[Estimated read time: 9 minutes]
In 2009, I wrote a magazine story about a Japanese lure company selling high-end fishing lures in the US for $20 to $50 each. With anglers buying the lures in droves, it was only a matter of time before competitors followed suit, creating carbon copies of the best sellers, which lead to a market frenzy the industry had never seen.
Months later, I interviewed the owner of the lure company everyone was copying. His comments were eye-opening and accurate.
“I don’t get it,” he said, referring to the competition. “I sell one million lures for $25. They sell 10 to 15 million lures for $5 to $10. I should be copying them.”
Basic math highlights the truth of his words: $25 million < $50 million–$150 million.
A good idea doesn’t mean good for your brand
What looked like an idea — selling more expensive products to eager buyers — sufficed as a blinder to what would become an amazing opportunity: finding a way to sell more low-cost lures.
For those of us involved in content marketing, we’re used to scenarios like these. Right?
The competition does something cool or interesting or that gets links, likes, or conversions, and we lose our minds in an attempt to copy them, even if it makes zero sense for us to do so.
Sure, list posts can be and have been effective, but other than throwing some traffic your way, for most businesses the long-term value simply isn’t there.
But we live in a monkey-see, monkey-do world, so whatever the competition does, we attempt to do it better.
Never mind the fact that (a) we don’t really know how successful they are, or (b) how successful attempting the same tactics will prove for us.
Most important, because our resources are limited, we don’t often see how choosing to chase others’ ideas means we typically cannot adequately focus on the opportunities right in front of us.
Opportunities > ideas
At Mozcon 2015, the word “disruption” kept being spoken by speakers on stage. In fact, a prominent theme of Rand’s opening talk was how a number of prominent brands were willing to disrupt themselves:
- Facebook: The brand’s Little Red Book, given to all employees, contains many useful, guiding tidbits, among them, “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.”
- Microsoft: After years of openly expressing contempt for Linux, the brand is welcoming working with the open-source outsider.
And as someone who was fortunate enough to stumble onto disruption (correctly called disruptive innovation) after college, hearing Rand talk about this theory made me very proud.
Problem is, what these businesses he described are doing is not really disruption.
In a strict business sense, the examples he shared are known as a pivot, where businesses re-imagine (or refashion) themselves and/or their assets in an entirely different light, as a way to grow, ward off competitors, solve big problems or grow their audience.
What is disruption?
Disruption is something far more significant, especially for brands looking to set themselves apart in competitive markets.
Coined by current Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in his 1996 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,” innovative disruption refers to the transformation of a product or a service in such a way that it makes it more affordable and more accessible to a wider audience.
These products start at the bottom, catering to a market that cannot afford the more expensive (and more popular) option. But, as in the case of the lure companies, by focusing on the bottom of the market, there is less competition and greater numbers who can afford the product.
One of the most prominent and most vivid examples of disruptive innovation is how smartphones disrupted the laptop market, which in the 1980s disrupted the desktop market, which itself disrupted the mainframe computer.
Disruptors enter the market at the bottom, where people or industries are being underserved, which is a result of the major players in a vertical choosing to go upstream and over-serve the market, often through added features and benefits people cannot use and don’t need.
But while they continue to cater to the high end of the market, disruptors slide in and gobble up market share at the bottom, before moving upstream to challenge their biggest competitors as the former’s products or services improve in quality, grow in popularity, and suffice as a viable option for even those with more discerning taste.
Why should content marketers care?
For those of you wondering what any of this has to do with content marketing, I say “plenty.” Think about the biggest challenges currently weighing down content marketing, beginning with brands…
- Laboring to create engaging content
- Failing to to understand their audience and their needs
- Lacking clarity on which metrics to use in determining the success of their marketing efforts
I’m convinced this occurs because brands are too focused on better serving audiences they neither own nor enjoy the full support of, instead of looking for the next opportunity on the horizon. Or they’re too focused on ideas, instead of opportunities.
Finding your brand’s disruptive opportunity means you’re not competing in the same sandbox as everyone else, which means your chances of dominating the category are much, much higher.
