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Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also a common tactic in savvy product-makers’ arsenals.
Related: 3 Reasons You Should Spy on Your Competition
While most inventors would love to create something completely new, that’s not always necessary. Often, it’s enough — and a brilliant marketing tactic, even — to imitate your rivals and then add a few tweaks.
Consider the case of Pandora Premium: Pandora waited until Spotify and Apple Music’s paid streaming services were vetted by a discerning — and vocal — public. By the time Premium launched in March, Pandora leapfrogged over the issues plaguing its competitors, solidifying itself as a smarter, less-glitchy solution for music lovers, thanks in part to what it’s calling the Music Genome Project.
Clever, indeed. Pandora used imitation and a delayed launch to woo paid streaming-service users with the promise of a more personalized experience. Did Spotify and Apple Music feel particularly flattered? Probably not. But Pandora won the battle all the same by waiting to pounce rather than joining the early fray.
Patience ain’t sexy, but it pays off.
This strategy of seeming to procrastinate flies in the face of conventional thought. But there’s a method to the madness — after all, even Aesop know the tortoise would beat the hare in most races.
Imagine this: You, and everyone you know, is excited about a new gadget’s release. The minute it hits the shelf, you have one in hand. Rushing home, you can’t wait to tinker with it. But your dreams are dashed: You discover its battery will take 24 hours to charge.
Suddenly, your social news feed is flooded with your friends’ posts, all voicing the same disappointment. Everyone is in a state of delayed gratification. Before you ever hit the “on” button, you have a bad taste in your mouth.
But, what if a similar gadget company has been waiting in the wings, purposely postponing a launch so its engineers or coders can read the social chatter about the competition’s latest gadget? That palpable disappointment described here would most definitely be noticed. And the company that has waited would certainly make sure that when its product comes out a month later, its battery is fully charged.
Seem like a minor detail? Not to users who would see it as an instant improvement.
Related: A Blueprint for a Killer Product Launch (Infographic)
This “what-if?” scenario illustrates the power of patience and observation. Instead of being first to the marketplace, being last may actually present more opportunities and stability. And this observation applies not only to companies delivering products but to those, like my own, delivering websites; tangibility doesn’t matter.
Don’t just rest easy — rest smart.
Regardless of the solution they eventually offer, entrepreneurs who hang back can avoid early fatal flaws that interrupt fantastic consumer experiences. Three of the biggest shortcomings of first-to-launch products? Poor marketing, uber-techiness and overspending.
Splurging on expensive Super Bowl commercials, for example, might sound exciting, but it can kill profit margins and target the wrong audience. Similarly, gadgets such as the iPhone 3D Touch take consumers too long to figure out. And, the steeper the learning curve, the less likely people will see the value in the product, despite its bells and whistles.
The lesson here is that businesses should practice old-fashioned penny-pinching rather than throwing their fiscal resources down a deep hole.
Want to avoid these kinds of errors? Consider these tips to make your product launch successful from the start:
1. Watch, look and listen.
Social media is a not-so-secret listening channel. Everyone tweets, blogs, posts and snaps their experiences with new products, especially those that garner tons of media coverage. Gauge consumer feedback carefully: What are buyers noting that designers and developers missed? What seems too technology-driven and not practical enough for the average user?
One example of this phenomenon is the problem of repeated 911 dialing on some T-Mobile phones. Instead of making one call, the 911 call continuously rings overwhelmed emergency call centers. At least two deaths have been attributed to this issue. There’s no doubt that T-Mobile’s competitors will make sure the same won’t happen with its cellphone systems.
2. Use negative sentiment to your advantage.
Capitalize on negative press swirling around your competition by waiting to release a similar product. You’ll avoid possible public relations nightmares and have a better chance of endearing customers to your organization because you’ve addressed all the imperfections and weaknesses of your competitors’ solutions.
Lyft and Uber have been entangled in a fight like this for a while. When President Donald Trump’s travel ban rather circuitously led to #DeleteUber momentum, Lyft took advantage of the opportunity to outshine its rival. Not only did Lyft donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, but it has also enjoyed a 7 percent increase in customers since January 29. Lyft wasn’t hasty, and it swung with the popular sentiment pendulum.
3. Differentiate yourself through great execution.
You might think you have a revolutionary product, but what if the market disagrees? If your top competitor just released a similar product and its sales are flailing, you owe it to yourself to analyze what’s happening. Could it be that the market for your product just doesn’t exist yet? If so, how can you pivot so you can produce an actual game-changer, not a wannabe?
Segway knows all about this challenge: It discovered its product’s market was limited by cost and individual desire. By the time it was put to bed, it was no longer a technological marvel — it was just a punchline. Chances are good that leaders of a company waiting to market a Segway-like creation put plans on hold when they saw the fallout and chose to execute their innovations differently.
4. Do the common uncommonly well.
Many times, entrepreneurs overlook the simple aspects of their products in favor of complicated elements. Instead, focus on offering your item’s main features better than anyone else can. As you read through social media posts and dig into articles on your competition’s products, figure out where things went awry. Make sure you don’t stumble over the same roadblocks.
Useful products don’t have to be complex to be meaningful to the average user. For instance, Apple is going up against Venmo, QuickPay and Square Cash to allow iOS device users to text money to one another. It’s easy to see how this could be an asset for iPhone and iPad customers, and it’s not outrageously imaginative. Apple has merely found a smoother path to streamline a service people want and already use.
Related: 4 Questions to Ask Before Doing a National Product Rollout
In sum: Never be afraid of mimicry. In the business world, it can be the key to outshining your top contenders. While we love a story of bold innovation, innovation doesn’t always keep the lights on. Sometimes, it’s far wiser to come in second or third where the spotlight is less blinding — there, you can see where you’re going.