Key takeaways

  • Business is used to thinking about customers as individual account users, but the rise of personal network ecosystems shows another possibility.
  • User ecosystems are built around trusted recommendations and tapping into them can reduce switching and increase customer satisfaction.
  • Instead of breaking group or family accounts into individual accounts at times of churn, there is an opportunity to retain users in new ways, often extending the network further.


Those with a Spotify, Netflix, or Apple Music account will likely be aware that they offer the ability to share the subscription with others. These days, group accounts are on the rise, particularly when it comes to being able to share services – such as cloud storage, music, television, ebooks – across family groups.

These accounts are often seen as a stage on the journey toward independent accounts, but what if instead they were looked at in terms of the personal ecosystems they tap into, not a source of individual accounts ready to be plucked apart?

Businesses are struggling with customer acquisition and retention – breaking up group accounts is often seen as a strategy for gaining customers. But it may be the wrong focus. Separating customers into single-user accounts brings only short-term revenue, and if it doesn’t cause an individual to switch away in the process, it misses a much larger long-term relationship opportunity that is emerging with the growth of personal networks.

Given that service breakups often revolve around life events or bad customer experiences, group accounts – when handled sensitively – present an opportunity not only to keep customers, but to gain more.

Serving customers,
not data points

Customer relationship management has traditionally been seen as a data exercise, not a people one. This is obvious when considering the systems companies use to gather and store customer info – complex pages of checkboxes, entry fields and drop down menus represent the data required, but not the workflow of the person using the system or the way that a customer would prefer to interact.

One of the primary reasons human centered design has delivered so much growth and profitability in recent years is that it considers the human relationship first. If we think about services in a more human-centered way, we can recognize long customer relationships, friends and family connections and see life changes, then the companies that provide services can become much more supportive partners.

Take personal networks and service interaction, for example.


Family and group accounts are now common in digital music, internet and subscription streaming services, and their popularity reveals the emergence and importance of personal networks. One account holder can invite an entire group of people to share in the service.

While there is usually a slightly higher fee for a shared account versus a personal one, it is still cumulatively less than the cost of multiple individual accounts. For digital music services, such as Spotify or Google Play Music, the idea of a family account or personal network is critical to the paid subscription side of the service.

The slightly higher monthly subscription becomes much more attractive if everyone in the household can be added, even if the short term per-person revenue for the service is reduced. Spotify, for example, has seen the average amount spent per person drop – but so too has churn to other services, and content consumed has risen. As TechCrunch views it, they’re playing the long game.1

To the customer, these groups also make sense. Consumers are getting a service they want, are able to share it with those in their personal network seamlessly and are paying less for it.

Building on
personal trust

Multi-accounts also lower the cost of entry for individuals in a personal network, not just in monetary terms, but in terms of trust and effort. Consumer research has long shown that advice is often trusted more from those closest to us – a family member, coworker or friend inside a person’s trusted network – than from an ‘official’ source.

This is where life events and recommendations come together. Positive or negative life events – moving, birth of a child, marriage, going to college – often trigger churn if services don’t meet the needs of the new life stage. If a customer is already considering a move, and a new service is recommended by a trusted personal advisor, that customer is much more likely to sign up.

Given the increasing importance of a trust-based economy, tapping into personal networks instead of relying on individual acquisition should be where businesses are heading. Not only does signing up one for many cost less, it also brings with it the opportunity to grow. For example, with personal networks that start as family units, new circles of influence within the network will spin off as children leave home.

This can be applied to all manner of industries. Auto insurance companies, who recognise older children on existing policies and transition them out to individual accounts, could instead keep them in the group, creating stickier customers by way of offering family discounts and reaffirming the trusted recommendation. Banks, which often have child accounts linked to a parent, could keep family accounts connected in a network, allowing the group to access better rates and deposit limits than an individual could get alone.

The handoff
and disconnect

Group accounts, of course, don’t always stay together. Children leave home, couples separate, friends drift. There is a disconnect moment when a user in a network has to separate or start their own network. This is easiest moment for a person to switch to another service provider, leaving all of that network intelligence behind.

Putting a customer who has been with a brand for years through a new account setup process makes it appear that an established relationship is starting over. This can be enough for a customer to switch providers.  If customers have to enter all the information over again, account switching becomes an easier option.

The opportunity then is to make it an easy transition from one network to another within a service. In the same way people hand off responsibilities when they leave a job or home, the responsibility for the handoff of music listening history, wireless internet usage or group discounts could be handed to another person already in the network or brought along into the new one.

not separating

Solidifying these personal networks and then handling the separation moment gracefully becomes the best way to continue building the trust and relationship both for the primary and sub account relationships. Creating a seamless history for a network participant means increasing the likelihood of them staying, but also, of bringing new customers into their own growing personal networks

Taking this a step further to look at the person at the center of each network, each personal network could have a shared stake with the service provider. A ‘network owner’ turns gradually into a partner with extended reach. A customer with influence over a network of 50 or 100 individuals, has additional buying power, and could be treated very differently with special privileges.

A large service provider from any industry could use this network leader’s status to distribute offer and expertise information to the entire network more effectively – at that point, the network of individuals becomes a partnership with the service provider.

Sharing is caring,
and profitable

Research shows that 2 in 5 parents of 18- to 35-year-old children still pay for their kids’ cell phone service, and 29% continuing to do so even after their kids have moved out.2 Friend and family recommendations (25%) is one of the the top two drivers, alongside convenience, as to why people are motivated to switch their primary bank according to PwC findings.3

Shifting away from an account and product mindset and more toward the complete customer relationship reveals the potential for many of these new services and experiences.

The potential for tapping into personal networks that already exist is immense. Customers become stickier, trust is kept within the network and thus the brand or service, and the possibilities for further growth alongside that of the network itself all indicate that individual accounts may be a thing of the past.

It’s time to embrace the network.


Digital Pulse: John Jones


John Jones

John is a managing director in PwC’s New York Experience Center.

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