People like to use metaphors. When we are trying to explain something, describe a situation, or develop an idea, we often compare the subject at hand to another thing that the listener may already know. Marketers use metaphors in many situations to reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to grasp a concept or an idea behind a product. Terms like bandwidth, information highway, the cloud, data mining, and even internet and web are all attempts to transfer what we know about one thing to something inherently dissimilar – the definition of metaphor.
Two very common metaphors used to describe companies are organism and ecosystem. When you read those two words, you have very different images pop into your head. Which one you think most closely resembles your view on how you run your organization can have a profound impact on how you approach the world, your customers, and your company.
Take the word organism. Here's one definition - “a form of life considered as an entity”. Good metaphor for describing a company. Companies are entities. They have some sort of life. They are born, they exist, and they die. They may spawn other companies. They have boundaries or limits like the skin on a human.
The issue with this way to describe a company in how organisms act. One of the purposes of the skin or covering on an organism is to protect it. The skin keeps things from getting into the organism. When we are touched, an instinct is to pull away from the thing that touched us. The organism must constantly be fed and much of the energy used by the organism is to keep itself going. The organism is focused on running well and surviving. Those boundaries make everything else foreign or a potential threat. The internal focus and boundaries are the problem with this metaphor.
Look instead the definition of ecosystem - “a system, or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment.” The key words here are interconnected and interaction. No organism, and certainly no company, can exist by itself. Your company is connected to many other entities in many different ways. Those connections cause interactions. Hopefully, those interconnections and interactions generate great things like ecstatic customers, great employees, and an ever-increasing bottom line on the income statement.
What does this mean for your marketing? If you are an organism, you look inward. The boundaries are important. You could keep things, like great ideas and potential new products, outside those boundaries. This sounds like the behavior of many organizations.
If you are an ecosystem, you focus on interactions and interconnections. One thing you quickly realize is that you can't do everything by yourself. This mentality is especially prevalent in startups and small companies. Those organizations don't have the resources, time, or money to do everything themselves.
New things can enter the ecosystem. Those new things can adapt, grow, and survive. The participants interact and then learn and grow from those interactions. The ecosystem probably contains entities that are trying to get to the same resources as you. We call those competitors. Some things don't make it. Perhaps when people talk about large companies being more entrepreneurial, they could be unconsciously referring to the broad varieties of interactions and interconnections that happen yet we don't pay attention to.
Customers are an obvious place to pay attention in this ecosystem marketing. Surprisingly, many companies as organisms forget about connecting to potential channel partners, influencers, thought leaders, suppliers, and others in their marketing efforts. You may find other people and companies that are just waiting to help make you more successful.
The lesson here is that no matter how big you are or how much money and resources you have, you can't do it all yourself. Look at your ecosystem and see where you are. You may be surprised by what you find in the jungle we call markets.
By Geoff Roach
Geoff is a San Francisco-based CMO with Chief Outsiders, serving B2B companies across the U.S. with brand and product strategies to accelerate growth. Email or call Geoff at 415.699.1592, or connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.