Making the Case for Platforms (Warning: Explicit Math)

In some recent posts, I’ve discussed the values of platforms over campaigns.   For those of you just joining us, platforms, or brand-owned spaces that foster long-term engagement with customers, offer an economical alternative to acquiring and re-acquiring customers via Facebook and Google.

Today, I’d like to discuss the economics.  There will be math.  I am not above putting pictures of puppies in this post to keep you engaged.

I will stop at nothing to get you to pay attention to numbers.

The basic equation shouldn’t hurt; you need to compare costs to build and maintain the platform against expected customer value over a relevant time period.  I have no hard-and-fast figures for any of the above.  As always, the devil is in the details.

Costs to build and maintain

Costs fall into two categories: costs to create the platform and costs to drive consumers to it.  Creative costs vary as widely as the forms they take.  These costs depend mostly on what the marketer intends the platform to do, which in turn depends on what’s right for the audience.  Figuring out platform functionality–and hence creative costs–will probably take up the lion’s share of strategy development time due to the open-ended nature of building a platform.

Driving customers to the platform, aka acquisition, also represents a substantial cost.  Yes, despite all I’ve written about turning away from campaigns, I will now discuss why platforms require campaigns.

Puppy reminds you to think about a cost per action model!

A platform won’t grow customers all by itself.  Just as with any other marketing tactic, marketers need to make sure their audience knows about it for it to succeed.  That said, bear in mind that the platform will have lower acquisition costs than, say, a campaign designed to sell something.  A relevant platform offers something useful or entertaining to the consumer, something of immediate value.  A timely article or a fun mini-game will have broader interest than a straight sell.

Expected customer value

Acquisition costs nothwithstanding, platforms ultimately must drive some measurable value such as sales.  Direct brands and retailers have no problem here since they can usually connect a visitor to a sale easily.  Other brands in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, automotive or consumer durables have some more math to do, especially in terms of attribution.  The same goes for direct or B2B brands that don’t rely on digital channels to close the sale.

In short, how the hell do you correlate activity on a cleaning tips app to sales of a washing machine?

It’s not “attribute,” it’s “attri-cute!”

As Bob Dylan would have said had he gone into marketing, “the answer my friend, is proxies.”  Well, he might have said it, at any rate.  Marketers need to find good proxies for purchase behavior.  Let’s use the cleaning tips app and imagine our client is GE appliances (disclosure: they were a client of mine before GE sold them off).  GE appliances could push a coupon through the app or encourage new purchasers to register their new appliances via the app.  From this proxy, GE appliances could use the cost of the appliance or some derivation thereof as the yardstick for value.

Relevant time period

Marketers can’t measure a platform’s success in the same relatively short time period that they might use for a typical campaign.  Platforms engage consumers at different points of their journey, so results may not happen in the near-instant time frames associated with digital campaigns.

As a starting point, the time period for measuring platform success should correspond to the customer journey in some way.  On a recent platform project for an automotive brand, for instance, I used three years as a period of measurement because three years represents a typical (if short) ownership period for a car.  For the appliance example above, ownership periods represent too long a period to wait; people hang onto major appliances for more than a decade!  Instead, it might help to look at a length of time related to the purchase cycle.  A typical CPG, on the other hand, has the opposite problem.  People replenish their pantries and supply closets weekly.  As a result, the measurement period might represent a typical timeline for a customer to go from new customer to brand-loyal customer.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  Now, let’s talk long-term lease depreciation.

I’ve sketched out the math for platforms in very broad terms.  Hopefully, you can use this math as a framework for evaluating ideas that will allow you to break your brand’s dependence on the digital duopoly.  If not, I hope you liked the puppy pictures.

Why rent when you can buy? The argument for marketing platforms.

In my last post, I argued that Facebook’s decision to shift their news feed algorithm away from publishers’ posts and back towards friends’ and family members’ posts should encourage marketers to build platforms as a hedge against changes that might hurt them.  Solid advice.

Now what the hell is a marketing platform and why should marketers invest in one?

In terms of description, a marketing platform is a long-term marketing initiative, often but not always digital, that engages customers and prospects at one or more points along the customer journey in a brand-owned space.  Let me emphasize that last point about a brand-owned space.  In some ways, platforms work like branded content in reverse; rather than engage consumers in a trusted publisher’s space, platforms build brand trust by becoming media properties themselves.

Some of my favorite examples of marketing platforms include:

Society of Grownups, Mass Mutual’s content platform for adult financial education

These models are about as psyched as you are to learn about IRAs

Society of Grownups speaks to a segment of recent-ish college graduates who need to start making financial decisions with lifetime consequences.  Creating the Society of Grownups platform gives Mass Mutual’s content some credibility without relying on a publisher brand.  They update it frequently with new articles, graphics and calculators to encourage ongoing learning.

DIY Projects & Ideas, Home Depot’s tool and project tutorial series

Now I have a nail gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Home Depot has, of course, featured live tutorials in their stores for ages (and these, incidentally, serve as a great example of non-digital platforms).  Putting these tutorials online might represent an obvious next step for our connected and busy world.  However, they also encourage consumers and maybe even some pros to keep visiting the site and to build their trust with Home Depot.

Yeah?  So?  Why should I spend money on one?

Obviously, platforms such as these, which depend on fresh content and functionality, don’t come cheap, so why build them?

In terms of the investment discussion, it helps to think of platforms as a way to buy your audience’s attention rather than to rent it.  A successful platform reduces the need to acquire and re-acquire customers and prospects every time they reach the “shop” or “buy” phase of the customer journey.  They keep showing up because the platform has something of value for them.  Continued visits build brand trust that ultimately leads to purchase.

Speaking specifically of digital platforms, they can also play a valuable role as CRM tools.  At their simplest, any platform can have a “buy now” button or something similar.  The nail gun video above has links beneath it to drive users to a nail gun buying guide that leads to product pages.  More subtle approaches can gather data about visitors (assuming proper permissions, of course) and provision them with appropriate content and offers when they display buying behavior.

In a subsequent post, we’ll discuss how to build, maintain and most importantly measure the performance of marketing platforms.  For now, though, think of what you could do with your audiences if they belonged to you and not Facebook.