When Data Creates Competitive Advantage.
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Many executives assume that customer data can give you an unbeatable edge. The more customers you have, the more data you can gather, and that data, when analyzed, allows you to offer a better product that attracts more customers. You can then collect even more data, repeating the cycle until you eventually marginalize your competitors. But this thinking is usually wrong. Though the virtuous cycles of data-enabled learning may look similar to those of network effects—wherein an offering increases in value to users as more people adopt it and ultimately garners a critical mass of users that shuts out competitors—they are not as powerful or as enduring.
Nevertheless, under the right conditions, customer data can help build competitive defenses. It all depends on whether the data offers high and lasting value, is proprietary, leads to improvements that can’t be easily imitated, or generates insights that can be quickly incorporated. Those characteristics do give firms an advantage. And when learning from one customer rapidly improves an offering for others (think Google Maps), people will care about how many other people are adopting it, and it will enjoy those sought-after network effects.