5 Platform Models for Social Businesses

Digital social innovations are novelties that use, develop, or rely on digital technologies to address social and/or environmental problems. They include a broad group of digital platforms, which facilitate peer-to-peer (or business-to-peer, peer-to-business) interactions. In our research on digital social innovations in France, we identified five platform models they rely on in governing the interactions between their users, which also form the basis of their business models. These models govern how the information, knowledge, or resources flow in the platform.

Matchmakers form pairs

These platforms match users (like a, b, c, d) with each other according to their specific needs or provisions. In most cases they give rise to interactions between pairs of users that best meet each others’ needs. Examples are plenty, like sharing platforms or volunteering platforms. These platforms work well for spot exchanges that do not require high commitments, and are short term. Digital reputation is an important component that sustains relations in the platform. However, when the matching model is used for longer term and more committed relations, that are often based on meaningful deliberations around a specific cause, and among a tightly knit community of users, they might not work well, due to issues of trust, or lack of joint objectives that sustain the collaborations in the long run.

Knowledge brokers transfer knowledge and experiences

These platforms transfer knowledge between users. While they too can be based on the rules of matching, they involve more refined knowledge exchanges, often based on personal experience, or knowledge and expertise about a specific subject. Knowledge transfer takes place usually in a directional manner, from one group of users to another. The users can be experts in a certain field, or people who need customized advice or expert opinion. In the figure, (a, b, c) form one group of users, and (1,2,3) form another. Medical research platforms are an example, where patients (or relatives of patients) explain their symptoms and problems and researchers  provide advice, and also use this knowledge in their research. These platforms are useful for cases in which a deeper knowledge transfer is required, or more trust based relations as compared to spot exchanges.

Pools collect dispersed information

These platforms form a common pool of knowledge or information. Pools are platforms in which information is collected in a central pool, and accessible to all users of the platform. This is akin to the wiki model, where many users participate (often) in an open manner, and the pool is (usually) open to anyone who wants to have access to the resources. Pools are good for problems that can be effectively solved by collecting dispersed information pieces and for problems that require collective intelligence; user commitment can range from collaborative to spot users. For example IWheelShare in France is a platform in which users can signal places that are suitable or unsuitable for people with disabilities in urban areas.

Crowdsourcing platforms give direction to distributed resources

These platforms give direction to distributed resources. They help generate support for individual projects (or causes). They can be general purpose, like the case of Kisskissbankbank, which is a platform where any project can be funded. They can also be specialized on a certain problem, like Bluebees, which is confined only to agricultural projects. This model works well for mobilising people around certain problems to increase awareness or legitimacy (like in e-petitions), or in generating monetary or other kinds of support for a certain social issue; like disability, or sustainability. In some crowdsourcing platforms, there are collaborative relations between the funders and the project owners. This may depend on the level of support provided by the funder. For example in the case of journalism, project owners can feel a  strong connection to their funders, and can have various sorts of collaborative relations. In the figure, a,b,c are shown as funders, and 1,2,3 are projects.

Alerters monitor the environment and signal problems

Alerters are platforms that signal the users when a certain threshold is passed, or when a certain event occurs, mostly through mobile devices. These platforms work well in cases where the problem is related with the users’ restricted or limited abilities to keep track of relevant information or in alerting urgencies. Alerters are often confined to alerting the users themselves, or users’ social networks. In the figure this is shown by the arrows from a (the user) to A (user or her social network).

Social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and other actors that operate platforms for social and environmental problems should consider the match between the nature of the problems they address and their mechanisms of operation, for increased effectiveness and long term survival.

Müge Ozman and Cédric Gossart