, but for most industries, it’s outdated. For those still holding on, they must brace themselves for ever-more changes.
In the last decade and a half…
- The Encyclopedia became Wikipedia.
- Rosetta Stone became Duolingo.
- The tech press became Product Hunt.
- Hotels became Airbnb.
- Taxis became Uber.
These are all examples of platforms that leveraged the power of the crowd to revolutionize their industries. Build a platform, empower people to create value for each other, and you can far outperform the machine.
As a result, it seems every business today is building some sort of platform, even if their product itself isn’t a platform like the examples above. For example:
- Apple created a platform for experts to help customers with their questions.
- Salesforce created a platform for their most valuable customers to provide feedback and ideas to fuel innovation and improve their product.
- Lululemon created a platform for loyal advocates to represent the brand and host local classes, creating a grassroots movement that grows their customer base.
- Toptal created a platform for members to connect with each other, creating a sense of community and driving retention.
Understanding how to build a platform is not so simple, of course. At its most basic level, you have to understand what you’re building on that platform: Is it a crowd? A collaboration? Or a community?
Each of these words have been used interchangeably in the world of online platforms, but they’re very different. The way people participate, the reason they participate, and the measures of success are different for each one.
To Build a Successful Platform, You Need to Motivate People
The key to a successful platform is knowing how to motivate people to participate. To do that, you have to know who is part of the crowd, who is part of the collaboration, and who is part of the community. If you know where a member sits on the platform spectrum, you can better understand their motivations and optimize their experience.
Let’s look at each one, and we’ll use Airbnb as our example of a platform that has all three.
A crowd is a group of people who individually contribute to achieve a similar goal.
They aren’t working together or interacting with each other, and they aren’t looking for a sense of community. They’re mostly there for transactional value.
Think about the large portion of Airbnb hosts who don’t care to connect with other hosts, they just want to post their rental space, make money, and that’s it.
A collaboration is a group of people working together to achieve a shared goal.
These people are interacting and helping each other make a greater contribution to the platform. They’re also looking for the transactional value of the crowd, but they want to improve how they use the platform and they get value from working with others. They don’t necessarily want a sense of community. They just want to interact to the extent that they get the value they came for.
Some hosts on Airbnb come together online and at events to exchange advice and feedback on being a better host. They’re collaborating to make a stronger contribution to the platform.
A community is a group of people interacting to enhance their sense of belonging and shared identity.
They’re contributing to the group, not necessarily to achieve some specific outcome, but to serve the group itself and further a mission and vision, because it has become part of their identity. They’re likely looking for the transactional value of the crowd and the collaboration, but they’re also seeking the emotional value of a sense of belonging.
The only way to find out if a community exists is to ask people through careful surveys or interviews, and to look for signs of community. The Airbnb hosts who feel a sense of belonging and shared identity form the core of the platform, the host community.
Platforms may have all three, as described in the Airbnb example and visualized in the image above. A lot of people will just be part of the crowd. Some will collaborate. A core group will feel a sense of community.
You can have a crowd without collaboration. It’s rare you’ll have a collaboration without a crowd. And it’s also rare you’ll have a community without collaboration and a crowd. Every community of any scale has people who feel a sense of belonging, people who are there to get value from interaction and people who are there just to contribute and consume individually.
Prioritize the People, Not Technology
When building a platform, the technology is useless without the people. But most tech companies only focus on the tech.
— David Spinks (@DavidSpinks) October 4, 2016
A lot of companies think that if they build great technology, the people will just come and start forming crowds, collaborations and communities.
This is rarely true. In fact, most of the huge platforms we know today started with little to no technology. Product Hunt was an email newsletter. Craigslist was an email list for events. Reddit was one simple page with links. Meetup was, you guessed it, local events. Still today, many big platforms have products that are neither beautiful, nor easy to use.
But they have the people.
Build the foundation of community, then use technology to scale that community.
- A platform can have a crowd, collaboration and community.
- If you’re building a crowd, make sure each participant is getting independent value from their contribution.
- If you’re building a collaboration, make sure each participant is getting value from their interactions as well as value from their contribution.
- If you’re building a community, make sure you’re facilitating experiences for participants to form relationships, and they they still get value from their interactions and their contributions.
- When starting out, prioritize people over technology. The technology serves the people, and helps the platform scale.
Most businesses can build a crowd. Some build a collaboration. The few that have built true communities at their core have become movements, and have revolutionized industries.
Which one are you building?