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.
Who is Lucky Brand?
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the name, Lucky Brand is the maker of Lucky Jeans. According to their website, they have 209 stores all over America, sell their clothing line in department stores as well as online retailers.
I’d like to preface this story with a disclosure; Lucky Jeans are my all-time favorite jeans. They fit great, have an awesome look and are the most comfortable jeans I own. I probably have 7-8 pairs sitting in my closet, with the oldest pair being 12-15 years old.
Last month, my wife and I were walking in the local mall, when we passed the Lucky Brand store. I decided to go in and look around. The salesperson was extremely knowledgeable about the brand and styles. He explained the different “models” to me and how they fit and my wife ended up buying me a pair of $129 jeans. Yes, you heard me right. The jeans were $129 + tax. While the price even seems crazy to me, I consider them an investment in my wardrobe and will likely have this pair for 10+ years. The salesperson also explained to me that Lucky had a Model 181 which was more of a relaxed fit jean, but they did not sell them in the stores, only on the Lucky Brand website.
The Lights Are On, But There’s Nobody Home
So, when I got to work the next day, I logged on to the Lucky Brand website, signed up for their newsletter to receive a discount (as stated in the newsletter signup pop-up message that appeared) and proceeded to find the Model 181 relaxed fit jean, picked my size and attempted to place my order. I was then asked to create an account and to my amazement, noticed that the website was not secure. Thinking this was some type of oversight or a new error, I then sent Lucky a message to the customer support email address I found on their website.
Below is the email message I sent:
Six hours and nineteen minutes after I sent the email above to their customer support, I received a response. (See below)
Besides the reply seeming very canned and generic, the first of many mistakes made by Lucky is to allow interns, uneducated or untrained staff to respond to consumer inquiries, especially concerning website or ordering issues. Based on my email and the rationale why I didn’t place my order (the site being unsecure) why would Cadelia J. (the customer service rep) respond to me with, “We assure you that our site is secure”, when it’s obvious that it is not secure and the only reason I sent them an email to begin with. Then she suggests that I contact their Customer Service team, via telephone. Sure, that’s exactly what I want to do; call and give someone my credit card information over the phone who will simply type it into the same unsecure website I didn’t want to type my information into originally.
As soon as the shock of stupidity wore off, I promptly responded to the above email with the reply below.
And the reply to my email, received on September 25, which came from Elizabeth G., a different customer service person at Lucky Brand. (See below)
Sadly, the 3-5 days has come and gone a long time ago, I’m glad I wasn’t holding my breath and I never heard from anyone at Lucky Brand ever again. While this was not anticipated, it is still very disappointing, especially for such a large brand. Their website is still unsecure, which is utterly amazing to me. How a company, that claims to generate $100 million in annual sales, could drop the ball and allow something like this to occur is beyond me.
There is One Failure After Another – But Wait, I’m Not Finished Yet
Since I still wanted to buy these Lucky Jeans, I decided to look on Amazon for them, and voila – there they were, perched among all of the other Lucky Jeans. So, I picked my size and color and placed my order. Now hold on because here comes the best part…… They were $79.00 and I got free shipping. What’s even better is they were sold by Lucky Brands and fulfilled by Amazon. A few days later, my new jeans arrived and they are as expected, simply awesome.
Email Marketing – The Clueless Continuation
Sometimes I wonder if the lights are simply left on and there’s nobody home, because it sure seems that way here. I made the mistake of signing up for Lucky Brands’ email newsletter and now I’m stuck in newsletter hell. Every time they send out a newsletter, I receive 2 identical newsletters simultaneously. (See below)
Then I noticed they were sending newsletters every day. So, now I’m receiving 2 identical emails from them daily. It get’s worse – it’s the same email creatives rotated every few days. It’s either 40% off, 50% off or mystery percentage off (just go to the website to find out what percentage off you’ll receive). So I decided enough is enough and tried to unsubscribe. I clicked the unsubscribe link and was brought back to their home page. Thinking they just weren’t bright enough to bring me to an unsubscribe confirmation page, I concluded that’s it, no more emails from Lucky, hallelujah. Not So Fast – guess again – the emails kept coming – 2 at a time. I then thought to myself, maybe it’s a browser issue and tried the unsubscribe link in Firefox and Internet Explorer, because Chrome didn’t seem to work. In IE it finally worked and I was brought to the page seen below.
