Image by I am marlon via Flickr
I’ve worked with a lot of clients over the years, and the faster the pace that the Internet drives, the more that I see one particular problem cropping up, what some would call a “tail lights” strategy–copying whatever someone else does first. It’s impossible for you to be the first one to do everything, so it is natural that when you see someone else do something that looks good that you would want to copy it. And sometimes that is exactly the right thing to do. But often, it sets you down the road to ruin.
Why does a tail lights strategy so often lead to failure?
- Your competitor is wrong. Your assumption is that they know what they are doing, but often they don’t. What looks cool or flashy or successful might be a glaringly dumb idea that becomes obvious only in retrospect. But your competitor probably figures this out before you, also, so you are left following their car again, rather than getting out front yourself in the right direction.
- You won’t get any credit for it. Your customers usually know which company is responsible for an innovation and they flock to the right ones. If you just follow the leader, you are incurring all of the costs of copying the idea but getting little of the revenue the pioneer did.
- It obscures your own strengths. What’s right for one company is often wrong for another, and when you copy another company, you might be doing exactly the wrong thing because you are better at other things. I know one company that is apoplectic over the success that a competitor is having by cutting prices and selling directly to clients over the Internet. But instead of copying that competitor, this company ought to be using its extensive dealer network to create a local presence in social media and search that its competitor can’t match. And it should be selling the advice it provides for this complex product rather than just a lower price. Copying the low-cost competitor would be a huge profit drain that likely wouldn’t even work.
If there are so many reasons not to ape the competition, why do we see it so much? It’s because it is easy. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to take a chance. You just do whatever succeeded for the last guy and that seems good enough. I also believe that the pace of change nowadays leads to more copying, because everyone is moving so fast that they don’t even have time to think. They see a competitor do something and they just react, rather than carefully deciding what makes sense for their own company strategy.
To be sure, copying success isn’t a dumb idea all the time. In many ways, your customers expect it. But if you find yourself blindly following the leader and rarely being a trailblazer yourself, it’s time to take a breath and see why that is happening. The pioneers might have to dodge some arrows, but getting to the new territory first is one of the largest competitive advantages this digital world has to offer.