For many organizations, growth comes from entering a new market. Taken uninformed, however, this venture is fraught with risk.
Knowing which buyers and organizations are the best points of entry, which organizations can and will create barriers and road blocks, where the landmines are, and who your potential guides and partners are can make all the difference in your rate and degree of success.
An ecosystem map serves as a valuable tool for getting the lay of the land in a new market, assessing the opportunity, and identifying the best points of entry. But before we can extol an ecosystem map's benefits, we first have to explain exactly what it is we're talking about.
The dictionary defines an ecosystem as "an ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit." If we apply this definition to the business environment, we can describe a business ecosystem as the network of independent entities comprising members of a market community.
Understanding how this network works together provides a great deal of strategic insight. And a common method for understanding the ecosystem is—you guessed it—to create an ecosystem map.
As we're wont to say, "A picture paints a thousand words." An ecosystem map provides a visual representation of the network. It depicts all the network members—such as buyers, competitors, distribution channels, and influencers—and graphically represents the relationship of these members to each other. A key value of the map lies in its ability to identify and visually represent these relationships.
We recommend five primary steps when creating an ecosystem map. As you complete the third step, opportunities and roadblocks will become visually evident. By the time you complete the fifth step, you'll have degree insight into whether or not you should become a player in the ecosystem (and if so, how to do it).
1. Define the scope. Because ecosystems can actually overlap, the first step in creating an ecosystem map is to define its frame of reference. An ecosystem can be created around a company (such as the Microsoft ecosystem), or around a platform (such as the iPod ecosystem), or around an industry or a vertical (such as the health care computing ecosystem).
2. Identify the members. Every member of an ecosystem plays a role. There will be enablers—members who provide key technologies or capabilities enabling the members to effectively solve problems and compete. And there will be those members who attempt to control technologies, standards, partnerships, and channels.
At a minimum, you will want to identify the members in the following groups when you create your ecosystem map: buyers, competitors, influencers, and channels/partners.
Buyers are those members who can potentially benefit from your offer. In a vertical market you may need to segment your buyers into groups. You will want to organize these members by those who are most likely to buy.
Competitors are those organizations you will need to compete against, whether directly or indirectly for the buyers' resources. Remember to include the big players, as well as any niche players.
Influencers are those members who buyers rely on for decision-making guidance. In a business ecosystem these might include editors and reporters in publications, market and financial analysts, trade associations and lobbyists, industry experts, etc.
Channels/partners are those members who help ensure access and availability of the offer to the buyers.
The key here is not only to identify all the major players, but to also identify the value of each player. For example, the potential dollars per buyers, the market share currently held by a competitor, and so on. Your goal is to understand who the key members are in each group.
3. Identify the relationships among and between members. Once you have identified all of the key players, the next step is to identify the relationships between them. The purpose of this step is to identify the barriers and opportunities.
For example, is the chairman of the board of a key association also a member of the leadership team at a primary competitor? If so, what barrier might that present? What if the chairman of the board of a key association is a member of the leadership team at a primary channel partner? What opportunity might that present?
How many of the main buyers are the primary competitors already doing business with? Do some buyers or sub-segments offer better points of entry because there are fewer connections between these buyers and competitors? Are there some influencers and organizations that align with a particular cluster of customers or competitors? How are the competitors aligned with the channels?
4. Paint by numbers. As you finish the map, you'll need to add in the details that will help you assess the viability of entering the ecosystem, as well as what impact you can have and where. Answering questions like the following can help you round out important details:
• For the entire ecosystem: What is the total revenue? How many members comprise the ecosystem? What are the general trends in the ecosystem?
• For buyers: How many segments there are? How big is each segment? Which segments provide more than 5 percent of the total sales? How many members are in each segment, and who are the top five players in each? What is the size of opportunity in each segment, and what barriers exist for each?
• For competitors: How many competitors exist in the ecosystem? What is the degree of concentration of competitors in each segment? Who are the top direct competitors in each segment? Who are their primary customers, and what are their competitive advantages and key products?
• For influencers: How many individuals specialize in analyzing the ecosystem and the members participating in it? Who are they? What are their areas of focus? How many recognized technical experts have influence on the decisions of the buyers in the ecosystem? Again, who are they?
What are the primary publications keeping tabs on the ecosystem? Who are the reporters and other members of the press who track the segment trends and players, technologies, and issues?
Who organizes the events and conferences in this ecosystem, and what are the most important events? What industry organizations, think tanks, and specialty firms influence the ecosystem? Remember to think about the influencers both from an online and offline perspective.
5. Assess the viability of the ecosystem. Armed with your map, you can assess the attractiveness and health of the ecosystem for your organization. Does the map suggest a stable ecosystem? Is there room for new players who can deliver new functionalities, improvements to quality, speed, or lower costs?
A healthy ecosystem continuously creates and grows niches; assess whether this one demonstrates this ability. Based on what you learn, describe the desirability of participating in the ecosystem. Detail where you see the best points of entry in terms of segments, buyers, channels, and influencers, along the degree of difficulty in establishing a position for your company.
If your assessment reveals the ecosystem is attractive and healthy, your next step is to develop a go-to-market plan. Use your map to guide your entry. Define areas that could delay your entry or increase your costs.
Last but not least, use your map to reveal potential connections among the influencers and channels, as well as potential initial buyers.
Laura Patterson is president and co-founder of VisionEdge Marketing, as well as the author of "Metrics In Action: Creating a Performance-Driven Marketing Organization."