I’m not a super competitive person in general. To be sure, I like to win and to be successful, but I’ve never been deeply motivated by the actions of others to move me forward. Usually because comparing yourself to others can be fruitless, almost like the unwinnable price war. There are too many unique apples and oranges to ever make an equal comparison, with everyone’s circumstances being slightly different.
Where I want to take my business or how I want to run it may be totally different from my competitor’s finish line. Not being cognizant of those differences or by being competitive just for the sake of ‘winning’ can distract you from your own goals and take you dangerously off course from where you actually want to be.
The challenge is that often jealousy and competition can get mixed up in the same fight, and that’s when things can get bloody. But if you can quell your jealous streak, which holds no positive purpose, and focus instead on specific things you can learn from your competition that can help you achieve your specific business goals, then you’re actually going to get somewhere. Like further ahead.
Beyond Your Business Plan
Most people conduct competitive research when they’re just starting out and working on their business plan. That’s absolutely necessary. But once that’s done and in the can, few business owners have a formal plan or process for continuing to monitor and analyze the competitive market, and that’s where you can start to lose ground.
Markets, technology, hires and fires, consumer behaviour, trends, the economy - everything is changing all the time; sometimes incrementally and sometimes astronomically. And it all affects how you and your competition do business. If you don’t keep an eye on what’s happening, you might miss a major move that could leave you breathing your competitor’s exhaust.
So it’s important to set up a system for monitoring your competition on a regular basis, without turning into an obsessive stalker. Remember, don’t spend more time on their business than on your own.
Where to look
There are different ways to gather business intelligence and the right one for you depends on your industry, your resources, and your budget.
You can hire a consulting firm who will conduct a competitive analysis for you, providing a report with findings and recommendations. And usually with a stiff invoice.
You can also keep an eye out in other, more DIY and dead simple ways:
Subscribe to their newsletter/blog
Most companies have a newsletter or blog providing updates on what’s new or their opinions on industry-related topics. This is a simple way to find out what’s on their mind as well as announcements about new products, services, or clients.
IMPORTANT: Don’t sign up using your work email or even from your work computer. Go incognito by using a personal (as non-identifying as possible) email and a different ISP.
Sign up for a free trial
If your competition is a SaaS company or offers some sort of subscription based service, most have a free trial. Signing up for the free trial will give you a glimpse into their onboarding process, allow you to use their actual product or service, and experience their customer service and retention program.
It’s an easy (and legal!) way to get the scoop on what they’re up to over there. But again, make sure you sign up using a non-work, personal email and as non-identifying as possible.
Follow them on social media
As marketing manager at Proposify, I follow all our competitors on social media. And most of them follow us. When we were in the very early days of Proposify, we used to see it as a badge of honour if one of the competing online proposal software companies followed us on Twitter, and we still do. It means we’re on their radar. But it also means we can watch everything they’re putting out there, how they interact with customers online, and what their online personality is.
Set up alerts
By setting up keywords in Google Alerts, you can be notified about any mentions of your competitors across the internet. Google Alerts is also great for monitoring your own online presence, finding out who’s saying what about you, and any issues in your industry. It’s easy to set up and a really powerful, free tool to monitor what’s happening with your competitors.
We also use another great free service called Warble. It monitors Twitter based on keywords, hashtags, mentions, and phrases. You just set up the words and phrases you want to monitor and every day Warble emails you a list of the tweets containing that information. I use it to monitor mentions of Proposify and relevant keywords so I can engage with users and potential customers, while our growth marketer, Patrick, uses it to monitor activity around our competition.
Knowing what these keywords are, and how much traffic they are driving to your competition can influence your content, messaging, and overall competitive marketing strategy.
You can monitor competitors’ paid and organic search rankings with tools such as SEMrush or SpyFu. Both of these services offer fairly robust features for free, with paid services for even more data on your competition.
What to look for
There are lots of things your competitors are doing that can be distracting so don’t get too bogged down in every detail — it’s inefficient and you’ll drive yourself bonkers.
You should think of yourself like an intelligence analyst. You need to sift through the noise (like whispers of weapons of mass destruction) to find the key pieces of information that can be used to predict, prepare for, and prevent threats.
So what are those things? As mentioned earlier, a lot of it depends on your own business goals but in general, these are things you can learn from your competition that can inform your competitive strategy:
Cues to the future
Hopefully, your business is regularly thinking about new ways to innovate products, services, or process. Meanwhile, your competitors are doing the same. So you need to watch for cues of what they might be planning. You want to be sure you’re not still designing billboard ads when your competition has moved on to virtual reality.
Sometimes companies tip their hat in their blog posts and updates by giving a “coming soon” or “here’s what we’re working on”.
But more subtly, even things like job postings can give you a hint at what they’re planning. Perhaps they’ve created a new position because they’re going to be offering a new service or developing a new product so reading the job details might offer a few clues of what’s next on their roadmap.
Also, keep an eye on your competitor’s client lineup. Does it seem like over the past six months they’ve been doing a lot more work with one particular industry? Perhaps they’re starting to focus or change their target audience. This could be a great opportunity for you to develop a different niche, or if you’re already servicing that same industry, it’s a wakeup call that they’re on your trail.
Customer service (good and bad) can be the tipping point for any business. Outstanding service can be the deciding differentiator in a saturated market.
Understanding how your competition deals with its customers can provide you with valuable intel on changes you might need to make to meet industry expectations. This is where signing up for the trial can be helpful - you can find out how long it takes them to answer questions, how helpful they are, and what kind of support they offer - is it by email or phone, is it within regular hours or round the clock?
By monitoring your competitors’ social media feeds and review sites, as well as through the alerts you set up, you may discover comments by their existing customers and/or target audience that reveal a gap your company might be able to fill, whether in service or feature.
What not to do
You can learn just as many business lessons from your competitors about what you shouldn’t be doing as you can about what you should.
Monitoring your competition may reveal things they should improve on, things they’re not doing very well. This provides an opportunity for you to be sure to learn from their mistakes and maybe come through to save the day for their disgruntled customers.
Seeing what your competition is up to can be an emboldening reminder of your own vision. Here at Proposify, sometimes we discover that one of our competitors has released a cool new feature. At first blush it may make us a little nervous but on closer inspection we realize it’s not a feature we would even consider because it distracts from our main goal of really great proposal software, not a website builder, or a document management platform, or any other number of things.
Same as branding. One of our competitors recently rebranded and changed their name. We were curious, a bit apprehensive even about what effect this might have. But once we saw what they had done, and their new approach/attitude, we weren’t worried. It solidified for us that we were still on the right path for our vision, our customers, and how we want to do business.
How to differentiate your business
We all know that differentiation is the key in business. You need to find a way to make your company stand out in a sea of sameness. And regardless of what industry you’re in, you can drown in that sea.
Looking at the ways you are similar to your competition can help you figure out how to differentiate in ways that matter to your target audience. Is it through brand, service offering, support, or industry niche?
Examine all the things you have in common with your competition and then look at your business to see how it can be stronger, faster, friendlier, better looking, funnier, or smarter than the guys next door.
You do you
Not everything your competition is doing is right for your business so don’t make changes to just to keep up with the Joneses. While you should always be open to innovating and doing things differently, you need to be judicious about which things are worth doing differently.
Change because it will help more than it will hurt.
Change because you know there’s a problem and you want to fix it.
Change because you know you can do it better.