Copying – Are There Many Original Ideas?

No comments yet

Have you noticed the obsession with originality and the desire to be first to market? Yet most of the innovations that have shaped our world today are ideas or technology that were nothing new at the time.

For instance, Apple didn’t invent the touch-screen smart phone. IBM created the first smart phone (known as the Simon Personal Communicator). Fifteen years before Apple launched the iPhone and the touch-screen was invented as far back as 1965. Apple took existing technology and made it their own through exceptional design. A determination to provide a great user experience.

Neither was McDonald’s the first fast-food chain. It copied the idea from the White Castle restaurant in Wichita, Kansas. Facebook wasn’t the first social network and Henry Ford didn’t invent the car. So, innovation does not have to be about invention, it’s more likely to be about copying.

Why copy?

In his book Copy,Copy,Copy, Mark Earls suggests that copying (but not replicating) of ideas and experiences is something we naturally do. It is the most efficient method of innovation. Copying is easy and is a great hack for making fast progress and not looking at problems in isolation. You get to benefit from the mistakes and the success of others that you have never even met. This may explain why being first to market with a new innovation is rarely an advantage.

What is poor copying?

Simply replicating an idea or product and the practice of benchmarking reduces value. It creates increasingly homogenised offers and there is no allowance for context or thought about fixing what’s broken. Indeed, benchmarking damages profitability because of increased price-point competition and less differentiation.

‘Looser copying’ or from afar (e.g. from a different sector or culture) can add value. It creates variation through the changes or mistakes we make. This is essentially the concept of fixing what’s broken and keeping what works.

Why don’t we copy more?

In Western cultures we are often led to believe that each problem or challenge is unique and so requires a unique solution. This is almost always misguided because very few problems are new and it gives the impression that it will be extremely difficult to solve. This often results in the rejection of many good ideas simply because of their similarity to solutions used elsewhere.

This is partly because of the individualistic culture we have in the West which values originality and discourages copying. This is not the case in China and other parts of Asia where copying is perceived in a much more positive light. The danger is that this attitude towards copying puts Western companies at a disadvantage. Why reinvent the wheel or if it’s not broken, why fix it?

Mark Earls, Copy,Copy,Copy

“The truth is that most things are like other things – they certainly seem that way: the human mind’s ability to see similarities and connections between things is unbounded.”

Are most innovations the product of a single individual? Nope, it’s a myth that innovations are the creation of a single person. In most cases many people are involved in innovation and they copy from different sources to create something new and exciting. What this suggests is that when done in the right way copying can produce novel and highly effective solutions.

Copying is what we do naturally:

Mark points out that because of our brain’s limited processing power we are forced to rely heavily on default heuristics – what did we do last time or what is everyone else doing? We copy ideas and behaviours all the time but often are not even aware of it. Copying allows us to outsource many aspects of cognitive thinking and provides us with a knowledge bank that further reduces the cognitive effort we may need to solve a problem.

Marketers needs to understand copying:

When we see brand shares following the Pareto 80/20 rule diffusion science tells us that people are not acting independently. Copying makes the most popular brands even more popular than they would be if everyone acted independently.

This produces a long-tail distribution of popularity (see right-hand curve) which is a strong indication of social influence and copying. Otherwise you are likely to be looking at independent choice (as shown by the short-tail distribution).

The data shows that buyer choices in many markets and services is mainly driven by either directed copying (e.g. following experts or authority figures) or undirected copying (following the most popular variant). Just look at the power of social proof and we can see how important what other people are doing is in influencing sales.

Mark Earls – I’ll Have What She’s Having

“The paradox of conformity, of course, is that we are all conformists in some way, and yet we do not all do the same thing – far from it. In fact, we find the greatest diversity of behaviours in places where people are most densely packed together, such as New York, London, or Istanbul.”

In some markets we are now faced with so many choices that it is practically impossible to identify an ideal product or service to meet your needs. Just imagine trying to evaluate every TV or smart phone. In such instances we can either make an educated guess or follow the behaviour of others.

By bringing these insights together Mark Earls and his co-authors in I’ll Have What She’s Having created a map of four decision making styles for marketers to use. In his latest book Mark Earls has used this map to create a pattern book of over 50 marketing strategies to encourage marketers to innovate using approaches that have been successful in other sectors. This is a valuable resource as it allows you to focus on execution rather than creating strategies from scratch.

Implications for website optimisation:

  • Stop replicating ideas and designs from your competitors:

Far too many sites are obsessed with what their competitors’ are doing and copy exactly what they see them doing. This results in websites looking almost identical and reduces differentiation. Instead look outside your sector to see what is new and innovative. Copy loosely and then test to see if it adds value before rolling it out on your whole site.

  • Think about design trends:

Have you noticed how many websites blindly follow certain design trends? Whether it’s over-sized hero images, auto-play video backgrounds, auto-sliders, flat design, parallax scrolling or the hamburger button on mobile designs. Online experiments have shown all of these trends can damage conversion and sometimes frustrate and annoy visitors.

Instead of simply replicating new trends, why not consider what prompted the trend and the truths it embodies. You can then copy the elements or ideas that appear to be most beneficial and test them on your site to measure what impact they have on visitor behaviour. This way you can maintain your site’s unique character and still benefit from new developments or trends.

  • Be agile:

I recently participated in a 5 day Google design sprint to develop a new online brand’s proposition and website. We spent a lot of time looking outside the sector of interest to get inspiration. We copied the elements of the market that we thought worked, but wanted to fix what was broken. This was achieved by taking ideas from many different fields and rapid iteration of designs.

Within the 5 days we created and tested a prototype design and helped give the project the momentum it needed. The whole agile process is based upon copying as otherwise it would require too much time and effort to make progress.

