Putting Platforms on a Pedestal

In the sunset of his career Luciano Pavarotti did something he had never done before: He released an album of pop songs. And despite being one of the greatest living tenors–a man with legions of fans the entire world over–that record didn't sell very well.

Here's the thing: it wasn't a terrible record. Granted, it wasn't Lady Gaga or Tony Bennett, but it wasn't garbage, either. The fat guy could carry a tune. In the hands of an artist we'd never heard of before, it would have been an intriguing debut. So why didn’t it move units? Precisely because it was something ol’ Luciano had never done before.

The adoring public knew Pavarotti as an opera singer, perhaps the best, so they weren't interested in him dabbling in other genres. When you're very good at one thing, it can be quite difficult for you to interest your customers in a new and separate offering.

When was the last time you checked in on Facebook Places, the social media giant’s geolocation service? When was the last time you posted a comment on Ping? You know, Ping? The social network built into Apple’s iTunes? Or checked the weather by using your cable television’s widgets menu? For the vast majority of you, the answer is "never."

We use foursquare for geolocation and we use Facebook for social networking, but swich that around and the equation doesn’t make sense to us. The roles are played as cast. Once somethings function has been established, it’s hard to alter the perception in consumers' minds that THAT’S WHAT IT DOES–even if it’s an added functionality.

And yet we also live in a world of profound ADHD, omnipresent multitasking, and 100k+ app stores. So what gives? I believe there is a dichotomy in the consumer mind that separates things they purchase into two catagories: products and platforms.

Products do one thing. We try to buy the best products we can, and when a market leader emerges, we celebrate it. A taco, for example, is a product.

Platforms, on the other hand, serve a number of applications, and provide us an interface for gathering and using those applications. Platforms tend to not have as much longevity as a product, but they can make much bigger market booms. A taco truck is a platform.

Occasionally, a product can transition into a platform. Google has made the transformation from a simple search engine into a rich platform of applications and product offerings.

Facebook, on the other hand, has had mixed success. Zygna made a fortune by leveraging Facebook as a social gaming platform, but for every Zygna there are countless failed enterprises that never found their footing.

Only a few years ago the very idea of comparing Google and Facebook as competitors would have been ridiculous. Lately, though, these brands (and others aspiring to their level) are seeking to transmogrify themselves into platform-based business models. It is a route fraught with peril.

Frequently, trying to move into the platform space just dilutes your brand. There's nothing wrong with simply being a product. Products do just fine. Look at the Flip camcorder, the iPod, or Wikipedia; all are hugely popular products. They do one thing, and they do it exceedingly well.


Crown Prince of IT said...

In a genius move, Cisco killed the Flip about 6 weeks ago. You are not incorrect in calling it popular, though, since it continues to be widely used.

Kevin Allen Jr. said...

Yeah, I think Cisco's struggles to figure out what to make of the flip acquisition, and their ultimate killing of the line was a shortsighted move.

Also the ipod, though in it's initial incarnation was a total unitasker has become absorbed by a platform product.

I was hard pressed to think of good product examples that were widely successful, recent, and tech based. Products tend to do better in other fields, maybe? Perhaps they live outside the consumer realm? There's something interesting to take away from that little kernel.