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New evidence for the power of digital platforms

By Jacques Bughin and Nicolas van Zeebroeck

Incumbents should go on the attack with their own online exchanges.

Digital attackers in most industries can severely drain the profits and revenues of incumbent players, as we have shown in recent research. Companies under pressure, though, can limit the damage if they adopt an offensive corporate strategy, one that involves willingly cannibalizing existing businesses and reallocating resources aggressively to new digital models.

Which digital business model—when deployed offensively—offers the best odds for regaining lost ground? We dug deeper into the data from our survey of more than 2,100 global executives1 and found that going beyond the mere digital delivery of products or services and setting up an online marketplace correlates with markedly improved performance at established companies.

Platform play. Such online exchanges, or platforms, are a growing feature of digital competition, and the favored operating model of most of the largest Internet companies.2 Few incumbents, however, are responding with platform moves of their own. The exhibit maps the strategic responses of the 2,100–plus companies3 and highlights the 15 percent of them reporting “offensive” corporate-strategy moves. Their revenue and earnings over the last three years, on average, are superior to those describing their strategic reaction as “defensive.”

Companies pursuing ‘offensive’ platform strategies achieve a better payoff in both revenue and growth.

A significant finding is the correlation between recent financial performance and the 12 percent of companies in the sample that have chosen to create new platforms.4 The biggest impact appears to be on the one in five platform companies that pursued the “offensive” option. They did much better than one in ten defensive companies that chose a platform strategy.

Connecting customers. Another critical finding is that the nature of the chosen platform matters. The experience of successful platform players indicates that benefits increase when platforms redefine value propositions for customers, reshaping the demand side of the market. Many companies do so by enriching their products or services with information, social content, or connectivity, providing an easier experience for customers. Indeed, demand-driven platform plays, when combined with an offensive digital corporate strategy, are strongly correlated with superior financial performance—about six to more than seven percentage points in earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) and revenues—relative to the nonplatform, defensive players.5 It is noteworthy that the revenues and EBIT of the latter group declined, suggesting that some companies will face greater competitive pressures ahead.

Why are so many incumbent companies slow to respond more aggressively and to leverage platform models? One answer is that implementation requires incumbents to overhaul legacy IT systems while overcoming cultural and strategic constraints. Many are reluctant to disrupt today’s business model for an uncertain digital future. Most companies worry that they may open up the value pool to competitors if they cede power to customers via new platforms. Our research shows that this reluctance may be shortsighted.

About the author(s)

Jacques Bughin is a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and a senior partner in McKinsey’s Brussels office. Nicolas van Zeebroeck is a professor of innovation and digital business at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, Université libre de Bruxelles.
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