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Don’t Be a Cow (And Other Business Lessons)
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Don’t Be a Cow (And Other Business Lessons)

Have you ever been on a farm? If so, you might be familiar with this interesting cattle phenomenon: One cow sees a tasty-looking patch of grass on a neighboring hill, so trots over to it. A second cow will see this and start jogging over as well. Third, fourth, and fifth cows will follow… until an entire herd is running laps around a field, none of them consciously aware of the original motivation.

Which begs the question: Why are you doing what you’re doing?

The Power of the Herd Mentality

“Why are you asking me this?” you might be thinking. “I’m not a cow.”

Unfortunately, I’ve got some moos—er, news for you: humans share more qualities with cows than we might be prepared to admit. An experiment out of Leeds University found this when they asked a group of volunteers to walk in random patterns around a room. Then, a select few were quietly given more specific instructions on where to walk.

What do you think happened? You guessed it: the rest of the group tied a bell around their neck. Which is to say, they ended up blindly following anyone who appeared to know where they were going, “forming a self-organizing, snake-like structure […] despite the fact that they weren't allowed to talk or gesture to one another.” In fact, it only took 5% of instructed people to influence the direction of the other 95% - without the 95% even being consciously aware of being led.

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Why Are You Doing What You’re Doing?

Why is this relevant? Because we are all walking around a room (or ambling around a field), all the time, whether we realize it or not. As a business leader, you’re often looking for the “next best” marketing strategy or tactic – and you’ll find no shortage of them in the business world. The buddy from your peer group who swears by Facebook ads, or that webinar you went to that promises major ROI on automated cold calling.

Or, worse, a marketing tool whose praises no one is necessarily singing… but they’re all doing it, so it must be effective – right?

Wrong, Bessie.

Udderly Bad Advice

Much like that fifth cow or the 95% of people in the experiment, we sometimes need reminding that popularity does not equal quality – and blindly following others raises questions about our own strategy and mindset.

This becomes particularly important when applied to sales and marketing, for a couple of reasons:

By the time a marketing tactic is popular, it probably isn’t effective anymore.

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Tactical marketing (that is, focusing on any one tool or trend) is often a race to the starting line. Meaning, much like the first cow to get that juicy piece of grass, it’s often the businesses first to market who reap a vast majority of the rewards.

Consider blogging as an SEO tactic: Back in the early 2000s, the word “blog” was just barely working its way into our regular vernacular. But if you were a business who started a blog during this time, you were killing it. You had your customers’ exclusive attention in a way that had never before been explored – and you built early SEO equity organically, when later businesses would have to pay a pretty penny for the same exposure.

Unsurprisingly, however, the rest of the business world caught on quickly. In 1999 there were 23 blogs on the internet. By 2006, that number had ballooned to 50 million blogs. Suddenly the market was crowded, blogs were many and noisy, and customers’ attention was waning.

Intrigued by how common blogs were, this was right about when most small businesses grew hooves decided it might be a good idea to start one.

Most of the people who win with marketing tactics use them long before they are proven.

Being first to market also means being courageous in a way that’s uncomfortable for most business leaders.

Why? Because in 2005, there wasn’t a great case for blogging and SEO. In fact, some people viewed it as a complete waste of time. It was confusing, and time consuming, and required some serious man hours. And because it was so new on the scene, there was no data to support making that investment.

But as we now know, those who embraced uncertainty and took that leap of faith (even without any guaranteed ROI) reaped the benefits. Those who waited until the numbers were there to justify the decision usually did not.

Breaking from the Herd

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Most importantly, though, let’s say you are first to market. You caught wind of an exciting new way to get in front of your customers, and you were brave! Even with no data to support taking action yet, you were a trailblazer, moving away from the herd.

The truth of the matter is that any marketing tactic, no matter how revolutionary, can only be effective if you’ve done the necessary legwork behind the scenes.

You have to understand your customers.

You have to have a product or service they actually need.

You have to have a business model that is unique and profitable.

Marketing may succeed in bringing people to your door, but they’ll turn right around if these foundational business elements aren’t in place and remarkable. After all, you can lead a cow to water, but you can’t make him drink. (Okay, I cheated a little on that one.)

So it follows that the opportunity to be courageous right now isn’t in chasing the next best marketing tactic. It’s to listen to your customers, be creative with your offering, and see how you can reimagine your business in the face of this current reality.

Put another way, take the bull by the horns and you’ll be milking the benefits till the cows come home.

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