Guest Blogger: Dr. Shaoling Katee Zhang, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Cameron School of Business (this post originally appeared on WilmingtonBiz.com on November 6, 2019)
In recent decades, we have seen numerous modern two-sided platforms emerging across a wide range of industries, such as transportation (Uber), hospitality (Airbnb), food delivery (GrubHub), recruiting (Monster), education (Coursera), financing (Kickstarter), healthcare (Cohealo), travel (TripAdvisor), professional service (Upwork), retailing (Alibaba), and local service (Angie’s List).
They are technology-based market intermediaries that enable interactions between two distinct groups of users — producers and consumers — to exchange ownership of goods or services. Due to asset free and nearly zero marginal costs of distribution, these platforms are considered as the most profitable business models, with a 17.5 percent compound annual growth rate and 24 percent profit margin, outperforming any other traditional linear business models (e.g., manufacturers).
However, innovation is a challenging task for these platforms to remain sustainable over time. The primary reason is because they rely on mobilized “assets” — network effects — to survive. In the case of Uber, network effects are manifested as: more drivers attract more riders, and more riders attract more drivers. Without getting a critical mass of users on board and engaging them, network effects would decline, making the two-sided platform defunct.
So, what should they do to innovate?
Recall that a two-sided platform is a market intermediary that enables interaction. To make such interaction occur repeatedly and efficiently on the platform, the platform needs to build and maintain its capability of managing users and its capability of managing exchange. Research finds that the platform conducts two forms of innovations with distinct strategic goals to build and enhance these capabilities:
- Same-side innovation, which refers to new offerings that affect either producers’ production behaviors or consumers’ consumption behaviors. These innovations are further classified as producer-to-producer (P-P) innovations and consumer-to-consumer (C-C) innovations. eBay’s “Shine Awards for Small Business” program was a P-P innovation as it encouraged more production behaviors by allowing rewarded sellers to obtain greater exposure to buyers. In contrast, eBay’s “eBay Bucks” program was a C-C innovation as it encouraged more consumption with cash back benefits. These innovations are aimed at building and enhancing capability in managing users.
- Cross-side innovation, which is termed P-C innovation, refers to new offerings that modify exchange functions of the platform, including filter, match, facilitate, and curate functions. eBay’s 3-day guaranteed delivery program was a P-C innovation that improved the facilitate function of the platform, providing faster delivery services to create satisfactory exchange. Uber’s bilateral review system was a P-C innovation that enhanced the curate function of the platform, encouraging good exchange while penalizing bad exchange. These innovations are aimed at building and strengthening the capability in managing exchange.