The Flow of the First Mover

In communications, framing is everything. And when it comes to branding, it is essential.

Want proof?

What’s the longest river in the United States?

It’s the Missouri River, which is about 200 miles longer than the Mississippi.

But wait a moment, are we comparing apples to apples?

Let’s look at the map of the great Mississippi River Basin.

The mighty Mississip’ is shown in the dark blue from its headwaters in Minnesota all the way to the delta and the Gulf Coast.

It’s certainly an impressive river, and has played a key role in the development of trade an commerce in the cities up and down the banks. It cuts a swath of 2,320 miles through the middle of the United States.

Just look at its mighty tributaries, the Ohio flowing from the east and the Missouri from the west.

Here’s the Missouri River, highlighted in orange. It stretches 2,341 miles, which is just 20 miles longer than the Mississippi. Even though it is longer by just a little bit, the Missouri is considered the tributary to the Mississippi.

Yet again, we let our first understandings and preconceived notions cloud our thinking.

The measurement of the orange line stops where it intersects with the Mississippi.

Let’s take a look at how the Missouri River ought to be treated on the maps.

When you take the very top of the Missouri’s tributary system, all the way back to Bower’s Spring (on the Jefferson) in Montana, and stretch it down as a single navigable route all the way to the Gulf, you have gone 3,900 miles.

Now that is a river.

But why is it the Mississippi? Why isn’t the Mississippi considered a tributary of the Missouri River? (Factually speaking, and depending on drought conditions, anywhere from 45-70% of the volume of the Mississippi comes from the Missouri’s watershed!)

And for that matter, why isn’t the Missouri considered part of the Jefferson River?

It all has to do with First Mover Advantage.

Big Mouths Do the Defining

If you want to persuade, you need to be first and loudest in framing the discussion. The words you use (and the words you intentionally avoid) are essential to getting others to view the situation through your lens.

Was there a tragic event that might have been preventable? Always bad, but made better through a lens focused on comparative advantage, or a track record of success.

In the river example, the Big Mouths actually do the defining. The Mississippi River doesn’t start in Mississippi, it ends there. And given the length of time it was considered the boundary of the United States, it’s obvious we knew a lot about the Mississippi long before we had an inkling the Missouri was even longer. That’s why, at least as far as the definitions stand today, the mouth of the Missouri is considered to end where it connects to the Mississippi, instead of the other way around.

Once we knew more about the makeup and length of the Missouri, and the breadth of its watershed, we might have changed a few things. But that takes an awful lot of effort. By that point, there were too many maps to change, too many preconceived notions, and too many catchy ditties about the mighty Mississip. Yes, the Big Mouth at the Delta did all the defining, and defies any logic to change it.

What you have to ask, though, is given a change in the initial condition, would people still think the way they do about the Missouri/Mississippi relationship?

Icy Rocks and Chads

If you think this is not a big deal, let’s look at a couple of other cases where First Mover Advantage played a part.

Remember the furor that erupted over Pluto’s status as a planet? This was brought back into my attention while watching a Stephen Hawking documentary which referred to our sun, and its eight planets.

It will still take me a while to get used to that, even though I know for a fact there are nine planets. (You see, the Earth and its Moon really act more like a dual-planet system than a true planet-satellite, but there’s yet another example of First Mover at work…)

Then there is that whole election thing from November of 2000. While there was a huge confusion in Florida involving ballots and butterflies and chads and who won the state, there was also a consensus notion that George Bush was in the lead and that Al Gore was behind. Hand recounts done long after the fact tend to support the eventual outcome, and I don’t intend to reopen that debate here. But the communications coming from the Bush team in the days after the vote were bolstered by the appearance that he had won, and Gore was painted into a corner of communicating from behind.

Be aware of the Flow of the First Mover, and how important it is to define the terms before someone else does.

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  1. Ike,

    Good thinking. I might clarify one point. Al Gore actually had higher ground on the framing of the issue with his and his backers plea that “every vote must count.” It took Bush and his backers much longer to get on the same page with the rally cry “the election is over.” I don’t think Bush really overcame the stigma associated with the hand counting until 9-11.

    So, while the first mover concept is mostly sound, there are some other factors. You can reframe at anytime in the game, but it has to be done with a surge followed by sustainable force.

    Best, Rich

    • @richbecker – Thanks, as always, for stopping in.

      I would agree with your clarification, but for a couple of points.

      First, there are some who think Bush never overcame the stigma at all. It merely became politically expedient to lock it away for a while.

      Second, Gore did get his message out about “Every vote must count.” There are many who believe the SCOTUS decision with regards to Florida was accelerated because we had already lost valuable transition time, and that SCOTUS would have gone Gore’s way if Fox News hadn’t prematurely crowned Bush in the wee hours post-election.

      I don’t necessarily agree with those assessments, but framing can sustain an issue (even when facts should trump.)


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ike Pigott, Chris Sledzik. Chris Sledzik said: Be 1st to frame the msg & the rest will flow from there. Cool post from @ikepigott. […]

  2. Jackson Wightman says:

    RT @ikepigott: What rivers and rocks can teach you about communications |

  3. Best Fresh Pick Content: The Flow of the First Mover by @ikepigott

  4. Ben Tremblay says:

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  6. The Flow of the First Mover – – Big mouths do the defining according to @ikepigott

  7. The Flow of the First Mover [h/t @RichBecker ]

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  9. Gon Zifroni says:

    " getting others to view (…) through your lens" RT @ConversationAge @RichBecker: The Flow of the First Mover

  10. David Taylor says:

    RT @ConversationAge: The Flow of the First Mover [h/t @RichBecker ] Excellent article.

  11. Beth Harte says:

    RT @ConversationAge 'The Flow of the First Mover' from @IkePigott [h/t @RichBecker ]

  12. Kevin Spidel says:

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