Some of the best business advice you’ll ever get your hands on might be found at an unlikely source: your toughest competitors. Identifying your competition’s best practices and adopting the ones that make sense for you can be an effective tactic. But be forewarned, they won’t give it up willingly. Making it happen requires some amateur detective work, but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes in order to succeed. Here are some tips to help you get started.
Leveraging the Internet is easy to do these days. “Google Alerts is an outstanding tool for ‘spying’ on your competitors,” suggests Patrick Schwerdtfeger, author of Marketing Shortcuts for the Self-Employed. For example, by entering a keyword phrase, such as, “insurance marketing Facebook success story,” the owner of an insurance agency or brokerage can receive regular emails with examples of how competitors are leveraging social media to promote their businesses. “Small business owners can create dozens of such alerts to keep themselves abreast of strategies that are producing results elsewhere in their respective industries,” he says.
Formulating and executing a well-defined strategy can help you organize your efforts. Conducting analysis of your competitors is a must, say Ross Kimbarovsky and Mike Samson, co-founders of crowdSPRING, an online matchmaking service for designers and providers of other creative services. They recommend a three-step approach. Start by identifying the competitors you want to monitor and defining the metrics you want to track. Are you interested in comparing revenues? Unique visitors to a website? Traffic rank? Then begin gathering the data—Google Analytics makes that easy to do—paying special attention to recent trends. Finally, analyze the data you have collected with an eye towards challenging your assumptions.
Consumer rating and review sites are great places to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors. These sites are basically local directories that allow users to post comments about their experiences with businesses they’ve patronized. Among the largest are Yelp!, Insider Pages, Google Maps, Bing Local, City Search, Yahoo Local, Local.com, and Merchant Circle. Cranks and competing businesses sometimes try to game the system by skewing reviews for or against a particular business, but with a little practice you’ll be able to discern useful patterns in what others are saying about a competitor’s operation. It’s a good idea to create accounts for your own business on these sites, so you can see what others are saying about you.
As important as the online sphere has become, a great deal of business is still conducted in the “real” world, as opposed to the virtual one. If you have a business with a physical presence, your competitors probably do, too. The late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s largest retailer, was famous for regularly visiting his competitors’ stores. Renowned as a believer in lifelong learning, he was convinced he had the most to learn from those he competed against. Visit your competitors’ outlets regularly. Pick up their marketing materials, subscribe to their newsletters, and attend their webinars. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so be on the alert for any successful tactics that might work for you. At the same time, watch for any vulnerabilities you might be able to exploit.
By investing even a small amount of time, businesses of any size can develop a framework for making competitive assessments, gather intelligence on business rivals, and understand how to position their own brand, products, and company in the marketplace. Not only can you learn best practices from competitors, but you can also learn to avoid the mistakes they make.
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