Marketing and media can learn from the software developer community to achieve more scale

Software companies grow roughly twice as fast as the global economy. In fact, rapid growth is embedded in the culture of the industry, with books such as Blitzscaling by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman defining playbooks and recipes for proven growth-hacking unseen in the founding cultures of other industries.

We’re accustomed to the growth—and the volatility—of the software sector. And instinctively, we attribute its success to solving for latent demand, fueled by digital transformation and booming at a macroeconomic level, pre-destined to crown as unicorns our most innovative and disruptive.

But what if some of the growth in the space can be attributed not only to problem-solving products and UX and UI that lead to disruptive MVP existing at the low end of the market only to move upmarket and conquer—ok I’m getting ahead of myself.

What if some of the growth can be attributed to the embedded culture of community building in software and technology that is absent in many other industries? Specifically, what if the paradigm of unlocking API and SDK to enable developers to build their own applications using features and data of the host platform, is in itself one of the most brilliant software industry innovations there is?

Well, if that’s the case, and I believe it is, then we can apply this concept across many other industries, and today I am making the argument that brands can use the same community-building, API and SDK-like concepts in the media and marketing space to power their communities, extend their reach and grow their business.

In short, brands across all industries should empower their communities like software companies do, and be more generous with their assets and resources, think beyond the tired ‘Brand Guidelines’ archetype, and encourage customers and fans to build, build and build to evangelize on their behalf.

This is not to say that all other industries don’t have tremendous examples of communities, ambassadors and influencers. There are incredible sales channels, loyalty programs, and social media has created an incredible opportunity to engage these fans.

But thus far, these dynamics are typically point-to-point, at least in B2B. Brand to fan. A celebration or recognition of patronage, and perhaps an incentive, demo or trial, or other nod in the direction of innovation.

Whereas the next step could be to empower a new type of customer to develop, build and grow their own business with your business. Not just as a dealer, integrator or distributor, but as a developer builder who leverages access to media, assets, data and resources you provide, to reduce their costs to scale. Call it influencers 2.0.

To define a framework for this, it’s first useful to examine some of the characteristics associated with software companies who offer API and SDK as core business models, and how that can translate into brands.

 

  1. They see their product as a platform upon which others can build. Brands, often product companies, see their product as the endgame. It’s engaging. It’s worthy of social, and shoutouts, case studies and influencers (yes, even in B2B), but it’s still a product. Yet common marketing thought, such as Donald Miller’s Storybrand reminds us that brands should play the role of the guide, empowering the customer to achieve new heights as the hero. Sounds like a platform to me. Start by seeing your brand, and your offerings as a platform, not a collection of products.
  2. Software companies often consider their developer community sacred members and much more than customers. These are their builders. Brands should ask who their developers are. These are the intermediaries using their products in unique ways, customizing, integrating and implementing. They guide their own solutions and their own customers, with your product as anything from a component to a main event. But they are much more than merely end-users. While software companies engage these developers with documentation, libraries, events and education, most other industries seek testimonials and case studies, reactively. Growth does not happen in retrospect, so pour your energy into assisting your developer segment, whoever they may be. They want to use your products and services as a platform to build their own solutions.
  3. The software industry has demanded and received flexible, transparent pricing models as a standard. Yet many industries, especially in B2B, still have opaque pricing, with elusive customization, lead time, and availability dynamics feeding the sticker price. Developers—fans—and anyone seeking to build with your offering need predictability and scalability in their consumption models.
  4. The software industry, in its API and SDK-fueled scalability plays well with others. Integrations are the name of the game, enabling successful collaborations at incredible scale. Imagine if all industries innovated with the idea that their product would be purely compatible, with native functionality, with other participants in their industry. From content creation marketing collaborations, to pilots and tests, to custom product lines and actual integrations, expand your thinking on how integrations and partnerships can transform the reach of your brand.
  5. Engage your community in your product development lifecycle and give them a say in innovation. Seek feedback and hold community events, virtual and in-person, specifically for those building businesses and solutions around your products. And elevate these contributors with the full strength of your platform.

 

But how can the majority of brands, outside of technology, achieve anything along the lines of a developer segment, and enable others to build on their platform? It sounds almost like a logical fallacy—corporate jargon or investor-speak, but impractical in the familiar competitive market for products…not platforms.

Well, in addition to modular product design, which as Clayton Christensen pointed out tends to win over time (versus closed-loop, end-to-end solutions; even Apple may be commoditizing their hardware to gain market share at this point, and expand on their platform-esque services business), brands can start by platformizing one very important growth engine, their marketing and media assets.

Specifically, brands can begin to treat their marketing assets as much more than the rigid brand guidelines, reserved for picture-perfect co-op marketing campaigns, retail and dealer displays or agency-led advertising. Brands can instead see these very assets as a sort of API or SDK, a library, and source code for scale.

Brands can flip the common school of thought around the use of logos, typography, audio, video—everything they might hold dear in their DAM (Digital Asset Manager) software—and begin to generously offer it to fans, “developers”, customers, students—anyone who might build, celebrate, or otherwise scale their media and marketing distribution to their own audience, with their own goals, organically.

 

“Brands should let go of perfection, and instead seek viral, organic growth.”

 

Brands can learn that software companies accept risk when offering developer access, and work hard to mitigate risk. But to close down an API or SDK would stunt growth. Brands should let go of perfection, and instead seek infection – viral growth, organic growth.

Could it be that in addition to software companies, the phenomenon in media, literature and the arts known as fan fiction provides an unlikely source of inspiration for the approach to letting go, and scaling up, as fans use your media for their own productions?

Learn from the greats in media: Lucasfilm offers the Expanded Universe Program, Marvel offers Marvel Custom Comics, Lego offers Lego Ideas, NASA offers its Image and Video Library and Netflix offers the Netflix Originals Toolkit—all examples of empowered fan creator tools and assets. Relinquishing brand control, but gaining scale, engagement and growth.

And some companies have also dabbled in what you could call Brand Fiction, offering ample assets and materials to their community. In addition to these purposeful efforts, we can of course see brands of passion, such as Jeep in B2C, enjoy everything from fan clubs, to their own short films and concept cars, but what else could be done to fuel this segment of their fan population?

It starts with tools and access. Just as a refresher, in the software world, these tools typically include portals, consoles, support materials, documentation, community and networking, analytics, and an element of compliance. Sounds like the next generation of a DAM to me.

Brands can offer unparalleled original media, raw files, fonts, B-Roll, stock, music—everything they could imagine creators wanting.

Educational content, inspirational content.

But not just with the sole purpose of addressing their believed needs of an end-user base, or sales channel demands. Instead, brands can and will approach the empowerment of their fans, their customers, their developers, their builders, as an exercise in access, assets and endless scale.

In the future, creators will leverage newfound support, tools and assets from brands to reciprocate with organic content creation, support, and the most cost-effective and authentic form of evangelism their industries have ever seen, just like the software industry. Hoodies optional.

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