We’ll skip the pleasantries. If I have to explain why the success of your business is dependent upon your ability to understand your competition, it’s probably already too late for you. Brand differentiation is an absolute necessity even in industries where product offerings are necessarily similar and different companies cooperate with each other.
Keeping tabs on your competition boils down to four simple, and practical, questions. You might even recognize them: Who? How? When? and What? (You should already know the why!) It’s not something you have to do every day, but it’s something you have to take seriously and approach with a plan.
A method to your madness and organized documentation will not only help you understand what your competition is up to, but it will also allow you to learn from them how to build your own brand.
In order to make this as practical as possible, follow my tips by opening a spreadsheet (just a regular, old spreadsheet—nothing special or fancy). But start by putting the word “Name” in cell A1, up at the top left. This is where you’re going to list the “who” that constitutes your competition. We’ll continue adding to this method, our “competition tracking sheet,” after each question we answer. Be sure to go through the entire list for each competitor you find.
As in, who should you be checking on? I know, the answer to this seems like a “duh” the size of the Colorado River, but often your competition isn’t who you think it is. Large businesses, and the competitors with whom you’re already familiar, aren’t your only competition. One of the reasons why competition checks need to be regular, and well planned, is because many newer businesses run virtually. This means less setup, less infrastructure, and budget and capital geared solely toward online presence.
These kinds of businesses can be difficult to find and keep track of because there’s no brick and mortar presence. It’s imperative to find them, though, as their lean nature can give them extra agility in the race to come out on top.
Track it: Add the name of each business you find to the “Name” column of your spreadsheet. Add a color code if they’re virtual or brick and mortar, and be sure to note in what physical space they might be a competitor. Are they local? Regional? National? Online national?
So we know who we’re looking for, but how do we look for them? One of my fellow CEM writers, Andrew, posted a fantastic piece recently called, “Social Sleuthing: Using Your Competitor’s Social Media to Craft New Target Profiles.” Andrew’s post is incredibly valuable because he actually touches on more than just one of my points. But first, let’s concentrate on the HOW.
Just like his title suggests, using social media to learn about your competition can make the difference between wearing blinders to your industry, and coming out on top; I’ve even written about it before.
I found some other great tips in a post called “4 Tips for Researching Your Business Competition Online”—appropriately enough—from SmallBusinessComputing.com. The tips are simple: visit a website, search reviews, and conduct search while paying special attention to both organic rank and PPC ads.
Track it: Label your B Column “Found By” so you can indicate the method by which you found your competitor. Twitter? Facebook? PPC ad? Yelp review? Word of mouth? Drive-by? This column shouldn’t be limited to the ways in which you initially found them; it should be expanded to include all the ways in which you can actually find the business. This will help give you an idea of their total online and physical presence, and how you compare.
New competition can spring up any time, especially if their presence is just online. But changing entities with whom you compete isn’t the only thing to monitor; you also need to monitor the changing offerings, marketing, and strategies of your existing competitors.
As such, it’s important to do a thorough check (and run through this sheet) every quarter. In a previous post, I explored how you can gear up for fall and take advantage of seasonal marketing, but that’s definitely not the only resource on the topic. Fourthsource.com guest contributor, Helen Taylor, writes about how SMBs can use data and insight to create effective seasonal marketing campaigns.
Many businesses know this, and even if they’re not necessarily directly cognizant of it, changing seasons are an implicit and natural influence in the evolution of marketing strategies. People naturally feel like it’s time for change. That means quarterly updates are your best bet, while still giving you time to focus on your business—and its needs—the rest of the time.
Track It: On your spreadsheet label column C as “Last Check” so you can indicate when you last checked up on this particular competitor. A date, a season, or month should be used—whatever works best for you and your records.
Here’s the meat and potatoes of our quarterly competition discussion. You’ve got your tracking method, you’ve found the competitors to track, you’ve noted how they can be found, and when you last updated your research. But what, truly, are we tracking?
The answer is simple: everything you can find. Sure, that’s not easy, but it’s definitely simple. Every single piece of information you can gather is another bit of data that will help you and your brand advance in the marketplace, and give you ammo to help your brand differentiation, and give you a leg up over your competition.
Target market, specials, products, sales, hours, number of locations, places they advertise and more. Everything you can find is something that you can use.
Powerhomebiz.com writer, Isabel Isidro, asks, “Do You Know Your Competitors?” Just below the fold she gets into a series of questions you can ask to see how well you know your competition. Here are a few:
· What products and services to they offer?
· How do they interact with customers?
· What do they charge, comparatively, for their products and services?
· How much advertising does your competitor do?
· What equipment does your competitor use (software or hardware)?
In answering these questions, and several others, you’re helping to uncover information about your competitors. By highlighting comparisons with your own brand, you will shine a light on what you’re doing well, and what you can do better.
My favorite quick, simple and practical tips for what you can learn and track about your competition comes from TheStartupGarage.com. In a recent blog, they list 5 quick hits for top information you can learn about your competition: price, value proposition, why customers like them, why clients dislike them, and what your advantage is.
Track It: This will be where your spreadsheet really adds heft. For each thing you can track, you’ll want to label a new column. Add columns for phone numbers, products, prices, interaction details, equipment, details of customer reviews, etc. It might be cumbersome, but it’s important to not only keep organized, but to keep detailed records of as many aspects of your competition as you can.
And, of course, last but not least, add a column for how this all compares to your business, how you can improve, and how you can continue to gain an advantage.
I’ve stressed it many times, and I can’t stress it enough: it’s necessary to be thorough and organized in the analysis of your competition. A review of all your competitors every month—and a conscious awareness of any new competitors that may exist—will help your brand, your market position, and your market share. So what are you waiting for? Get started!
What are some methods you have for keeping records of your competition analyses? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below!
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