Brands making it work
When Facebook announced 2G Tuesdays, whereby it asks some of its employees to use their brand’s apps over a slower 2G connection, it was billed as an opportunity for the company to see the challenges people in the developing world have when using their products.
That’s probably only part of the story. It’s just as likely that the company, which has nearly one billion active users, is looking at what additional services it can offer people in developing countries. It’s a good bet that, to garner interest from the other 6.4 billion people on earth, the service they offer won’t look anything like the Facebook we now know and (mostly) love.
Or what about Wavestorm, a company which sells surfboards for $99.99 and are offered exclusively at discount warehouse Costco? The company entered the bottom of the market, where surfboards regularly cost $300 to $1,000 or more. Even the brand’s owner is not shy in saying that he realizes the folks who can only pay $99 today will likely be willing to spend far more in the future.
Is your brand ready to find its disruptive opportunity?
Seize your brand’s disruptive opportunity
The beginning is always the most painful part, and this exercise will be no different. Begin by pulling the marketing team together for a brainstorming session.
Then throw two ideas on the table:
- What are the verticals where a large portion of the audience is underserved?
- What are we uniquely qualified to offer at least one of these markets that the competition would have a hard time beating us on?
Here’s the kicker: You cannot limit yourself to any specific vertical.
To many of you, the idea will sound crazy at first. That is, until you re-read the questions and see that what you’re really asked to do is think of where you should be looking for growth, expanded opportunities that you maybe have not and would not otherwise look for.
When I talk to brands, what I frequently hear is that they have maxed out in a market, lack the skilled staff to compete in their vertical, or are no longer able to connect with the audience in a meaningful way.
As tastes have changed, these brands have not been able to keep up.
So instead of playing catch-up, my suggestion is to slowly but surely start charting a new path, one where the territory is fertile (i.e., lots of opportunities) and the competition is not entrenched.
Don’t let fear get in your way.
Maybe you’re an agency sick of losing clients. You could take options off the table, offering only those services that you’ve determined, during the discovery process, will benefit the client. Any prospect who wants to cherry-pick services would have to look elsewhere.
How is this disruptive? The vast majority of agencies offer a smorgasbord of services, many of which they do poorly, while many others specialize in areas where they have deep expertise. The sweet spot is often in the middle, where you identify needs but only take on the most glaring of those needs, or very specific needs, which could move the business forward. (The management consulting field is currently being disrupted in similar fashion.)
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of disruption at work.
Disruption in action
When I first encountered strength coaches Dean Somerset and Tony Gentilcore, they were both making a name for themselves as bloggers and trainers in Canada and Boston, respectively. Fast forward seven years, and they are now two of the most well-known, most-sought-after young experts in the field.
While most trainers go after the largest piece of the pie — fat loss clients — they’ve focused on helping folks to move better (i.e., mobility) rather than just look better, which means clients can enjoy their newfound size and weight. Also, they spend a considerable amount of time traveling the US, Canada and Europe, teaching other strength coaches how to be better at their jobs.
One of my favorite examples of a small brand that’s taken up the challenge to disrupt a sector is Boston-based Wistia, the video-hosting company that makes it easier for businesses to add their videos to the web.
The brand was founded in 2006, which is significant because video-hosting juggernaut YouTube came to fruition in 2005.
You might ask yourself, “What were [Wistia] thinking?” One word: Opportunity.
Where others saw a dominant player owning a category, they saw a dominant player opening a category so wide that others had room to thrive.
“We had an opportunity to go deeper on one segment of this market and create specialized features that YouTube would never build as a broad-based platform,” says Wistia co-founder and CEO Chris Savage.
So while YouTube focuses on being everything to everyone, Wistia has singled out a lucrative, largely ignored piece of the pie they can own and dominate.
Let me be emphatic: I have no expectation that businesses will read this post, then dramatically reshape their products, product lines, or services overnight. The point of this article is to make it clear that opportunities are all around, and the more open we are to these opportunities, the more we’ll increase our chances of continued success and limit the number of missed opportunities.
In the end, the lure companies chasing the Japanese brands realized their error too late: The category is now dominated by low-cost alternatives that cost a fraction of the price of the originals.
If only one the copycats had looked more closely at the numbers, they could have seen the opportunity ahead.