I’m convinced, the longer you stay in the consulting business, the more you tend to see it all. I actually had an executive tell me recently that he saw no value in social media, other than a waste of his already limited resources and that he had been there for over 30 years, so he must have done something right! Needless to say, it was a very short meeting.

What he and many other executives don’t get is the fundamental shift in buying processes. Prospective customers, distributors, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and stakeholders of many stripes know a lot more about you, your products and services, before they ever engage you! If social networking is about your personal presence, and social media is a platform to extend your reach, social market leadership is about purpose. As such, you’ll need both a defensive strategy (to protect your brand), as well as an offensive approach (take your message to the market) toward driving growth opportunities. By the way, the last time I checked, you cannot score and win, playing defense alone.

So, why does the executive above fear exploring this new medium? I refer to it as the “cozy complacent syndrome;” and it’s more of a mindset challenge than anything else. No one ever gets fired if they hire IBM, execute a strategy McKinsey recommends, or become a “fast follower.” The comfort in cozy complacent syndrome is that they’ll allow others to take the innovation risk and think that they can swoop in, copy their ideas and still end up winning the race!

Here are five reasons a “fast follower” strategy is a losing proposition when it comes to social market leadership:

1. You start by taking a reactive posture! As a fast follower, you’re intentionally sitting back to see what the rest of the market does. Your ideas, processes, and operation are trained to react. You have abdicated any real vision to uncover new opportunities – how’s that working out for you so far? And by the way, how will you ever attract, world-class “A-players” when you’re positioning yourself as always letting others explore innovative ideas? Without forward thinking people, processes, and operations, when the disruption comes – and make no mistake about it, social media is disruptive – you won’t have the internal capabilities to respond!

2. You need a highly optimized decision-making and new product development and launch practice in the world! As a fast follower, given the incredibly fast-paced nature of social media (I’m humbled by what I learn in this space on a daily basis), you’ll need the infrastructure to decide exactly when to enter the market with a social media campaign, re-engineer or re-architect a competitor’s campaign in a way that the target customers view them as indistinguishable. And, still drive the marketing gravity / pull from your efforts. In the digital relationship maturity model, to go from doing nothing to reactive, and cross the proverbial chasm to proactive, predictive, and visionary, there are pioneers, slow followers, and laggards, but I’ve yet to meet a successful “fast follower.”

3. You’ll need a lengthy social market leadership strategy cycle. As a fast follower, you’ll need time to gear up, copy the innovators and get a strategy, a roadmap, and a campaign put together before the onslaught of competition do the same. Not to mention actually building, nurturing and turning digital relationships into revenues and profits before the window of opportunity deteriorates. While this kind of thinking may have been successful in the past, the pace of change and speed of doing business direct (online) has increased to the point where product / service cycles are much shorter and influencer marketing today, wins market share tomorrow.

4. You’ll need the right people to follow! As a fast follower, you’ll need to listen to the right people online, follow their every move, and hope like mad that the firm has good insights. And revenues / results today are actually lagging indicators of past sales and marketing success, so the results you see today may in fact be dramatically different than what lies ahead. Imagine following Wang or DEC computers in the 80s, or even the mighty Apple in the 90s – before the iPod. These market leaders suffered great losses, and while Wang and DEC never recovered, Apple only did so due to consumer electronics not computers. So, for everyone following Sony with the Walkman and the Discman, how did that fast follower strategy work for you? Social market leadership requires the same agility to move quickly, and learn from it for the next campaign, if a particular approach doesn’t yield the desired results.

5. You’ll need to change the view. I remember seeing a poster years ago when I was at SiliconGraphics (SGI – another market leader who went off the cliff) of a dog sled them which read “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Innovators are constantly in the front exploring new views of uncharted market opportunities. I often ask prospective clients, what’s the “iPod” of their industry and when they struggle to respond, it’s a tell-tell sign that innovation, although a desired trait, may not be part of the organization’s DNA. Becoming the next anything is really boring – even Google, a market innovator, was just the next Yahoo.

When it comes to social market leadership, it’s time to leave the cozy complacent mindset and become the “first something.” What’s your next move?

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