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Think Big. Move Fast.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about how consumers adopt “new” products online recently, in part because of a couple of recent posts I wrote in reaction to rumors of a Safari browser for Windows and questions on the value of widgets. What struck me is that very often, the “best” products don’t win majority market share. Many claim that Firefox is a “better browser” than IE, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I saw a pitch from a video sharing site last year that claimed to be “feature for feature, far superior to Youtube“. Yet IE and Youtube dominate their markets. And the same is true in so many categories.

Cynics might attribute this to bad luck or my favorite, user stupidity (because its always good to have contempt for your customers), but often there is a pattern at work. In a new consumer market, the winners win on distribution.

In a new consumer technology market, users don’t yet recognize that the category exists. They don’t recognize that they have a problem, so they are not going out looking for a solution. They’re not issuing RFPs, they aren’t even compiling shortlists of possible vendors. They are stumbling on solutions by accident. And that is why distribution is key in a new market.

Lets take an example; online travel. The early market share winner was Travelocity/Preview Travel. They won that early market share on the back of distribution deals with Yahoo! and AOL. In the late 90s, most internet users didn’t even realize that they could book travel online. But they were actively using portals, and through the “travel channel” on the big portals, they stumbled across the online travel agencies and started booking online.

Google is another example. It was a “better search” product when it launched in 1998, acknowledged among the Digerati. But it wasn’t until it struck its distribution deals with Yahoo! in 2000 and then AOL in 2002 that it really started to get used widely. Before users were exposed to Google through their portals, they didn’t know that better search existed.

Product is of course important. Your product can’t be actively bad. If Travelocity’s booking engine didn’t work, or if Google’s PageRank didn’t produce more relevant results at that time, then users would not have come back. But they needed distribution to be found in the first place.

Updating to 2007, the same principles apply. But whereas portals were the only path to distribution in Web 1.0, today social networks offer another way to reach internet users. But now the “discovery” process is a little different. Take embedded online video. A year ago, users didn’t understand that this was a category, they didn’t realize that they wanted to embed videos in their profile pages. But when they saw an embedded video on a friends profile, they could say “Hmm, I want one of those”, click through and get one for themselves. Now the category is established in users’ minds, and brands have been established. But earlier, “distribution” was what drove growth.

Social networks offer a different challenge than portals. Whereas you could get distribution by doing a single business development deal with a portal, on social networks, you need to convince each individual user that you’re worthy enough to keep. But as you get more penetrated into the community, a new user is more likely to run into you and try you. So scale matters and it is a virtuous circle – the more share you get the more likely a new user is to stumble on you as a provider. Going up against an “incumbent”, even with a “better” product, can get very hard. Distribution and adoption end up meaning almost the same thing. This is why Rockyou and Slide are the number one and number two fastest growing widget makers in social networks, and why VCs pay so much attention to “traction” and so little to the fact that its easy to replicate the features of these widgets.

The other web 2.0 distribution mechanism is virality. Users inviting users is the other way that a user can get exposed to a new product – solving a problem that they didn’t even know that they had. Ravi has posted on this a couple of times so I won’t go into it again.

So the next time you build an absolute killer product in a new consumer category, don’t stop there. Unless you’ve got a plan to get new users exposed to your new product, your efforts may be for naught.