Ours was a competitive family.  I had an older sister by four years, and an older brother by three years – which naturally meant that theirs was a coalition force against the newcomer. Everything was a race, a contest of strength or of endurance. My own secret weapon in the face of so much strength and speed was tenacity.  I could hold on!

In business-think, the relationship we have with our competitors is primary. Consider the Positioning Statement, a staple of basic marketing:

It must be simple if you own a grocery store, and you know that your customers can choose between you or the grocer down the street – or if you sell cola, and heh, it’s you, Pepsi, and RC. There would be no doubt about it, you have competitors, and the exercise of thinking through your differentiation would be somewhat simple.

For over 10 years I owned and operated a web development company. In almost every case, our clients or potential clients had a variety of options to choose from – and none were the same as the next client.  In other words, ours was not a closed system. Our clients were often in New York City or New Jersey, or even somewhere else in the country altogether. Our favorite line, something that we had borrowed from some sales book, was that our biggest competitor was the status quo.

Sometimes we really were going up against another firm. Sometimes it was the internal IT team, and yes, sometimes, it was for the customer to simply leave things as they were.  So what we had was not a particular company that we could pin up on the wall and subject to dart-throwing as much as we had patterns of competition.

In the online marketing business, it is pretty much the same. When I think of competitors, I think of firms that are so much larger than DragonSearch. It’s fun to think of ourselves going up against Razorfish, Edelman Group, Ogilvy, or Wieden + Kennedy. We look to those companies for new approaches, both in execution and communication. But the reality is that I don’t think anyone in one of those firms is worrying.

This also means that people in different online marketing firms can be friends, and learn from one another. It’s would probably require a stretch of the imagination to consider someone from Pepsi’s marketing team having  lunch with someone from Coca-Cola’s marketing team, after all, these great companies are in direct competition. But when the pool is so large, with so many different firms swimming around, the same danger doesn’t exist. We can have lunch.

In that spirit, I received a wonderful book recommendation from Rhea Drysdale of Outspoken Media, “John Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War” by Robert Coram. For me, there were two significant aspects to the biography: the story of an irascible Air Force officer – a character type that I had the pleasure of being with many times in my life, and the concept that Boyd developed, “OODA”. Rhea, herself, wrote a terrific blog post about OODA Loops and SEO that is one of the most thoughtful SEO blog posts I’ve read in a while.

“OODA” is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This is pretty similar to other processes, such as webWAVE’s Discover, Design, Implement, Launch, or the Rational planning model which includes realizing a problem, establishing and evaluating planning criteria, creating alternatives, implementing alternatives, and monitoring progress of the alternatives. I’m sensing a lot of underlying thinking that I want to pursue with Boyd’s model, but so far, the ideas seem obvious, and not earth-shaking as applied to online marketing.  Perhaps there is something I’m not getting, yet.

Chet Richards, a Boyd “acolyte” (the word used in the biography) has gone on to author a book of his own, “Certain to Win”, and a website chock full of thoughtful articles. In one passage, Richards discusses OODA as applied to business:

In business, the idea is not so much to confuse competitors, although that is always satisfying, but to get customers to buy whatever it is that you’re selling.  Competitors are hostile and sometimes agile features of the environment, but “defeating” them is not the main idea.  It turns out, though, that OODA loops can shape customer desires just like they shape opponents  in war.  Companies that operate “inside their competitors’ and customers’ OODA loops” typically turn customers into fanatical loyalists

This line of thought is interesting.  What if my competition isn’t another online marketing company or status quo in particular, but whatever opposition the potential client has to hiring us? If that is indeed our opponent, then that opponent is terribly adept at shape-shifting, like a black-clad enemy in the jungles of Viet Nam.  I’ve wondered before if the application of martial philosophy to marketing was misplaced, but perhaps there is something to this line.

Boyd wrote, “in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries”. That would suggest that if our opponent is a mental construct, then we must be faster and more agile than that construct!  We must be prepared, as we’re entering into being considered, to move quickly, and overpower the… well, mental construct that might be developed in opposition to our being chosen.

We often go into situations where we’re being considered with a pitch, often in response to an RFP, or perhaps the potential client is searching for an online marketing service provider.  OODA suggests to me that we should develop our approach for any particular client in more depth, and be prepared to go in and quickly, within the OODA of our opposition (again, whatever opposition the potential client has to hiring us) outmaneuver that opposition.

Confronting opposition is a component of sales philosophy from way back.  OODA might suggest that we not confront opposition head-on, but preempt it with faster and a more comprehensive communication.

I’m not sure, here. This whole line of thought could use some more thought. Is it too simplistic, or is there something to this? This is probably in the spirit of Colonel Boyd, himself. According to his biographer, Boyd didn’t like to publish his work, as he was constantly reworking and rethinking. I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback.