The essence of business is connecting with customers.  At Avondale, we connect with our customers by creating long-term partnerships in lieu of pitching projects. Apple connects with its customers by creating great devices and building a supporting network (iTunes) for its customers that captures ridiculous value. Caterpillar connects with customers through a powerful rugged brand coupled with a dealer network that has exclusive rights to sell CAT equipment in a given geography.

Apple and Caterpillar offer three important lessons for any business looking to tap into a network of customers-regardless of whether they are a set of like-minded consumers, a network of dealers, or members of a small community.

1. Seek true customer input

Your customers want you to succeed...especially when they can benefit as well. So reach out to your customers for their input.

Forming an advisory board composed of key potential customers is a good place to start. Seek first- and second-degree connections to ensure you are getting real feedback and advice.

An advisory board gives you the benefit of true, unfiltered feedback plus the opportunity to earn a public endorsement from an "insider" down the road.  Your advisory board members get the chance to influence the direction of a product they are likely to use and the opportunity to connect with others in their network.

Whether your customer group is environmentally-minded consumers or Caterpillar dealers from around the globe, there's great value in customers networking and working together to create a solution.

2. Offer an initial incentive

As a business looking to enter into a group of networked customers, it's critical to earn sufficient market share to take advantage of the network effect.

First, figure out what's needed to really expand your product in the network.  Do you need early adopters to capture a network effect? Do you need the support of a few key influencers? Can you partner with a known brand in your customer's existing ecosystem?

Think holistically about the value of your initial customers and seek ways to entice customers to commit to your product. A special offer for your advisory board or other key influencers is likely to help you get the "street cred" needed to achieve sufficient market share in the inner-circle of customers. An early adopter discount for customers linked with an endorsement to others potential customers delivers the much ballyhooed win-win.

3. Communicate using network terms

Be sure to truly understand the culture and terminology of your customer group before launching your marketing efforts. Find allies in the network and work together to craft the right message to the networked customers.

Using quotes and imagery from people and organizations inside the network carries a lot more weight than do claims from an outsider. This can be as simple as a coffee shop creating a product that includes the name of a local legend.

For situations where the network may initially be unclear about your product's value, partner with organizations inside the network and have these insiders communicate the value of your product to the network. Customers get exposure as a leader amongst their peers and your product gets the exposure needed to earn strong market share. Did we hear win-win again?

It's not easy to move into a new customer network, but with a strong product and a strategic approach based on partnership, you can make it happen.  After all, life at Apple and Caterpillar isn't so bad - share prices have increased 392% and 208%, respectively, over the last three years.

Let us know how you've used your customers' social and business network to drive business.  Send us an email at

Avondale Vice President Brad Hoos contributed to this article.