Now I figured I’m done with this. I made sure “Unsubscribe” was ticked and clicked “Update”. I was brought to a page that said “Thank You” (See below)
Now You Think We’re Done Right? Think Again
Did you possibly believe it could be this easy? I did – why? I have no idea. You guessed it, the emails kept coming – 2 at a time. To end this fiasco, I simply clicked the spam button so that all Lucky Brand emails simply go into the junk/spam folder. What’s even more amazing to me is that Lucky has still not fixed the SSL Certificate issue on their website. I cannot imagine how much business they are losing from this simple configuration fix and what its costing them. I can’t be the first person who brought this to their attention, nor can I assume I’ll be the last. So why haven’t they fixed it? Why is their email marketing program, deployments, frequency and creative choices so poorly managed for such a large company? I agree, I have no clue either.
If you see a great business idea on the internet, you should steal it.
Notice I didn’t say copy it; there’s as little point in duplicating someone else’s online business as there is in doing so in the brick and mortar world. But the idea itself? Absolutely.
Starbucks didn’t invent the notion of “fair trade coffee,” any more than they were the first company to sell a cup of brew. But they “stole” the idea of marketing products with buyers’ social consciences in mind, and ran with it in a big way — they now sell more “fair trade” coffee than anyone else on the planet. If you can imagine a way to utilize an idea in a way that can make it more successful and profitable, you should “steal” it, and run; dreaming up a better implementation for a great idea is much, much easier than coming up with a great idea from whole cloth.
Beyond being easier, many believe it’s something of a moral imperative to “steal” great ideas. Squidoo founder and consummate internet entrepreneur Seth Godin this year put it well (and in his typically upbeat fashion): “Ideas can’t be stolen, because ideas don’t get smaller when they’re shared, they get bigger.” He went on to suggest that the responsibility of the “stealer” was then to improve upon the idea — just like Starbucks “improved” the idea of marketing fair trade. Or Apple “improved” the mouse.
Most tech-savvy folks know Apple didn’t invent the mouse. Engineers at Xerox built the first practical modern computer mouse — their version had three buttons, cost $300 to manufacture, and had practically no raison d’etre. Steve Jobs saw it, went to his engineers and demanded Apple’s version have one button, be cheaper to build, and be the cornerstone of not just an interface but the entire Macintosh line itself. Did he steal the idea? Looks like it to a lot of folks. But he also improved upon it, and that made all the difference.
Many of us who were alive in 1971 (and quite a few who weren’t) remember counterculture activist Abbie Hoffman’s publication of the highly controversial Steal This Book, a sixties-fueled polemic that targeted, among other things, the American economic system. In it, most recall, Hoffman both advocated and morally justified theft — but what fewer remember was the post-release controversy when researcher Izak Haber accused Hoffman of (what else?) stealing his work on the book without compensation.
Haber was eventually paid, and the ideas in the book went on to influence a new generation, who wrote books of their own, expanding and improving upon Hoffman’s ideas about social justice in ways that are easily visible, even in today’s highly technological marketplace. That businesses like Starbucks or Apple are even aware of phrases like “fair trade” or “non-sweatshop labor” speaks to the notion of great ideas as simply roots, upon which a tree grows; ultimately, the quality and quantity of the fruit harvest is all about execution. Anyone can plant an apple seed, but not everyone can develop a billion-dollar market for apple sauce — or see the potential for a mouse moving a cursor on a computer screen.
Put even more simply, and recognizably: don’t reinvent the wheel. Build something innovative that runs on wheels, and you’re miles ahead — even before you begin.