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.


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.

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  1. Nice one, Carson.
    I find myself using the phrase "not easily duplicated" with clients fairly often.
    There's no quick, one-off trick to "being awesome" consistently.

    I'd compare it to crash-dieting. It might work in the short term (sometimes) but it's more effective in the long run to make a complete lifestyle change.

    Thanks for the post.

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  2. Nice one Carson. There is definitely a lot to be gained in being more innovative within SEO - and eventually that innovation will be copied. A lot of the 'innovation' of the last few years has been more black hat than white but with the shifts made in Penguin/Panda, I expect to see a lot more coming out that will likely be mimiced by other SEO's- hopefully some of the sandbox stuff im working on will be in that mix :) thanks for the post Carson.

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  3. This is a great post and I wish most companies could heed this advice. It is the same reason that not every website should look like

    You have to find what works for your business, your people, and your culture and then understand how to translate that into something special, not mediocre.

    Part of the problem is the need to "feed the beast" so the focus often becomes on filling the pipelines with average content rather than investing the time and energy to build something unique and memorable.

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    • Carson Ward

      Exactly. Every time I hear, "but Amazon does X" I die a little inside. This is true of site design and marketing campaigns; marketing needs a USP, too. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Great post, Carson!

    As they say, everybody wants to be the first to do something second.

    I took a risk and did an experiment with how I write Travel contents in my blog. Instead of the usual how-to-get-there / prices / amenities info dump, I talked about how I feel with that particular place; citing some situations applicable to the mood of the premise, of how the front desk reminded me of my college crush, etc.

    Next thing I know I've outrank long-time residents in the top 5 (see: spelunking Bohol, and I don't even have a list the caves in that area in my content!).

    The risks are definitely paying-off.

    Great post, Carson!

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  5. I think the Edge commercial mimics the Dollar Shave Club more than the Old Spice, but they are both great none the less... Thanks for the great post!

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    • Carson Ward

      Whether DSC is a ripoff can be debated, but they're actually a perfect example of a company that seems to think that they only need one win to succeed.

      What have they done since that video? In my view, they may have missed out on a huge opportunity to position themselves by continuing to innovate.

  6. Nice post Carson,
    Often these great posts fill me with both joy and anguish. I run a growing online company selling boring stuff, we have 3 employees and outsource a great SEO consultant. I know that he reads the distilled posts and is constantly looking to improve his game as we are looking to improve ours in relation to our competitors. Who for the record I swear are using grey at best tactics in a lot of cases. The thing is we have more ideas than time. We are consistently working on good stuff to put out there and believe me its easy to formulate boring junk for my niche but gees I can't wait to get over the hump that allows me to put on some more staff to concentrate on the more interesting promotional side of things.

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  7. Fantastic post Carson and a real eye opener. I myself struggle at times to make a bang but you're right, innovation and staying a step ahead will ensure I'm not just doing the same old thing!

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  8. Thanks for the great post! I agree that you should always be seeking new innovation and try to be one step ahead of everyone else. That way, they can copy you, but you'll already be another step in front of them.

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  9. true. true.

    creating a sustainable competitive advantage with your outreach is THE key secret to great web marketing.

    with every client, my first task is to help them create a process that looks more like business dev then seo.... but it gets links that send leads and sales.

    google will always love those links... but more importantly, so will a client's checkbook :-)

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  10. Thanks for this post Carson. As this was my first time visiting this site, I thought that I will see the regular and boring advice you can find on all other seo consultants blogs but I'm really happy I took the time to read the entire post and I feel that I spend 5 minutes on learning great info about this industry. I could not agree more that the video marketing is one of the main key to promote and create Brand awareness and we need to come up with new ideas on how to capture visitors attention.

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  11. Great post. Creative marketing will also keep the interest of existing customers. There are a lot of successful business' that recycle their own marketing efforts and that is just as bad as copying the competition poorly!

    It is a marketer's job to stay innovative. Especially with technology, new marketing doors are opening everyday.

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  12. Thanks for the post. Came across your blog looking for ways to increase my backlinks actually. Now i'm going to shamelessly analyze my competitors links and copy that :-)

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    • Carson Ward

      Not really my point. :) But it's true that you can sometimes catch up to the competition by copying them. It's just easier to get ahead and stay ahead through innovation and risk takings.

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