Understand your competition, but don’t copy them

Understand your competition, but don't copy them - Engage content marketing agency - Dublin

We mainly work in the B2B sector, and we’ll often start a relationship with a new client at the point they’re creating a new website, or revamping an old one. So we get involved in plenty of website projects.

There are a lot of things to consider during the website creation process: user journeys, jobs to be done, content types, taxonomies, messaging, branding, the conversion funnel, points of contact, information architecture, stakeholder buy-in, partnerships.

Building a good website, especially when you’re an established business with a diverse offering, is a complicated task. There’s also the wider context to consider, the industry, the market, and of course the socio-economic climate. Positioning a brand for success is both a delicate and complex task. And I’m not even talking about how this all ties in with a good marketing strategy

Stop obsessing about your competition

There is one particular habit which clients universally have that I try very hard to break them of. It’s the one of using their immediate competitors (typically, a business has three or four key competitors that they most obsess about) as a reference point for everything they do. Often, they describe this obsession as ‘bench-marking’ – but it’s really just an ‘if they do it, we should/if they don’t do it, let’s not bother’ approach to marketing. And they expect us to take this approach too. I hate it.

What do you actually mean by bench-marking?

The term ‘bench-marking’ has become overused and is often misunderstood by people who don’t do it for a living. All too often, bench-marking is simply a comparison exercise, with no real evaluation carried out that can provide genuinely useful insights. If the bench-marking is just a spreadsheet of a few known competitors, next to which are jotted some fairly random assumptions about what constitutes their marketing strategy, this is pretty much useless.

I’m not being harsh… I have been handed such documents in the past; lovingly compiled by a junior marketing executive and yet to all intents and purposes of zero value. Of course, I’m not really a typical marketer, so my approach is a little different anyway.

Where bench-marking is useful, if not crucial

intelligent analysis can give you the edge - Engage Content

My issue isn’t with bench-marking, but more with what people assume bench-marking is in a marketing context. If you’re going to run a successful business, and if you’re going to take market share from your competition, ignorance of your sector isn’t an option. For instance, you’ll want some Competitive Intelligence (CI) – an impartial analysis of your competition – if your business decisions are going to be objective.

Even if disruption is your goal, you can’t disrupt what you don’t understand – if you want to be different, you need to know what those differences are and how to frame them when communicating your offer. You’ll also want to analyse the offers available in your market, what value they represent and where you fit into the picture. You may want to assess your own processes with some internal bench-marking… there are many examples of how intelligent analysis can give you the edge and I have no problem with it.

Where bench-marking can lead you up a blind alley

If you are a business owner and not an experienced marketer, basing your communications strategy on what the competition does is a flawed and limiting approach, for a number of reasons:

1) You can’t tell what works and what doesn’t

The competition you’re targeting may be great at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they know the first thing about marketing. Just because the guys at Awesome Company Ltd are great lawyers/accountants/surveyors and their business is booming, doesn’t mean that their marketing strategy is a success. Maybe all their business is repeat custom/referrals? If you don’t have access to real data about their marketing performance, it’s a mistake to make assumptions about the results it’s achieving.

It’s sadly true that there are still businesses out there that have a website because you ‘have to have a website these days’. But it’s never been updated since the day it went live, it hasn’t evolved in terms of SEO or consumer trends, and it certainly isn’t optimised to encourage or track conversions. It’s a forgotten, dusty thing that no one gives any consideration to. What kind of template is that?

2) The competition’s content may be off-putting

This is a topic close to my heart, as content is the focus of everything we do. There’s always a chance that the website, social media or other material you have seen was produced, at least in part, internally – by people who may not even come from a marketing background.

Even if they have paid for a nice website, and not gone the route of creating their own site, the content is likely to be have been written by the client. Not by a copywriter, but by someone from the team who was told to fit it into their schedule. Or, worse, it was written by multiple people on the team. Why is this a bad thing? I’ve seen lots of texts prepared internally, and they generally:

  1. have a lack of focus in terms of keywords/real search terms that are being used
  2. are a mishmash of styles and with questionable grammar
  3. can be unclear/hard to understand if you’re not an expert, full of jargon and industry terms
  4. tend to be self-centred and don’t approach things from the prospect’s point of view – for instance, they will be full of ‘we do this’, ‘we are that’ phrases, but don’t explain the benefit of their service/product from the customer’s perspective

So, when you set the bar based on what you’re seeing online, where exactly is that bar being set?

3) A great business owner isn’t necessarily a great marketer

Most small business owners with a DIY approach to marketing are too busy running their company to have the time required to really plan out a strategy and then monitor it properly in terms of KPIs. What they do may be good, but it is more likely to be fairly ad hoc, and tactics will usually be based on gut instinct, or on their own personal likes and dislikes.

In my experience of businesses like this, the strategy directly reflects the boss’s views – i.e. if they don’t have a Facebook page, you can bet that the boss isn’t on Facebook in a personal capacity either. Because they aren’t marketers day in, day out, these people also don’t have the past experience that can provide clear insights into what is most likely to work, best practice, current trends, how to measure ROI effectively, etc.

Gut instinct can get you so far, but the best way to hone your marketing strategy is to get out there and try some approaches, then measure the results and further develop the tactics that work. I know a lot of them aren’t doing that, because a lot of them aren’t tracking conversions and haven’t logged into Google Analytics since the day it was first set up (if it ever was).

Why you should look beyond your industry for ideas

The people who will tell you if your strategy is working aren’t your competitors, they’re your prospects. If you’re a lawyer in Dublin, and you build a communications strategy that’s like all the other Dublin-based lawyers out there, you can hope to do as well as any of them.

re-imagine how you could communicate with the outside world - Engage ContentBut if you draw inspiration from every sector, if you stand outside of your industry niche for a second and try to re-imagine how you could communicate with the outside world, you’ll put yourself so far ahead of your competition that they will become irrelevant. If your field of vision is restricted, there will be no room for innovation.

There are trends and best practice that any good marketer will use as a foundation for an online strategy. Perhaps your competition is too short-sighted or under-staffed to have a presence on Twitter. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bother either!

We all know there are some sectors that are a little behind the times when it comes to digital; from UX to responsive design to social proof to content marketing – depending on your line of work, and where you are geographically, such principals may not have filtered down yet. So don’t base your future on what the guys down the road are doing… set your own standards and deliver something that’s genuinely fresh and has your prospects’ interests at heart.

I’m not in any way advocating ignorance as a starting point for strategy development, and I firmly believe in the mantra that Context is King. But a little less anxiety about what everyone else is doing, and a little more creative thinking, can and will go a long way.

If you’re ready to take your business online, and open to stepping out of your comfort zone doing it, you’re the client for us! Call us on 01 556 0576 to find out more!

Scarlet Merrill

Author Scarlet Merrill

Founder & Customer Experience Activist at Engage. I create and deliver holistic strategies that communicate your company’s values through great content. My passions are: technology, design, innovation, startups, books, WordPress, open source, open data, politics and pedantry. You don't make a plural by adding an apostrophe before the s!

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Engage Content - Dublin, Ireland