Thanks to social media, businesses need to change how they think about influence. You can control what you say in an ad, sales meeting, or company memo, but when people connect peer-to-peer, you lose direct control over what is said or done. The new challenge is how to have influence from a distance.
Our mental models — such as those that come from the battlefield or biology — are ill-suited for this challenge. To understand influence from a distance, we must look to a different kind of force: not mechanical or biological, but gravitational.
By definition, gravity is a force that attracts any object with mass. Every object is pulling on every other object in the universe, a fact that is known as Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Objects with greater mass exert more pull, and the strength of the force increases exponentially as objects move closer together.
Gravity has four attributes that are relevant to thinking about strategy in a digital age.
First, gravity is a force of attraction. As John Hagel and John Seely Brown have observed, business models are shifting from push to pull. Instead of pushing resources to meet expected demand, companies such as Uber and Zara enable customers to mobilize resources by pulling them in as need arises. A similar change is happening in marketing, as ad spend shifts from push strategies that broadcast a message to pull strategies that respond to or even predict customer interest. Gravity gives us a way of comparing the relative strength of a pull strategy, whether as a business platform or a method of engagement.
Second, gravity exerts influence at a distance. In a networked world, things are more interconnected but also more fragmented. As a result, there is a greater chance of events happening outside our field of view: In politics we have seen Brexit and the surprise result of the recent U.S. presidential election, while in business we see customer insurgencies like the one against New Balance. In addition, brands are recognizing the limited effectiveness of branded content they can control. Real influence comes from catalyzing trends and ideologies happening in the broader culture.
Third, gravity is ubiquitous. It’s no longer possible to control everything about your product. We need to assume that everything can and will be seen by anyone. Amazon plans its product launches on the assumption that the news will be leaked. Companies need to find ways to be everywhere, all the time. The media landscape has become too fragmented to only target individual audiences. People are now the new channel. Gravity gives us a way of thinking about reaching anyone at any time.
Fourth, gravity is exponential. The ability to harness exponential growth is a common element of disruptive business models and a key to successful platform strategies. The problem is that traditional ways of thinking about strategy are mechanical, and therefore incremental. Gravity gives us a way of thinking about strategy that is exponential. As gravity pulls an object closer, the gravitational effect increases exponentially.
Physics tells us that gravity is more complex than two objects pulling on each other like magnets. Einstein revealed that gravity warps space and time. Gravity puts curvature into the universe, like a bowling ball dropped in the center of a trampoline, altering the path that objects travel along. In a similar way, companies that use the gravity model to compete can warp the marketspace, altering the dynamics of their industry. They do more than hit their targets and push them through the sales funnel: They create an ongoing relationship that alters the trajectory of customers’ lives and companies’ operations.
To compete with gravity, your strategy needs to generate a force of attraction, pull people into its orbit, and help them pull others in, too. Here’s what you need:
- Gravity Generators. To create a force of attraction, you have to go beyond thinking about value propositions and target audiences. Gravity originates in a shared purpose that is created with your stakeholders as cocreators, not just to or for them as consumers. Sephora, for example, creates gravity with a mission to “Beauty Together,” and relates to their customers as artists. Nike creates gravity with a mission to inspire the athlete in all of us, and relates to everyone as an athlete. Its saying is: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
- Experiential Orbits. To turn purpose into profit, companies design orbits that keep customers (and other stakeholders) in an ongoing relationship beyond individual transactions, or orbit. Instead of using relationships to drive transactions, gravity companies embed transactions in relationships. Amazon’s Prime program is a sophisticated orbit, attracting members with a wide range of experiences, from shopping to ebooks to streaming media. Google and Apple have designed different kinds of orbits. Google’s orbit includes search, email, and maps; Apple’s has iTunes, Facetime, and the Genius Bar.
- Force Multipliers. Companies competing on gravity create the equivalent of solar systems, with a shared purpose at the center and stakeholders in orbit around that purpose, like planets. But planets generate their own gravity. Your stakeholders’ networks are like moons around a planet. By helping them generate their own gravity, you attract others into your orbit. Vail Resorts does this with its EpicMix program, turning skiing into a social experience. Topgolf has done the same with its driving ranges. When you help people attract others, you become an even greater force of attraction.
The following questions are helpful for understanding how well you are generating gravity and warping marketspace to your advantage:
- Is your narrative more about your products or your purpose? Is there a reason for people to want you to succeed in your mission even if they never buy anything from you?
- What proportion of interactions with your company are not directly related to a transaction, either as sales or service? Do you create value for people beyond the products you sell?
- What proportion of interactions about your brand or product happen without your direct involvement? How well do you support those interactions (without being in control of them)?
What does all this look like when you put it together? Imagine your industry as a galaxy. Each competitor has its own solar system. Your prospective customers are floating through space. Your job is to create enough gravity to pull them into your orbit. Your job is also to dislodge those on the outer edges of your competitors’ systems and bring them into yours.
Once they’re in orbit, you need to keep bringing them closer, increasing their loyalty and advocacy and attracting peers from their networks into yours. As the mass of your solar (or social) system grows, so does the gravity you generate. If your gravity weakens, a competitor will come along and attract customers away.
Competitive advantage has traditionally been about higher barriers to entry. Now it’s increasingly about generating a greater force of attraction.
Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.