  • Identify your market’s decision style:

Assess which quadrant of the decision style map your market is most likely to sit in. You can then focus on the marketing strategies that are most likely to align with this decision style. As part of this process it also useful to identify other markets that have the same decision style to your own. This will allow you investigate how they apply appropriate marketing strategies and you may find novel ideas that you can incorporate in your own strategies.

It is possible that your market could fall between two quadrants and if this is the case it is worth to considering strategies from more than one quadrant. For example a decision about the preferred method of delivery of a service (e.g. offline or online) might be in the North West quadrant (i.e. considered choice), but the brand choice may be in the North East quadrant (i.e. copy experts).

Conclusion:

Originality is overrated as most things are similar to something that already exists. This means copying allows us to benefit from other peoples’ mistakes and create novel solutions to difficult problems. However, just replicating what we see elsewhere can reduce value and lead to a lack of differentiation.

For marketers copying is often an important market dynamic that can heavily influence a customer’s decision style. Understanding the most common decision style in your market helps us identify appropriate marketing strategies to apply. Copying relevant marketing strategies from other sectors or cultures allows us to concentrate on the execution and learn from how others to create novel solutions.

For more details about how to copy effectively and how to use the decision styles map to execute relevant marketing strategies please get Copy,Copy,Copy by Mark Earls.

Copy, Copy, Copy

How Do Social Networks Influence Consumer Behaviour?

No comments yet

Do People Act in Isolation?

People do not act in isolation, they connect with many people though highly complex social networks, this influences our behaviour. In ‘I’ll have what she’s having’; Mark Earls and his co-authors explain how social learning (i.e. imitating other people) acts as the engine for the spread of culture, human behaviour and ultimately innovation. The authors reassert the need for those wanting to influence mass behaviour to move away from the “me” to the “we” perspective.

But, why should we care? Well, the authors demonstrate how copying each other has been the driving force behind the success of our species and the spread of innovation. We are so adept at imitating each other that we are often not even aware that we are doing it. Furthermore, the nature of social learning has far reaching implications for organisations seeking to change mass behaviour or spread new ideas.

“Practically it matters because our social inheritance underlies modern human life in a huge, increasingly interconnected population of people to learn from and an enormous oversupply of choices in our lives.” – Bentley, Earls & O’Brien – I’ll Have What She’s Having.

  • Mark Earls and his co-authors examine the processes by which ideas spread through our social networks. This can often result from person to person imitation without people being aware of their actions.
  • This is common where there are large populations with a large number of options. People are inundated with choices that lack differentiation. But they are also faced with a multitude of social influences and recommendations. This ensures that at an aggregate level there is no clear direction of copying.
  • Sometimes people consciously direct their copying as they want to be with like-minded people and share similar experiences. They may adopt an idea because it appears better than what came before. We may seek to conform because it changes our perception of a social norm. There are numerous reasons why we imitate other people. Essentially herd behaviour is at the heart of the dispersion of ideas, behavioural change and innovation through our social networks.
Social networks influence people through our herd instinct
  • It is a myth though to suggest that herd behaviour leads to people increasingly behaving and looking the same. We all like to have our own identity and will copy different individuals or groups which ensure diversity flourishes. Indeed, for work clothes we may copy colleagues, whilst our music tastes may be driven by friends we socialise with. The model of car we buy may be influenced by people where we live.

“The paradox of social diffusion is that we all conform in one way or another, but this does not mean we all behave in the same way.” Bentley, Earls & O’Brien – I’ll Have What She’s Having.

SCALE MATTERS: 

So if our interaction with other people through our social networks is the key to understanding mass behaviour. Why does much of our marketing activity continue to focus on understanding what individuals think and do? The authors point out that predictive cascade models of how forest fires spread do not concern themselves with the characteristics of an individual tree and what it is made of. Instead they treat each tree as flammable material in a grid system. What matters is how close trees are to other trees and how they interact with each other.

Indeed, social scientists have noticed that many behaviours and lifestyle characteristics appear to cluster in social networks. A study by David Shoham, PhD, investigated why obesity and related behaviours cluster. The research among US school children found that it could only partly be from friend selection. They discovered a significant and powerful relationship between obesity and a child’s circle of friends.

Indeed, a child who was not over-weight was considerably more likely to become obese if they were close with children who were already. They concluded that it was important not to treat children with obesity in isolation. They also found that in this instance social influence operates more in detrimental ways. A TED talk describes the hidden influence of social networks.

Implications:

  • The analysis challenges the validity of generalising results from experiments and quantitative research to the wider population. The authors’ assert that “more” is definitely different. Of course humans are not inanimate objects, but as social creatures’ human society is more than the sum of the individual parts. At an aggregate level our social networks display complexities. They go beyond the traditional marketing and research approach that treats individuals in isolation.
Image showing complexity of social connections
Source: FreeImages.com – Social connections
  • As herd theory suggests we are more likely to be influenced by the actions of others in our network. To understand the spread of ideas and innovation we need to pay more attention to the characteristics of our social networks. We are likely to learn more by understanding the scale and structure of networks than studying with the views of individuals. This is about exploring how much social networks cluster, how big and how far they reach, and how they change over time.
  • Brands and marketing content are not important on their own. What matters most is what people (e.g. staff, customers and non-customers) do with them and also how they interact with other people in their networks. The scale and structure of social networks will influence how your brand adopts and evolves as a social entity. Organisations can’t control how people interact with their brands, but they can encourage interaction. They can adapt to how social networks interpret and change the context of the brand.
Image of brands on a supermarket shelf
  • Organisations can focus too much on the actions of their direct competitors. However, emerging trends and innovations from outside an organisation’s sector can often be a more valuable source of ideas. They are not subject to the same norms that evolve and constrain behaviour in their sector.

Further reading:

I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

Featured image from FreeImages