The dangers for second movers in a digital world
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working as a strategist in a digital agency is getting to interact directly with numerous stakeholders across a variety of clients. It’s great to learn how each of those organisations operates – to go in as an unbiased outsider and see the internal machinations first hand.
One recurring theme you’ll sometimes notice from that vantage point is how many brands digital ecosystems (by which I mean a complete set of digital technologies that provide direct touch points with potential and existing customers), appear to have grown fairly organically, often ad-hoc and often in silos.
This results in the experience they currently deliver to their external audiences (typically multiple segments each with distinct needs) not being as good as it could or arguably should be.
As Jeff Bezos famously pointed out, “customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don't yet know it, customers want something better”.
And it is precisely this gap between the experience an organisation is currently delivering and the experience that discerning customers expect which can lead to prospective or existing customers taking their business elsewhere.
Keeping up with the Joneses
That fear of losing out to the competition often results in copycat tactics – an attempt to nullify any advantage competitors appear to be making by doing the same.
Whether it’s setting up new social media channels and forums, creating more email programmes, developing new apps, investing in new content, bidding on similar AdWords, updating a tired website, venturing into IoT, wearables, chatbots, virtual reality, etc. – whatever the tactics may be – the impetus is often “have you seen what our competitors are doing?”.
When copying makes sense
Of course, it is entirely sensible to keep an eye on the competition and consider what they have done, or what you anticipate them to do, to inform how you act.
Similarly, there are times when effectively waiting and copying their approach makes perfect strategic sense too. Being the second mover, instead of trying to lead the charge through innovation, is a legitimate play: potential benefits include reduced research costs, less resources spent on educating customers and less risk of significant opportunity costs in the short-medium term if a new project effectively fails.
Last year we began working with IBM Watson on a chatbot for one of our clients and I concluded then how it would generally be the second movers in this space second movers in this space who’ll come out best in the next couple of years.
The problem arises when copying the competition is not a deliberate strategic ploy but more of a knee-jerk reaction born of fear, a lack of insight or a lack of leadership across siloed digital teams.
In a fast moving technological environment, with ever increasing options available to, and demands placed upon, digital teams, the need for a clear strategy that defines how to use finite resources has never been greater.
When copying costs
The costs of copying the competition can be significant – not only wasted resources creating, maintaining and promoting solutions that fail to meet customers’ needs; but the opportunity cost of addressing genuine priorities. Not to mention the internal frustrations among employees that may arise in the process.
To avoid these pitfalls, the best companies follow these principles (rather than each other):
Exceed expectations. Great companies don’t stand still. They continually spot and respond to the gap between what consumers expect and what they have to offer – whether that’s in their marketing, their products or their services.
Keep your data fresh and your research first hand. Great companies stay close to their consumers. But they also know that – as consumer expectations keep rising – all insight has a sell-by date.
Never assume anyone knows anything. Copying rivals is dangerous as they may well be labouring under their own mistaken assumptions about what consumers expect – or even copying someone else.