Why do network effects matter so much?
Network effects have become an essential element of a successful digital businesses, for several reasons. First, the Internet itself has become a facilitator for network effects.
As it becomes less and less expensive to connect users on platforms, those able to attract them in mass become extremely valuable over time.
Also, network effects facilitate scale. As digital businesses and platforms scale, they gain a competitive advantage, as they control more of the total shares of a market.
Last but not least, as we will see, network effects are considered among the defendable, or what confers to digital business, a competitive advantage.
Where in the past linear businesses gained a competitive advantage by buying assets and controlling supply chains. Digital companies gain competitive advantages by building network effects.
The power of network effects
Image credit: Ray Stern, CMO of Intuit.
Network Effects enable digital businesses to gain value quickly. That is because they have built-in asymmetries between costs and value of the network. Where costs might increase linearly, the value of the network increases exponentially as the network grows.
The era of platform business models
Platform business models make up most of the value captured and created by digital businesses.
Image Credit: Applico, Inc.
That’s because, in theory, platform business models manage to scale efficiently. Thus, where a traditional business, at a particular scale, it reaches a point of inefficiency where diseconomies of scale pick up.
A digital, platform business, might scale so efficiently, to be able to grow close to the total size of the market. This enables the formation of monopolies.
Thus, network effects become the real “assets” in the digital era. However, those “assets” won’t be seen on the company’s balance sheets.
Quite the opposite, platform business models enable exchanges among a large number of people within a network, but in most cases, they don’t control any of the assets owned by the people in the network.
Instead, those platform businesses only facilitate exchanges. And as a facilitator, they collect a “tax” as a transaction fee. That’s why modern platform business models might look and act more like nations, rather than corporations.
Types of network effects
Examples of network effects
Source and Image Credit: nfx.com
NFX points out thirteen main types of network effects:
- Physical (e.g., landline telephones)
- Protocol (e.g., Ethernet)
- Personal Utility (e.g., iMessage, WhatsApp)
- Personal (e.g., Facebook)
- Market Network (e.g., HoneyBook, AngelList)
- Marketplace (e.g., eBay, Craigslist)
- Platform (e.g., Windows, iOS, Android)
- Asymptotic Marketplace (e.g., Uber, Lyft)
- Data (e.g., Waze, Yelp!)
- Tech Performance (e.g., BitTorrent, Skype)
- Language (e.g., Google, Xerox)
- Belief (currencies, religions)
- Bandwagon (e.g., Slack, Apple)
As James Currier, from NFX, points out, “Network effects have emerged as the native defense in the digital world.” Within network effects as a defensible NFX points out three key elements: scale, brand, and embedding.
It is essential to highlight that the types of networks above are not exhaustive, neither set in the stone. But the framework offered by NFX is a great starting point to understand how network effects work.
In this guide, I want to focus on two main kinds of network effects:
- Direct or same-side
- And indirect or cross-side
Direct or same-side network effects
Direct or same-side network effects happen when an increasing number of users or customers also increases the value of the product or service for the same kind of user.
Direct network effects usually follow Metcalfe’s law (one of the laws on the basis of network effects).
In short, Metcalfe’s law, developed in communications theory, states that, as users of a network grow, this enables the exponential growth in the number of potential connections, thus also an exponential increase in utility of the platform.
Indirect or cross-side network effects
Indirect or cross-side network effects happen when an increased number of users on the side of the platform drives up the value of the product or service offered for the other side of the platform.
Indirect network effects aren’t necessarily symmetric. In other words, in some cases, increasing one side of a platform might have more profound effects, than increasing the other side.
For instance, in Uber’s case, as a two-sided platform, driven by the exchanges between drivers and riders, the former play a more critical role.
Indeed, Uber uses dynamic pricing strategies that make the service less convenient for riders, but it keeps drivers going back to the platform.
Also, indirect network effects might not necessarily be reciprocal. Thus, increasing the one side of the network might improve the service for the other side. But the same might not apply if the other side of the network is increased.
Virality vs. network effects
In business, it’s easy to get confused between virality and network effects. But there is a clear distinction.
Where virality is a marketing tactic, that enables companies to lower up the acquisition costs of new users and customers.
Network effects represent a competitive advantage for digital organizations. Indeed, it is argued that network effects are the “real assets” digital businesses have.
- The internet has become a facilitator for network effects.
- Digital businesses work on a set of premises and principles that are different from traditional or linear businesses.
- Network effects have become the “assets” for digital organizations.
- Those network effects don’t sit on companies’ balance sheets. Rather digital businesses can trigger and build them up to create a strong competitive advantage.
- Network effects enable digital businesses to scale efficiency and to get close to the total size of the market.
- Network effects can be direct (when they when an increased size of the network improves the value of the platform for the same kind of users) and indirect (where the increased size of one side of the network improves the service for the other side).
- Network effects are not the same thing as virality. Virality is a marketing tactic to acquire users or customers at a lower cost. Network effects represent a business strategy aimed at creating a long-term competitive advantage for digital businesses.
- Dissecting Platform Business Models With Nick Johnson [Lecture]
- Platform Business Models In A Nutshell
- Linear Vs. Platform Business Models In A Nutshell
- What Are Diseconomies Of Scale And Why They Matter
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