At this point in our series, we’ve established the foundational elements of a strong platform as well as the importance of building relationships with both producers and users within the platform ecosystem.

While a platform’s underlying technology, application of data, and user experience all help to define the platform, branding is what makes it bigger; turning ‘slick tech’ into a community of users. Successful platform branding is all about shaping character and experience.

Character individualizes the platform; it defines the platform’s role in the relationship, as well as its identity, purpose and personality. Character also provides a crucial roadmap for the future. Platforms must stay fresh and relevant to strengthen the relationship with participants, and character is a strong guide for next steps. Growth, innovation and advancement must sync with the platform’s character.

A well-shaped experience is fulfilling for every user. Here, the platform’s role is to minimize friction and make the user community smarter. Platforms take technology, data, and participant interactions and turn them into value. Over time, positive experiences steadily compound the value that participants draw from the platform.

So, how do you shape character and experience and begin to build your platform’s brand? These five steps will help you get there.

Step 1: Define the platform’s role

The first step to develop a strong platform brand is to determine its role in the relationship with users. Which role does your platform play?

  • Organizer: creates connection by making it easy for others to plug into the platform; it organizes the infrastructure and technology that enables interactions between participants
  • Recruiter: draws people to the platform with a social, professional, and/or cultural gravitas
  • Matchmaker: builds connections between producers and users, making life better by reducing friction or opening new doors
  • Optimizer: strengthens the relationship between producers and users to the extent that fresh insight is generated and an incentive to create new value amongst participants is brought to life

Step 2: Articulate everyone’s value

With role and structure determined, the next step is to articulate the value proposition for each participant in the ecosystem.  In the process, it’s important to define:

  • What we do: this is a direct articulation of the role the platform intends to play
  • Why we do it: the platform’s purpose and fundamental reason for being
  • How we do it: describe how the platform will ease friction, shed new light, open doors, make things better or make new things possible for every member

These answers start to define the value proposition for each user group in the ecosystem. And this is where platform branding is distinguished from traditional business model branding: value propositions must be developed for both producers and users.

In the process, it’s important to remember that platforms create value through connection, not production. As more participants connect, more interactions take place and more value is exchanged.

Step 3. Integrate and orchestrate

The next step involves integrating and orchestrating technology, data and user interactions into an integrated whole. Key decisions involve:

  • What’s the right combination of technology, data and interactions?
  • What does day 1 look like?
  • How will this evolve in the next generation and beyond?

Step 4. Charting the value roadmap

This most critical step is mapping out how the value proposition will evolve as the platform matures. This is also a tricky step, since the platform is part of a larger ecosystem. If you’ve successfully built a community, the members will be invested in the journey.

Brand-builders must determine how to:

  • Refine and augment value for each participant as you learn more about what the ecosystem and how it relies on you to deliver
  • Uncover the progression of needs as the platform fulfills base-level requirements
  • Keep pace with expanding user expectations as the platform grows
  • Chart the unfolding of your offer in a way that keeps the platform fresh for participants

Step 5. Shape the platform’s character

The final step involves determining the platform’s character within the platform ecosystem and with participants. This involves building on the platform’s role to define its:

  • Values: the fundamental tenets that govern the platform’s behavior
  • Personality: who the platform is and how it would behave in a relationship
  • Look & voice: the look and the tone of communications that shape interactions

Freshness is a fundamental requirement of all modern brands.  Platforms need to stay fresh and engaging in the relationship as it develops.  While a platform’s values may be steadfast, the personality, look and voice should progress with maturity. Brand-builders must carefully craft an overarching brand character that’s both powerful and responsive.

Join us soon for Chapter 4, where we dive into the how to sustain and grow platform brands.

Platform in action:

Iconic platform brands are crystal clear about their role in society and the value they bring to users and to every transaction. (Quick examples: Airbnb provides confidence through curation; YouTube is an outstanding matchmaker.) The most compelling and successful platforms share four things in common. They are:

  1. Instantly recognized in the market
  2. Tailored in their value propositions for producers/suppliers and users
  3. Tapped into the cultural zeitgeist
  4. Connected emotionally in way that transcends emotional connection that transcends transactions

The platform’s role:

To connect aspiring homeowners or renters with local real estate professionals who can help them find their next home.

The value proposition it brings to each participant in the ecosystem:

For independent homebuyers, Zillow offers a window into available homes and into the home-buying market. Zillow uses a proprietary algorithm to estimate a home’s market value, and it provides insight into other factors, like the surrounding neighborhood and local school districts.

Sellers and real estate professionals benefit from Zillow too. Its advertising and software solutions help them find and convert potential buyers into lasting clients.

How it uses maintains its relevance and freshness:

Zillow thrives by attracting renters, buyers, and homeowners to its platform by offering free information and tools. Users can see their home’s estimated market value (its “Zestimate”), read and post questions about buying or selling homes (Zillow Advice), calculate mortgage payments (Zillow Mortgage Calculator), get customized mortgage quotes (Zillow Mortgage Marketplace), and find real estate agents (Zillow Agent Finder). After home-buying and selling, Zillow stays relevant to users with ideas for interior design (Zillow Home Design). As users engage with these free tools, Zillow learns about them. It uses that information to present tailored listings and to connect them to local professionals who can help.

On the other side of the platform, Zillow sells qualified leads, advertising space, and CRM services to a range of companies. For example, property management companies pay to list their vacancies on Zillow and to acquire qualified leads. Mortgage lenders pay for highly targeted advertising impressions and to appear in search results for custom mortgage quotes. Many real estate agents subscribe to Zillow’s Premier Agent services, which include web pages, CRM tools, and highly targeted advertising space across Zillow’s portfolio of sites and apps. Premier Agent accounts represent nearly 70% of Zillow’s revenue. *

*Source: “Zillow: The Platform for Homes,” 2017, Harvard Business School