Anyone who's familiar with business knows about the concept of “first mover status” and how it's perceived by many to put a company or brand at the head of any given industry or marketplace, and perhaps give them a “head start” that they need. Sometimes, first mover status is really, really good.
But it's not always necessary.
If social media has taught us anything, it's that we can all learn from the mistakes – and successes – of others, and forge on to new, better, even bigger, things. For those of us in PR, we're all wildly aware of the groups that have formed and sharing that goes on with regard to best practices and so forth. On Twitter alone, there are four or five hashtag-threaded PR-focused “chats” that I see go by on a weekly basis, in which quite a few of my friends and followers partake. That certainly hasn't stopped someone from starting a new discussion putting a twist on a related topic.
Four or five years ago, a colleague of mine and I secured a cold call-driven new business meeting with a significant pharmaceutical firm that will remain nameless, which was quite an exciting moment for us. She'd been pursuing them for months. We had developed some creative executions for wikis and blogs, based on what their marketplace appeared to be clamoring for at the time. We had a pretty solid meeting, one that included the one devil's advocate we knew would be present. His major – if only – concern for some of the suggestions we were making about how to help their business was simple.
“Which of our competitors is doing this already?” he asked. He seemed even more disinterested in pursuing this area after we informed him that none of them had ventured into this particular area of engagement at that time and that we'd crafted a well-thought out plan, including all the concerns about federal regulations and such since they'd be breaking new ground. While our ideas had received smiles and nods from others in attendance, it was pretty clear that this wasn't to be. Yet.
Said company has since entered this area of PR and social media – and has done fairly well at it. It took them a few years, however.
On the flip side, sometimes waiting out a situation or not being concerned about making the name for yourself on day one when a “concept” arises can work for you.
Take online storage and sharing, for instance. A good PR friend of mine had told me about box.net around the time it was launching, a bit back, and there were quite a few competitors and others in the space. They definitely had some early-mover status, but it would be hard to argue that Dropbox hasn't gained significant mindshare, whether focused on business or personal use. How'd they do it? I'd suggest you go to each of their websites and compare the two. It's pretty striking.
More recently, let's look at Instagr.am. It's gained major steam and there probably isn't a day that passes when I don't see their short URLs pass by on Twitter or Facebook. But that doesn't mean that concepts like DailyBooth, or even Flickr's 365 Days Project , didn't have that idea – or a closely related one – much earlier. Did that stop any of them from developing what they believed was the best execution?
Timing does not always guarantee success. Who of us hasn't run a PR program where you lucked out on a delay or some other issue that let you tweak that one little thing that made your program successful, grew a client's business, or won an award?
This isn't to say that first-mover status isn't important, even critical, in our business every day. What it is to say is that – especially when digital/social is involved –sometimes the better – or winning – ideas, products, and programs don't come “first.”
Tom Biro is a Seattle-based VP at Allison & Partners. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR (and new business pitches). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tombiro.