Becoming A Network Citizen

The network is the value. While for network businesses such as Facebook, Skype or Foursquare this statement is a dearly held truth, its a much more nascent concept when it comes to brands more broadly.

In fact, for most, the network value mindset is actually the opposite of how they have traditionally built brands. The reasons for this are fairly simple. As Brad Burnham from Union Square ventures has observed, brands are used to having preferred status on the networks they inhabit – essentially paying for super-node status across a hierarchical media landscape.

This apparent power created a mindset of controlling the network rather than fitting within it. The challenge now is that todays Internet enabled networks tend to be flat rather than hierarchical. To borrow from Mr. Burnham’s comparison, the new networks are closer to the phone network than the TV network. As a result, the shift of customers and brands to these new networks necessitates a very different kind of brand behavior.

From observation, it appears that brand value tomorrow will stem less from how well you control the network and more from how effectively you fit within it and enable the behavior of its other citizens.

This fundamental shift, from marketing as control-the-network to marketing as enable-the-network is what I’d refer to as becoming a Network Citizen.

When we consider the scale and speed of the consumer shift from the old hierarchical networks toward these new flat networks, I believe effective network citizenship may well come to represent the future of marketing.

In becoming a network citizen, there are three areas that I believe will become critical:

  1. Creating value by increasing and strengthening the connections between the nodes in your network.
    Within the new network environments, it appears that strengthening the connections sits atop a foundation of mutual exchange. Whether this is Starbucks asking customers to help them with incremental quality improvements through or Innocent Drinks who use social channels to promote content created by their customers. Here, mutual exchange of content between brand owner and brand consumer appears to both strengthen connections and increase the number of nodes in your network. In terms of content forms, there appears to be two common types. Either content that is created in order to be mutually shared (e.g. YouTube clips) or content that represents conversation and question answering (e.g. customer service via Twitter)
  2. Creating value by contributing to the issues that people naturally build community around
    It is much rarer than brands think that community will be formed by their customers around them. Instead, community appears to form more densely around peoples issues of interest. For example, rather than a community forming around Tylenol, you’re much more likely to find one forming around a related issue such as acute back pain. In this environment, brands have a tremendous opportunity to fit within the network and enable people’s interest in the issue. In the case of Tylenol and acute back pain, they could strengthen the network through providing a combination of established and emerging thought leadership on back pain and pain management. This generosity of knowledge has two effects. First it creates legitimacy of Tylenol within the network, which strengthens its bonds. Second, it gives Tylenol the permission to directly interact with that consumer around future product innovation requirements. In the short term, while Tylenol is unlikely to be a solution for acute back pain, their enablement within the network strengthens their customer bond and makes Tylenol more likely to be used for that customers other pain needs. (Such as a headache)
  3. Creating value by abiding by the unwritten rules of the network and being generous with its other members
    Every environment within the new networks have different unwritten rules. I don’t want brands spamming my Wall on Facebook, and I don’t want them filling my Twitter feed with needless messages about how good they are. Being generous and fitting within the unwritten rules of a flat network is a key aspect of Network Citizenship. Already for some brands, the boundaries between brand and customer are beginning to blur as customers increasingly participate in the activities of the brand itself, creating a real-time relationship effect with these customers.

All of these ways of behaving, of course, run contrary to the traditional controlling and campaining mentality that defined the old reality of marketing-as-network-control. I’d argue that this is a major reason why the ROI on social media advertising has been patchy at best. It’s simply not a medium built for such campaigns. Instead these flat networks appear to be much more effective at building ongoing relationships that sit atop a foundation of mutual exchange.

Ultimately, if harnessed correctly, the shift toward network citizenship has the potential to create a new generation of brands for whom network participation has blurred quite deeply the traditional divides between brand owner and brand consumer, and in the process re-framed the idea of brand loyalty for the 21st century. At its most powerful becoming a Network Citizen has the potential to create significant competitive advantage, where the strength of a brands network drive both loyalty and recommendations, and creates an incredibly strong emotional barrier to switching.