Research from University College London reported in this month’s New Scientist provides further insight into some of the characteristics and patterns of behaviour within communities, and some interesting implications for brand owners.
The researchers wanted to understand how the Apple App store operates. They started with the premise that in theory, it should be easy for app developers to get rich on the Store. How? By creating apps that copy best-selling apps. So, why doesn’t every app developer do this?
To answer this question, the researchers built a simulation of the store to look at the behaviour of app developers. Given the name AppEco, the simulation employs bits of software that obey unique behavioural rules to imitate apps, developers and customers.
The simulation mimics four types of developer the team identified: (i) innovators, (ii) optimisers, (iii) milkers, and (iv) and copycats.
Copycats build copies of top-selling apps, whereas innovators design groundbreaking apps. Optimisers take a successful app, such as the Angry Birds franchise, and modify and improve it, whereas milkers have one design, and replicate it. For example, milkers might create apps for underground metro lines, rather than build one app that can call up many underground lines.
Having designed the simulation, the authors ran a series of tests, each time starting with all four types of developer creating the same number of apps.
When they forced the proportion of apps from each group to be constant, the copycats quickly made the most money. But their advantage soon quickly vanished as unhappy users abandoned the store, because the ecosystem suffered from a lack of novel products. All the apps became similar.
In a second simulation, consumers' choices dictated which apps thrived and which failed, which is what happens in the real Apple App Store. Under this scenario, optimisers sold most apps, with innovators next, followed by milkers - leaving copycats making hardly any money. It became a self-regulating ecosystem that doesn't abide copycats.
It is salient that in this second simulation, the results arose without the App Store having to impose any rules. As a marketplace, customers decided who failed and who succeeded.
For me, the research highlights some of the ways communities work. Communities tend to have different types of membership, with groups developing over time that have different roles within them. If left unimpeded, these communities emerge as self-regulating eco-systems that do not tolerate behaviour that impedes the lives and interactions of its inhabitants.
Messages that brands can take from this study are twofold. Firstly, if brands want to be involved in communities, they need to understand the needs of the people that inhabit them, what is important to them, and their interactions and norms of behaviour. They need to fit themselves seamlessly within communities without impeding them, and facilitate them. If they do not conform to the norms, desires and needs of community members, and do not give in ways that are meaningful to communities, they will either damage those communities(as in the first simulation), or members will marginalised them (as in the second).
Secondly, the research suggests that if a brand attempts to create its own community, such as online, then imposing rules and regulations that constrain interactions between members can make that community unsuccessful for the brand. Rather, members need to shape the community according to what they want, with the brand facilitating that community. If brands do not allow this, then the research indicates that satisfaction of members is likely to decline, and they will leave the community.
Ref: Marks, P., (2012) Secrets of App Store revealed by artificial life forms. In New Scientist, 11 April 2012, 2860.