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Fast-Follower Theory: How Executors, Not Pioneers, Rule the Tech Market

Chief Outsiders CMO Tim Manning reveals how fast-followers get ahead, providing a framework by which your company can secure the spotlight.

Why is Apple at the top? If you can think back, past Steve Jobs and the iPhone and the 1984 Super Bowl ad, all the way to 1975 when there was no such thing as Apple Computer Inc., you may discover with some surprise that there was such a thing as a personal computer.

Why is Google at the top? The first search engines predate it by nearly eight years. What about Slack, Salesforce, and Tableau? Not a single one of these companies came first to the market, and yet each one of them come first to the minds of consumers. How did they do it?

Photo: Tim Manning, Tech & SaaS Fractional CMO at Chief Outsiders | YFS Magazine
Photo: Tim Manning, Tech & SaaS Fractional CMO at Chief Outsiders | YFS Magazine

The answer is a simple one: execution. The ‘fast-follower’ theory takes the position that in the world of technology, marketing execution is more important than being first or even being the best. With a thorough understanding of the market, latecomers can—and often do—reach and win that market long before the pioneers think to do anything of the sort. Combine superior execution with foresight and thoughtful strategy, and it’s easy to see why Apple is, indeed, at the top.

The remainder of this article explores how such fast-followers get ahead, providing a framework by which your company can steal—or secure—the spotlight.


Know the market

The first step in marketing-execution has always been knowing the customer. In the absence of this understanding, any and every effort will be a shot in the dark; you simply will not know who to aim for.

The question to begin with, then, is this one: “who is the ideal customer for the solution you offer?” Then, “how do they buy?” And, finally, “where do they consume information about solutions to the problem that you solve?” With those basic questions answered, you have established both who you are reaching and how, generally, you are going to reach them.

All that remains to be understood, beyond the customer, is everything else. That is to say, the environment. There are a theoretically limitless number of third-parties who can and will influence the perception which a customer holds of your company and its offered solution.

These can range from channel partners and analysts to press-editors and trade associations, and it is essential for your company to identify the most influential among these. That knowledge, combined with your understanding of the customers themselves, will equip your company for the next stage—outreach.


Reach the market

Now your company must analyze and utilize the specific channels by which your ideal customer will be made aware of your solution and lead to buy as they are wont, per the first three questions in the previous stage. Here your company must be willing to consider the full range of programs and activities, from social media and organic search to billboards and print-advertising.

Careful analysis is necessary to ensure that no marketing resources are wasted on fruitless channels, of course, but thoughtful strategy requires that no stone is left unturned—that is, each viable program is fully rationalized for its impact on the customer. Only when the gamut of options has been tried and tested can your company ensure that no touch point is under- or over-invested.

With that, marketing directly to your consumer is sorted—and indirect marketing is well underway. In the realm of the latter, your company must now utilize and analyze the specific relationships that will influence customer-perception of your solution. In practice, that means forming alliances with the necessary “influencers”—channel-partners, research analytics, technology partners, press-editors, etc.—to indirectly promote the solution you offer on your behalf. By thoroughly executing this step and securing a prioritized list of potent industry alliances, your company will not only bolster its all-around marketing efforts, but create barriers for your competition to follow suit.


Win the market

With the previous two stages underfoot, your company is prepared to have a significant impact on its market. What remains to be decided is what, precisely, you will do with that presence. A soap-box cannot win the crowd, of course; that is the job of the speech. For this reason your company must turn to the final stage: positioning.

‘Positioning’ refers to the space your company holds in the customer’s mind. What do they think of your solution? More importantly, how do you want them to think of your solution? Once you have answered that question, you can begin to craft a story from a unique point-of-view which frames the problem and solution as you want the customer to see them.

That story can then be conveyed—via the channels you have already established—to the customer, cementing your solution as the solution in their minds. The aforementioned Super Bowl XVIII advertisement was Apple putting this same principle to work, laying cultural foundations in 1984 upon which their 1997 “think different” campaign, and eventually a $3 trillion company, would be built. That is the power of positioning.


Bottom line

The tech industry is peppered with instances of fast-followers who usurp the thrones of their respective markets with nought but superior marketing execution.

A study of these examples can provide an understanding of what really makes an industry leader, and what it takes to become one—which is precisely what constitutes the principles here discussed. To follow them is a likely means of reaching the forefront of your field; to ignore them, a likely means of falling behind. At the end of the day, those who were first to the people—not the product—are poised to be remembered.


Chief Outsiders CMO Tim Manning works with CEOs at Technology and SaaS companies to build and lead high-performing teams that drive strategy through execution yielding revenue growth.


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