Every successful business begins with a thorough business plan — and Business Plan Writing 101 includes an effort to identify and analyze the competition. So it’s no big secret that understanding how “the other guys” stay in business is a crucial part of bringing your potential customers around them, and to you. But while the tools of the digital marketing age might have changed, the fundamentals of so called “opposition research” remain the same as they’ve ever been: if you’ve got competition (and everyone does), your efforts need to focus on determining 1) what the competition is doing to attract and retain customers, and 2) how you can learn from their successes (and failures).
Just Browsing. In the “old days” getting a read on another business’ practices might’ve been as simple as walking into the competitor’s store, asking a few questions, maybe getting a price list, and then checking at the local newspaper to see how big an ad they were running. Today’s successful marketing campaigns are multi-pronged and coordinated affairs — but you can still “shop” the competition to some extent. Visit their website and imagine being their customer. What works? What would you change?
Follow and Join. If your competition is on social media, you’ve got another chance to look over their shoulder. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, wherever they have a presence. How do they present themselves on Pinterest? What times of day do they update? There’s a huge amount of data to be mined here. Remember, they’re watching their own campaigns to see what works; if they stop posting in the evening, for example, and only post during business hours, you can bet it’s because they saw success in daytime updates.
Read your email. If you’re in the target audience for your competition, the odds are pretty good you’re already receiving marketing email from them. If you’re not, get on their lists. If there’s a place to sign up for email messages, sign up for them — and pay attention to how they arrive, when they arrive, and whether you as a potential customer found them useful. Did you have the sense they were using a verified and targeted email list, or did you feel they were using a more “shotgun” approach — and how did that make you, as a potential customer, feel?
Search for them. Again, imagining yourself as a customer who wants to buy something your competition is selling, try to find it online. Enter the search terms you believe you’d use to find the product or service — and see if your competition turns up. If they don’t, you might have found an opening for your own business. If they do, look carefully and see what they’ve done to reach the top of those search results. Are they providing extra content that’s helpful to potential customers, or are they offering a streamlined purchasing experience? Several online tools can help you see how often they update their pages; fresh, relevant content always rises to the top.
Believe in the numbers. If you’ve found (and tried) a strategy that seems to be working well for your competition, now’s the time to pay attention to your metrics — the things you can accurately measure. Whether that’s an analysis of what kinds of social media efforts bring eventual customers to your website, or simply a reckoning of what kinds of email marketing translates into sales for you, you’ve got to trust your own numbers. Don’t get stuck doing what the competition does if it doesn’t work for your business.