Before you can differentiate your business from competitors, you must first know who those competitors are and how they are positioning themselves in the marketplace. That requires a bit of research. Fortunately, conducting such research, at least on a preliminary basis, is relatively easy, thanks to the internet. Here are a few tools you might consider when trying to evaluate how well your business compares with others offering similar products or services.
Begin by searching your category (e.g., “plumbers near me”) and see which businesses rank highest. This enables you to assess how well you are doing on search engine rankings while helping you identify those competitors worth investigating further. You can then perform searches on those businesses to evaluate their online presence and begin gathering information on them
Creating Google Alerts for your industry, the salient issues influencing it and particular competitors will allow you to stay on top of key trends while remaining abreast of major rivals’ significant initiatives.
Your competitors’ websites are typically a valuable source of information on their businesses, including how they are positioning themselves in the marketplace, the kinds of inducements (of any) they offer prospects and customers, and the major messages they emphasize in their communications.
Competitor Social Media Accounts
You also should investigate to see if your competitors are active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or other social media platforms, and whether they regularly engage on those accounts. Do they post regularly? Do their posts provide useful or amusing information, or are they essentially advertisements? How many followers do they have? Do their followers actively engage with them? It makes sense to monitor competitors’ social media activity, along with consumer sentiment regarding theses businesses, on a regular basis. There are a variety of tools (Buzzsumo, Hootsuite, Sprout Social and others) that can help you stay on topic of social media and learn what people are saying about your competitors — and about your business.
Consumer Review Sites (e.g., Yelp, Citysearch)
Online review sites such as Yelp have become enormously influential among consumers, and local B2C (business-to-consumer) businesses in particular need to focus their attention on how customers are evaluating their performance…and that of their competitors.
Industry Conferences and Trade Shows
If your industry hosts conferences and trade shows, you should learn who is exhibiting, speaking or attending relevant industry trade shows and see how they promote themselves and what they emphasize in their communications.
You can often learn a lot by seeing whether (and how) your competitors are being covered by local newspapers, radio or television, or industry trade journals. You can also to see if they are advertising in or more of these media, and the primary customer benefits they are trying to promote through such advertising.
There are a variety of online databases (e.g., Hoovers and ReferenceUSA) that provide a wealth of information on industries or specific companies. While these databases tend to be subscription based and can be fairly expensive, one or more or them several may be accessible at your local library.
There also are technology tools, such as Alexa and KeywordSpy, that can provide very useful competitor or strategic intelligence. Depending on your business, these fee-based services may be extremely valuable and are worth investigating.
Suppliers and Vendors
Companies that supply products or services to both you and your competitors can be valuable sources of competitive information. Though you never want to ask someone to betray a trust or otherwise undermine an important client relationship, there are a lot of unobjectionable questions that might yield some very useful insights.
Industry Analyst Reports
Depending on your field of endeavor, there may be consulting firms and others performing expert analysis of the industry, including key players, initiatives and trends. Prominent firms offering such reports include IDC, Gartner Group and SNL Kagan; the major accounting firms can also be useful sources of industry intelligence.
Among the best sources for information on competitors are those businesses’ actual customers. If you have good, trust-based relationships with some of your customers, ask them if there are similar businesses with which they are familiar, and if so how well those businesses stack up next to yours. You may discover an area or two where you need to improve, or where your competitors have figured out a better solution to a common problem. You may also uncover areas where you’re already doing quite well but which may require additional attention to provide maximum benefit.
Sometimes you can obtain valuable information directly from the source. Sign up for your competitor’s newsletters, call them (anonymously) to ask questions, or even have a trusted confederate patronize them as a “mystery shopper.” You just need to give your investigators clear direction so they know what services to evaluate and/or what information to gather. You also want them to be polite, courteous and unobtrusive when patronizing your competitors (if the business encourages tipping, tip well!) Depending on the nature of the market and the business, you might be able to play this role yourself.
Taking advantage of some or all of these resources should allow you to determine the nature and scope of your competitive threats — and (one hopes) give you a framework for determining your own points of differentiation.
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