Competitors come in many shapes and sizes. The important thing is to identify the most potent threats and compare their strengths and weaknesses with your business.
This isn’t always as obvious as it sounds. Thorough research can correct assumptions you may have about both competitors and the market, empowering you with new insights that can lead to more informed strategic decisions.
Being informed also means you can assess the value of a future idea or a new investment by comparing it with what you know about the competition, rather than just navigating blind.
Lowering your risk
Use competitor analysis to find out:
- How many businesses offer the same or similar products and services to your target market.
- How you can differentiate your business idea, which will affect how you plan to market your business.
- Whether any competitors are using the same suppliers as you.
- What pricing and marketing tactics competitors use.
- Whether any protected aspects of your business such as your trademark and branding, store design, marketing taglines, toll free numbers, or social media user names are being copied, and whether any businesses have branding or names confusingly similar to yours.
Identify your competitors
Chances are you already know some competitors, especially in your local area. But a wider regional, national and even international assessment of your competitors is worthwhile. There may be more competitors than you imagined.
- The target market. Ask customers (and potential customers) who they currently shop with and why – you might uncover a few hidden competitors. You could do this through an incentivized survey or just an informal chat.
- Government websites such as:
- The Industries at a Glance section of the Bureau of Labor Statistics website (for a snapshot of industry health in your area).
- The US Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns (for a complete breakdown of the competition in each industry in your area).
- The Internet. Search engines will give you a broad overview of competitors in the market. This is a quick way of identifying which competitors have a high search engine ranking. This suggests a sound marketing plan and a well-designed website from which you can learn.
- Industry journals and websites. These can be a fruitful source of information on the industry and its members.
- Networking. Joining industry associations or business groups such as your local Chamber of Commerce are good ways to discover more about competitors.
Gain further insight
With a list of competitors, you’re ready to deepen your knowledge of their operations.
- Collect competitor promotions and advertising material to assess their pricing and marketing strategies and which media they choose.
- Check out competitors’ websites and social media pages. Look for competitive features like e-commerce functions, how often the content is refreshed and the kind of opinions shown in social media messages and blog posts. Register for their e-newsletter or get a friend to do this.
- Test competitors’ sales channels by ordering products or services directly from them. Buying in-store, online and over the phone will test service levels and the ease of buying. If you’ll be recognized in-store, consider hiring a mystery shopper or asking a friend to go in your place.
- Survey customers or potential customers. The information might help you to refine or adapt your own tactics to make your business more attractive. For example, other suppliers might be preferred because they keep more convenient shopping hours or offer free delivery.
- Attend a trade fair. Competitors’ stalls at trade fairs and exhibitions are a good source of information that’s freely handed out, so collect as much of it as you can.
"The idea is not to copy your competitors, but to take their best ideas and improve on them. "
Look for opportunities
Make a list of what you’ve learned about your competitors, sorted into two columns: Strengths and Weaknesses.
Focus on their strengths first. Decide what they do better than you, and focus on the changes you need to make to your business.
Changes which address your weaknesses could be anything from making your website easier to navigate, to setting guidelines on the customer service standards you expect from frontline staff. Bigger changes could involve a re-evaluation of your prices or suppliers, or how you target your marketing.
The idea is not to copy your competitors, but to take their best ideas and improve on them. For example, you might have discovered your competition has a ‘Buy nine, get the tenth one free’ customer loyalty scheme. You could adopt a similar, perhaps more generous loyalty scheme, and expand it by also offering a ‘Refer a friend and get a 20% discount on your next purchase/appointment’ scheme.
Now turn your attention to their weaknesses. These offer you opportunities to promote your point of difference. For example, if you run a garden center, you might have noticed your competition promote themselves as ‘The experts in gardening’, but their frontline employees are poor at engaging with customers. You could train your employees to start asking each customer how their garden is doing and then offer some tips and guidance. This would allow your business to show its expertise and leave customers feeling you are genuinely interested in helping them.
- Build a list of competitors then narrow this down to your five most important competitors.
- Research their operations both directly and indirectly to build up a picture of their pricing, marketing and service levels.
- Meet with key staff and advisors to brainstorm ways to compete against competitors’ strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses.
- Repeat your competitor analysis regularly to keep in touch with market changes and new competitor initiatives.
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