Most strategic marketing projects require a thorough competitive landscape analysis.
If you have been involved in the development of a new brand positioning, re-positioning an existing brand, creation of the yearly marketing plan or multi-year strategic plans, then you probably used one as a backup for your recommendations.
In the not so distant past competitive research was only accessible to big companies that could afford to commission in-depth research studies.
The only tools smaller companies had at their disposal were personal observations, past experiences, and a lot of assumptions.
Today’s technology makes competition analysis faster and cost effective. Even companies with smaller research budgets have many great options, both online and offline.
Here are some strategies I personally use and recommend:
Study Your Competitors’ Websites
This is a good starting point in case you already know who your competitors are. The quality of information and overall look and feel of a company’s marketing materials offer valuable insight into its ability to compete.
A modern looking website featuring fresh content tells me that the competitor is active and serious about marketing its business. Outdated or poorly designed marketing materials signals a competitor that lacks the marketing resources to keep up.
A section of the website I pay particular attention to is the About Us page. The information in this section serves as a good resource for identifying your competitors’ positioning and differentiation strategy.
Subscribe to Competitors’ Mailing Lists
While on their website, make sure you subscribe to the e-mail distribution list (if you are allowed to). This is a great way to stay updated on their latest new product introductions, promotions, contest and other information they might share.
Some companies that sell through independent distribution make the registration process very difficult, if not impossible (some require that you have an active account set-up with the company).
If you can’t become an email subscriber try the next strategy.
Follow Your Competition on Social Media
A competitor’s social media channels offers valuable insight on how that brand engages with the target audience, who are probably your customers too.
If they run surveys to better understand their target audience, you can probably use the results for your own benefit. You will also be notified on the latest channel specific promotions as well as new product introductions.
I personally use the free version of HootSuite to track my competitors’ social media activity. I particularly like the “Mentions” feature that works like Google Alerts for social media.
For more details on how to use HootSuite as a marketing tool, this article is a great resource.
Perform Internet Searches
This is an obvious one, but nevertheless a great way to identify established and new competitors. Search for popular keywords related to your industry, and study the names that come up.
I suggest you pay particular attention to the paid ads that appear as a result of your search. These ads tend to uncover new competitors that use paid advertising to generate awareness, since their organic search rankings are not very high.
I would like to share with you two of my favorite search tools. The first one is boardreader.com, a forum search engine. The second, addictomatic.com, is a search engine that provides results from multiple customizable sources such as blogs, search engines, and social media sites.
Set-Up Google Alerts
This is one tool I use the most to learn about a new industry or product category. Google Alerts are really easy to set up and the results are generated instantaneously.
Make sure you set up alerts for both industry keywords as well as your competitors’ names. You should also use this free tool to discover what people are saying about your brand on forums, blogs, and other media channels.
So make sure you add your brand name to the keyword list.
If you want to learn more about setting up Google Alerts, check out this article.
Use Online Surveys
Online surveys have become one of my favorite research tools. They are affordable and easy to set-up and manage.
Google also has product that allows brands to conduct online surveys, named Google Consumer Surveys.
These online platforms can even provide you with the survey audience based on your predefined criteria. This is a great feature in case you want to conduct a broader research and are looking for a highly targeted respondent database.
Buy Competitive Products
A great way to learn about your competition is to go beyond the passive analysis and get your hands on their products.
This strategy involves going through the full sales cycle and really put yourself in their customers’ shoes. You will learn first hand about the pros and cons of dealing with the company. Once you obtain competitive products perform usability studies to identify how you can improve your own offering.
This strategy is less applicable when you’re dealing with a custom made product, or a long and complex sale process.
Ask Your Sales Force
Your Sales team is at the forefront of your company’s relationship with customers, and a great source of competitive information. So asking them about the latest hot topics in the industry, new competitive products, and the latest rumors is a good idea.
That being said make sure you take their comments with a grain of salt: in my experience they always tend to glorify their competition and downplay the internal efforts to improve your competitiveness.
Talk To Your Distribution Partners
We Marketers are often blamed for spending too much time in the office, and developing strategies behind closed doors, disconnected from the real world.
Prove you critics wrong and visit your independent distributors. Depending on your relationship with them they will be happy to share with you their business challenges, and how your company performs versus competition.
I have the same advice here: make sure you filter and verify the information you are getting from your independent distributors. Based on my experience, the truth is always in the middle.
Attend Trade Shows
Although many companies have cut back on attending or exhibiting at trade shows, these industry events represent a great research tool. The main benefit is that you will probably find the best your competitors have to offer in one place. That means getting a first-hand look at their new products, packaging, displays and other marketing materials.
Although not as cost effective as the online tools listed above attending trade shows can help tremendously in your competitive landscape analysis.
This is in a nutshell the list of tools I use to get a good understanding of the competitive landscape. I am sure there are many more great ones that are worth investigating.
Feel free to suggest your favorites in the Comments section below.