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This blog first appeared in the Harvard Business Review, March 5, 2012.

The most successful companies in business today have something in common. This trait doesn’t just make them better than the competition; it makes them fundamentally different.

Where traditional companies push out messages and products, these companies pull customers in. Instead of treating customers as passive targets, they treat them as active participants. Like the sun in a solar system, they create a gravitational field that pulls customers into their orbit. They go beyond customer loyalty to building customer gravity.

Consider three top companies with orbit strategies: Apple, Google, and Nike. Each has a different approach, but the result is the same: customer-initiated touchpoints between transactions, and the creation of value beyond just product. At the core of each orbit strategy is a platform or service, what might be called a Customer Gravity Generator. Apple has iTunes and the App Store. Google has its search engine and Gmail. Nike has Nike+ and NikeID.

These orbit brands are actively building new Customer Gravity Generators. Apple has launched its iCloud. Google created Google+. Nike just launched NikeFuel.

Orbit brands are organized differently than traditional companies. Traditional brands are like artillery. Their mantra is aim and fire. They spend their time sighting targets (through customer segmentation), calibrating trajectories (by optimizing marketing mix), loading ammunition (with messages and offers), firing their weapons (with marketing campaigns), and celebrating successful strikes (from sales).

Orbit brands are more like scientists building a supercollider. Their mantra is test and learn. They focus on understanding the physics of their market space (through customer behavior), create and improve their technology (on products and platforms), run experiments (for new benefits and services) and analyze the results (for customer engagement).

To get started with an orbit strategy, start by measuring the strength of your gravitational field. Customer satisfaction isn’t enough. You aren’t measuring how well you target and transact. You want to measure the attractiveness of your brand — how well you pull customers in, and how well they pull other customers in with them.

A good test of where you are on the push/pull continuum is your social media strategy. Are you using social media as a channel for delivering messages to an audience? If so, you may be stuck in the push mindset. Or are you using social media as a way to listen and learn, to create an authentic relationship, and to deliver value beyond the products you sell? If so, you are well on your way to being an orbiter.

Next, imagine how you might build your own Customer Gravity Generators. First, revisit the core mission or purpose of your company. Think about what would help fulfill that mission and complement the products and services you sell. There are any number of sources of value: data, content, stories, relationships, experiences, identity.

If you think that only technology companies can create orbit strategies, think again. Nike has created a series of gravity generators, including Nike+, NikeID, and NikeFuel. With each generator, Nike creates a different orbit. One for runners, one for shoe aficionados, and one for athletes. Nike+ is particularly good at building social gravity, as existing users pull in new users like moons around their planets.

You don’t need to be a product company. Vail Resorts, a ski resort operator, created an orbit strategy with its Epic Mix. Starbucks’ “third place” strategy turned its own stores into gravity generators for local neighborhoods. Retailer Sears Holdings — where I work — is creating concentric orbits: ShopYourWay.com, a social network for social shopping; FitStudio, a community for fitness enthusiasts, and Craftsman Experience, a media channel for do-it-yourselfers.

You can also start small. Have you seen the Samsung power towers at busy airports? Road warriors are always huddled around them, tethered via their power cords. Samsung used electricity to generate customer gravity, and this one literally pulls in potential customers.

There are lots of options for creating customer orbits. So next time you hear someone talk about targeting customers, ask yourself, “What could we do instead to create some gravity and pull them in?”

Mark S. Bonchek can be found at www.markbonchek.com.
You can also follow Mark @markbonchek.

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by Brandon Gutman
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Brandon is an expert connector and seasoned business development professional. As Principal of Brand Approved, he's led the advisory to become the bridge between brand marketers and best of breed service providers that are reshaping the industry.

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