Competitive research: 3 free steps to a better brand strategy
You can learn a lot from your competitors. Columnist Sam Welch discusses easy ways to gather data on the competition without using third-party tools or paid subscriptions.
In the course of my work, I get the chance to help companies of all shapes and sizes get on track to achieve long-term, sustained growth. One of my most requested services is the gathering of competitive intelligence. Clients have a fervent desire to better understand the competitive landscape, but they often lack the resources to obtain this information and effectively integrate it into their marketing strategies.
This series of articles will focus on some simple ways you can gather actionable data on your competitors — without the use of third-party tools or paid subscriptions — and weave it into your own marketing efforts.
A few months back, I was having a conversation with a client about competitor research, and he made a comment that stuck with me. He compared the methodology of a project I had just presented to that of a Walmart marketing executive spending most of her day at Target.
In my eyes, this was an apt analogy. Nearly all the data I had gathered was publicly accessible and came from his competitors’ websites. I had spent hours looking at product features, messaging and site architecture and had analyzed it all against his company’s own user experience and product offerings to come up with (I hoped) at least a few actionable insights.
Luckily, I illuminated some not-so-obvious weaknesses that warranted immediate attention from his team. The client was happy, and I got to keep my job.
Simply stated, there is a lot that can be learned from immersing yourself in the lives of your competitors.
And to clarify, I am not recommending you go to your competitor’s office and drink all the LaCroix in their microkitchen. Through this article, however, I will demonstrate how you can leverage your competitors’ strengths, weaknesses and unique selling points to better position yourself in the market.
Gather the data
Before you begin the actual competitor research, take time to refamiliarize yourself with your company’s product offerings, site features, value propositions and perceived competitive advantages. List and categorize everything you can think of, and be as detailed as possible. The granularity will become important later, when you analyze your data against your competitors’.
Below is an example list of features that you could explore. (This is in no way comprehensive.) Note that your categories should be tailored to your specific product.
- Pricing/cost (examples: a product’s price, a bank’s fees, different financing options for a subscription plan).
- Site resources (examples: blogs, FAQs, reviews, calculator tools — anything that is not human aid).
- Customer support (examples: online chat, 24/7 phone support).
- Rewards/bonuses/discounts (examples: signup bonus, loyalty rewards programs, referral bonuses).
- Security features (examples: site encryption, guarantees/warranties).
- Experience/certifications/licenses/awards — pretty much anything that shows off accolades.
If you have multiple discrete products, consider completing this exercise for each of them.
Next, choose up to three competitors you believe to be the most similar in terms of customers and product. Navigate to their websites and dive in head-first. Start recording everything you can across the previously established categories, making additions wherever appropriate.
The goal at this stage is to collect as much information as possible because you never know what might be significant when you perform cross-analysis.
Connect the dots
Now that you have your list of product features and offerings mapped out for you and your competitors, it’s time to connect that information to what your ideal customer cares about and their decision-making process. I recommend making a prioritized list of the criteria customers use when deciding to purchase your product or use your service.
Here are some typical examples:
- Quality of service/product.
- Overall ease of the service.
- Customer support.
A list like this probably already exists at your company. However, I encourage you to conduct your own research to ensure its validity, as assumptions are often made about customers that aren’t rooted in hard data.
Survey your own customer base to learn more about their motivations and how they evaluate your product against the competition. If surveys are not feasible, consider secondary sources like online publications, blog posts, or even customer reviews. A lot of valuable information is revealed when customers voice their satisfaction or discontent.
Once you are comfortable with your list, determine its alignment with your product data and think critically about the implications.
- Are your competitors doing a better job at speaking to what truly matters to customers?
- Have you failed to address key customer decision criteria on your website and in messaging?
- Is there a product feature that differentiates you from the pack that you could bring to the foreground?
- What are your true competitive advantages? Are they the same as before?
- Where are your biggest weaknesses?
- What are the table stakes? Are there things that every company must do well to compete?
These are only a few of the questions you should be asking. I encourage you to find your own meaning in the data and to think about the broader impact it has on your marketing strategy and site experience.
Congratulations! You’ve made it this far and now have a newfound grasp on the competitive landscape, and perhaps you’ve gained a few insights that will effect positive change for your business.
Take what you’ve learned, package it, and share it with other teams at your company. New sets of eyes on the data might shine light on details or implications you overlooked.
In my next article, I will dive into the world of value propositions and show the importance of aligning your messaging with what consumers value most.