Play it Safe to Consistently Lose in Online Marketing

In consulting larger companies, I’ve recently learned that it’s many times easier to convince decision makers to act when a competitor is already executing a similar strategy. Suggest the same strategy as an untested initiative and it’s nearly impossible to win approval from management. As companies grow they tend to become increasingly risk averse.

Thanks to risk-averse leaders in competing companies, all of your best ideas will inevitably be copied. Some of these clones won’t be pretty (cough Bing cough cough), and others will beat you at your own game. If you launch a successful marketing campaign, find an effective link building method, or design a revolutionary product that people love, you can expect shameless imitation by many of your competitors with varying degrees of success.

Organizations lacking agility, innovation, and tolerance for risk will wait for you to do the hard work for them. If your ideas work they’ll follow behind and in many cases replicate your success. How can you stay ahead when the very things that put you ahead begin to be commonplace?

Your marketing campaigns will be copied.

Remember this guy?

Of course you do. How about these guys? No?

These videos, along with a handful of terrible ads too bad to show here, are embarrassingly similar to the Old Spice commercials. Edge shave gel is trying so hardto be Old Spice that I almost feel bad for them. Almost. This is not an isolated incident. Car commercials could basically swap out their logos and no one could tell the difference; I can still hardly tell the difference between jewelry sellers’ commercials.

Your product will be copied.

iphone4-next-to-galaxyS

Just ask Apple. And for the record I use an Android phone. Nothing propels a marketing campaign forward like a revolutionary product, but not even that can last forever.

Your SEO and link building methods will be copied.

We’ve seen mimicry happen in SEO quite a lot. It takes a ton of effort and expertise to devise an effective strategy that will result in client returns. At the same time, it’s now easier than ever pull up a list of competitors, look for their top pages and best links, and proceed to copy everything that worked.

Let us not forget our long history of copying blogging strategies, link networks, infographics, and now guest blogging for links alone. Mindlessly trying to out-guest-blog the competition through generic posts might work to some extent, just like the Edge commercial probably sold a little more shaving gel. It just won’t scale or build a brand like an innovative strategy, or even a well-designed branded guest posting campaign.

Competitors will often let the market leader guide them through the darkness hoping to learn successes. Even if they fail, they’re going to fill the channel with so much noise that your effectiveness plateaus and then plummets. You may even lose your share of voice on your own idea as competitors win with deeper pockets, better pricing, or superior execution.

We’ve seen the innovate-copy cycle repeated endlessly in content marketing. Several companies have risen to new prominence through well-designed and well-executed content marketing strategies. Now here come the content marketing copycats, who I wrote about last time. How can you ever hope to stayahead?

Organizations and processes are incredibly difficult to copy

The iPhone might be relatively easy to copy, but it’s a lot harder to copy the process that produced the iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc. before anyone else was close. When I began consulting, I was under the mistaken assumption that winning is something that only needs to happen once – that I could somehow compete with a single winning strategy or tactic. I’ve since come to realize that those pretty blue lines that go up and to the right have less to do with really good ideas and more to do with the people and processes behind them.

In order to get ahead and stay ahead, the only answer is a process of constant innovation and smart risk-taking. Let’s look at some common search marketing problems we face whether we’re in-house, part of an agency, or freelancing.

Example: marketing content is not attracting attention

A lack of interest often looks like the problem, boring content might look like the cause, and the ostensible solution might seem to be something like, “Make content more surprising. Everything you write about is obvious stuff everyone knows. Also, use a video or two and stop using crappy stock photos.”

The real root of the problem is a lot more difficult to approach and unravel. It could be that the writers don’t know how to create surprising content. It’s very possible that managers, editors, or overly-aggressive compliance personnel are very picky about how their brand is represented, making it impossible for content creators to do anything with  a shred of personality. Perhaps content creators just don’t have the resources they need.

The good news is that when we discover and solve these underlying problems we’re suddenly able to create innovative content on a regular basis. Content creators will go forward with the freedom to innovate rather than copying a past formula that probably worked at some point and feels safe. If we measure the right goals, they’ll also learn what works and help the organization adapt and grow over time.

Search and content practices are sustainable competitive advantages

It’s tempting for a highly-analytical person to look at a failed marketing initiative like a mechanic would look at a car: “Oh, here’s your problem right here. Your graphic design is absolutely horrible, and your outreach was awful. Do X, Y, and Z next time.” Truly improving marketing as a consultant or an internal agent of change is more like working with the driver to solve future problems. It requires a lot more cooperation and understanding, but it’s ultimately the only sustainable route to change. We cannot gain or maintain a lead in search marketing with a single idea or tactic. Staying ahead requires that we find a way to help everyone involved innovate, take risks, and then do it all over again.