In my book The Way of Innovation, I talk a lot about how consumer habits can become a powerful underpinning of a company’s grand strategy. For example, when I was a loyal Starbucks customer (someday I’ll share why I no longer am), I would sometimes find myself walking right into a Starbucks unconsciously, without even thinking about what I was doing. Starbucks engineered their experience into an automatic habit.
This is the situation that Microsoft’s decision engine Bing is facing. Google, like Starbucks, has become a habit for many of us. We don’t "search" for something; we "Google" it. I don’t really know if my Google searches are better quality than other options, but I just Google because I just Google.
One of my clients is dealing with a similar situation in the area of cardiac technology. The company makes a heart device that is superior, but it continues to wrestle with doctors’ habit of automatically using balloon pumps during cardiac emergencies. Even doctors that prefer my client’s technology still sometimes turn to balloon pumps in a pinch. At an internal conference, someone asked a doctor who was presenting why, if he is such an advocate of the new alternative, he still uses balloon pumps. The doctor’s response was insightful. He said, "That’s just what we do."
I think that is one reason Microsoft has chosen to position Bing as a "decision" tool rather than a "search" tool. Search has become synonymous with Google. Rather than try to de-couple these two, it may be easier to simply replace the starting point. Get someone to say "I want to make a decision" rather than "I want to search" and perhaps Microsoft can cut Google off at the pass.
Beat The Grass
I remember when I was in college that everyone was remarking that Microsoft had missed the Internet bandwagon. Netscape was the most popular web browser and it had developed such a dominant position that Microsoft would never be able to uncork it.
Where is Netscape today?
My contact at Microsoft emphasized, "This is a marathon, not a sprint." People will surely discount Bing. They will look at daily market share numbers and as Bing’s share rises and falls, so will their views of Bing.
An ancient Chinese saying advises that you "beat the grass to startle the snake." And that strategy captures nicely, I think, a pattern that Microsoft has used successfully in the past. It does not bet everything on one particular approach. It doesn’t jump in with both feet. It beats the grass. It sees how the market will respond. It learns. It adapts. Then beats it again.
This will not guarantee Bing’s success, of course, but patience has paid for Microsoft in the past and may pay out again. This strategy is both cost-effective and efficient, and each time Microsoft beats the grass, it learns something new.
Ask yourself the following questions to see what grass you can beat and what lessons you can learn about potential new business fronts.
1. What market would I like to be in?
2. Who is my biggest competitor in that market and why are they successful?
3. What is their brand and why do people use them?
4. How can I challenge their place in this market without attacking directly?
5. What part of my business can I use to test the waters instead of jumping in with both feet?