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7 Tactics for Building a Guerrilla Platform on the Web

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 18, 2007

Guerrilla Platforms are all around us, often lurking closer than we suspect until one pops out and grabs our attention.  I’ve blogged before on platform adoption strategy and on Marc Andreesen’s platform theories, but I felt the topic needed another kick, this time focused on subtlety. 

Platform adoption is a viral phenomenon, and the most successful viruses are those you don’t know you have even caught until you’ve gone on to infect many others.  A virus that is too strong, too virulent, will burn itself out before enough can be infected.  In platform terms, that means a platform that takes too much up front investment is likely to burn itself out before it can really take root.  A Guerrilla Platform cruises just beneath the surface building up momentum until one day everyone wakes up and wonders how a platform has suddenly appeared where there seemed to be none before.

Stowe Boyd talks about Building in Openess, and gives us some good ideas on how to create a Guerrilla Platform:

Centralized Platforms are bad, because they are closed and give someone a monopoly, says Boyd.  I submit that most often a centralized platform will be preceeded by a Great Application.  It is the art of misdirection, “Don’t mind that platform, these are not the droids you’re looking for, focus on this Shiny Object.”  Let us call the Great Application/Great Platform bait and switch Tactic #1.  Facebook used this mechansim by offering a Shiny Social Network at first and then unveiling a platform.  Note that a centralized platform need not be Andreesen’s Level 3 type, where the app is hosted on the platform.  It just needs to have sufficient controls so they app only runs on the closed platform and developers have to write for that platform.

Distributed Protocols are better, where disparate platforms agree to communicate via some common standard.  But it’s hard to achieve that agreement unless market conditions are right and it is particularly hard to profit from having created the standard, which must usually be given away and owned by some governing body or working group.  Still, you may need a platform to become established for other reasons.  Hackers do it for pleasure.  Some combination of the two may have resulted in the iPhone being hacked and protocols released for things like accessing the accelerometer or unlocking to change service providers.  I’ll call Giving Away an Open Distributed Protocol Tactic #2. 

Stowe’s “Interlinked” architecture I’d call a Bridge Architecture.  Bridges use a middleman to do the impedence match, freeing disparate platforms from having to support a common protocol.  The Bridge Architecture is classic Disintermediation.  You have to love that big long word, once the favorite of VC’s during the last Internet Gold Rush.  The tactic here is to offer something that makes you the middle man between the consumer and some other platform or service they favor.  If you’re a good middleman, the consumer gradually loses touch with the original platform.  At the appropriate point you announce with a flourish that the original is no longer even needed because you are the new platform and you can give the consumer everything they always wanted and more.  Voila!  The original platform has just been “disintermediated.”  Boy, that’s gotta hurt.  What’s an example?  Dave Winer’s fears about Feedburner and RSS are all about the potential for Disintermediation.  All those RSS feeds are all going through one central choke point in Feedburner, and that makes it possible for Google (which owns Feedburner) to contemplate mischief.  It gives them an unfair advantage.  We’ll call the Bridge Architecture Tactic #3.

In keeping with the Guerrilla Concept, there is also the Marketing and PR aspect.  Talk down your platform.  Don’t speak of world domination.  Focus on solving a few key problems and helping out.  If the platform has more power than that, let others discover it.  Toss a few rocks into the bushes nearby to help them find their way.  Tactic #4 is Talk Down Your Platform.

How about creating a Slippery Slope?  The carnivorous pitcher plant makes it easy for insects to get started entering, but the further they go the harder it becomes to back out.  You create a situation for your platform where someone does a little bit, gets excited, does a bit more, and over time they get completely hooked.  This involves minimizing the friction getting in and maximizing the network effects and lock-in aspects.  Scoble got totally locked into using Google Reader because he’s built a ton of personal metadata around it.  Tactic #5 is minimize the friction to enter and maximize lock-in to create a Slippery Slope.

Quid pro quo literally means “something for something.”  In this case, it would be the tactic of offering something that benignly enrolls the consumer into being an unwitting platform supporter.  Napster let people download music if they hosted the content for others to download.  Facebook is flirting with offering storage space if you use their platformSprint will put a box in your home to extend their wireless network.  Open Source gives you free software in exchange for adoption, but there are other ways they monetize your adoption.  Beware quid pro quo, it can become a form of lock in if you are too dependent on the quid, if you pardon my pun.  Quid pro quo is Guerrilla Platform Tactic #6

Tactic #7 is insert breadcrumbs in the other guy’s platform that draw customers back to you.  Widgets are an interesting game of tug-of-war when used in this way.  They’re like double agents.  In theory, the platform owner has created a platform by granting the largesse of allowing widgets in order to make their own platform stronger.  Yet, sometimes a player can insert widgets into a platform to drain attention back over to their own platform.  Witness Amazon’s use of widgets that can be embedded on blogs and the like.  Also, I know an awful lot of people who build something smallish (more than a widget but less than a full app) on Salesforce’s AppExchange largely to generate sales leads so they can get those customers onto their own products.  I would call this kind of strategy a “partial disintermediation with a shot of quid pro quo”.  Or, we can just label it Tactic #7:  Use Widgets or other bread crumbs to pull people off another platform and onto your own.

Summary of Guerrilla Platform Tactics

  1. Launch a Great Application that has a thinly concealed platform attached.  Defer announcement of the platform until the Great Application is well established.
  2. Give away a distributed open protocol that’s suitable to create a platform around.
  3. Be the middleman that matches disparate protocols between services to create a Bridge Architecture.
  4. Talk down your platform.  Focus on solving a few key problems and helping others out.  Give away those first couple of keys to prime the pump.
  5. Minimize the friction to enter and maximize lock-in to create a Slippery Slope.
  6. Offer Quid pro quo.  Give away something to platform participants that enrolls them as unwitting platform supporters.
  7. Use Widgets or other bread crumbs to pull people off another platform and onto your own.

3 Responses to “7 Tactics for Building a Guerrilla Platform on the Web”

  1. […] Comments 7 Tactics for Buildi… on Great Products Become Platform…wosid on SAP’s A1S Brings Competi…smoothspan on Who […]

  2. […] made me think back to my 7 Tactics for Building a Guerrilla Platform and see that Adobe (and Microsoft with Silverlight wants a piece too) has used a few of those […]

  3. […] Summary of Guerrilla Platform Tactics […]

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