Be First

Be First

Learn how being the first through the door when opportunity beckons transforms your conversion rate

Nick Fawbert

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in sales is one you can’t quite see – someone else got there first.

More often than not, it’s just a weird feeling that the customer you are talking to just isn’t quite listening. They’re incredibly polite, and they nod and smile at all the right moments, but there’s an inescapable feeling that they’re just not very interested in what you have to say.

Then it dawns… someone else got there first!

Understand the Challenge

There’s a whole host of cognitive biases that means customers are more likely to go with the first proposal they receive. They range from the ‘anchoring effect’ (when your competitors have set terms for success that you can’t meet) to ‘confirmation bias’ (when the customer only looks out for information that supports their first impressions).

If we’re going to overcome this, we need to understand the process, establish ways of addressing it, and practice what we preach.

Understand the Context

Now let’s not understate this, in a business environment where 63% of customers buy from the first supplier they speak to, Be First is just as powerful when pitching clients for new business as it is when launching world changing technology to a global market.

But it’s a double-edged sword, success relies upon wielding it only when certain conditions are met.

But don’t take it from me, take it from Professor Fernando Suarez, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University.

As he noted:

“Some management concepts have such intuitive appeal that their validity is almost taken for granted. First-mover advantage is one such concept. But for every academic study proving such advantages exist, there is a study proving they do not.”

So we need to understand when it works, and when it doesn’t.

First Mover Advantage

First, what do we mean by ‘being first’?

We came across a useful analogy the other day, in Google Search. It demonstrates how getting out there first fundamentally changes consumer perceptions.

Google Search, for example, is designed to mimic human activity on a grand scale, particularly when it comes to surfacing products and services to Search users. As Moz put it:

"Google started by using human evaluators to manually rate thousands of sites, searching for low quality content. Google then incorporated machine learning to mimic the human evaluators. Once its computers could accurately predict how the humans would judge a site, the algorithm was introduced across millions of sites spanning the Internet."

The outcome was Google Search Rank, with top spots held by those websites that were perceived to reflect the effective importance that everyday folk place upon the sites.

And when we look at the output, in this case a study from ahrefs of the results against two million random keywords it’s immediately clear that the longer you’ve been around, the higher your value is perceived to be. In other words, being first to market ranked you higher:


And those rankings pay dividends, with first placed sites generating almost twice the level of response of second place properties, and six times those in fifth place. In other words, being first to market got you better results:


Let’s be clear, Google are adamant the coincidence between being first to market and priority of ranking was nothing to do with their technology, it was about people. Matt Cutts, one of Google’s leading engineers observed that so far as they were concerned:

“The difference between a domain that’s six months old vs one year old is really not that big at all”

Recognise Critical Factors

So, what was causing the effect?

Well Google ranking factors, in order of priority, emphasise...

  • the amount of links a property receives from cross the web
  • the links a particular page receives, the relevance of the content upon the page
  • the amount of people that visit it
  • the strength of a brand, the relevance of a brand to the search
  • the amount of chit chat taking place in social media.

And these give us a unique flavour of the real-life perceptions that were influencing the priority of web results.

The search factors translated directly into product metrics.

It meant that products that were first to market sustained higher brand awareness, higher product awareness, a greater degree of product interest, higher levels of engagement, greater brand popularity, more poweful positive brand associations, and they just got people talking.

So there you have it – the powerful effects created by first mover advantage.

Take an Alternative Perspective

Being first isn’t always an advantage, and Google themselves are a case in point.

Because Google isn’t a first mover, in fact for the very market they operated in the probable real first mover was a now defunct brand called Overture, operating under the name Goto.com.

So being first mover clearly doesn’t always work out well and that’s because it brings some very clear disadvantages:

  • It can be an expensive research exercise when you know little about your customers, their relevant needs, and whether your product actually fits the bill.
  • Your business model, and the profitability are unknown. You may suffer the disappointment of a high-profile public failure, with all the costs associated with it.
  • You spent all that cash on creating a case study that your competitor can now learn from with little of the expense and all of the learnings.

Being a follower in certain situations has benefits!

The Terms of Success

So, what have we learned? That there’s a massive upside to being first mover, but significant threats that need to be managed:

  • Whether it’s pitching to a client or launching a product, if you want to reap the benefits of a first mover then your overriding priority is to get out there
  • Being first isn’t about perfection, it’s about establishing the terms of success and creating an ‘anchoring effect’ around your product and services
  • Be quick and be dirty. Don’t overthink it, and don’t overspend. Create a minimum viable proposition and put it in front of your customers, you can tweak it later
  • The benefits are only there if you take them, make sure it makes you famous for your innovation and ingenuity
  • Capitalise on that awareness by cross-selling and up-selling. Let your risks drive the sales of other products

Be prepared to fail, and that doesn’t mean being happy to walk away. It means taking everything you have learned and putting it to good use by redesigning and repurposing your product to meet a new reality. Learn to pivot.

And finally remember that if you don’t move first, then your competitors will, and you’ll have invested all that time and energy for nothing.

Commit Yourself

Capitalising on first mover advantage means being able to grab your bag and run when the opportunity arises – and that means being prepared:

  • Understand your product features, advantages and benefits
  • Create a library of stock slides that illustrate the benefits
  • Create a library of one page case studies that show a variety of use cases and the success they delivered

When the opportunity arises:

  • Create an incentive for an immediate meeting
  • Understand that your objective is to establish the playing field for the perfect solution, not the solution itself
  • Use the start of the meeting to establish the customer requirements, objectives and outcomes
  • Connect your product and services with the results they seek, be brief and to the point
  • Establish a list of specific customer needs for a successful proposal
  • Set a timeline for delivering a more detailed response, and meet it

Get Started

There’s nothing to stop you from starting on your supporting materials right now – it doesn’t need a specific client in mind, and you don’t need to fit this thinking time around office hours.

Create your ‘grab bag’ and have it ready to go at all times.

If you can commit to these actions, the only thing holding you back is the call itself!

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Nick Fawbert

Nick FawbertNick Fawbert

With 25 years in the media and marketing industry, and almost 20 of those in digital marketing, Nick is one of the most experienced practitioners in the Asia marketing industry. He is Founder and CEO of Mutiny Consulting.

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