How to get the (good) dirt on the competition

In business? So’s your competition. Here’s how to find out what they’re up to.

First, identify you main competitors. You probably already know who they are, but it’s good to put a list together on paper or screen.

  • Direct competitors. Consider whether they’re competing with you on price or strategy. For example, if you’re Lowes, and Home Depot’s got a low-price guarantee to be anyone’s listed price, they’re a price competitor, at least in this respect. Any competitor whose primary goal via advertising and marketing is to get customers into their stores or onto their website is practicing strategy competition.

Next, identify the most often missed categories of competitors:

  • Secondary competitors. Any competitor who offers the same or similar products but, perhaps, targeted at a slightly different audience  or using a different strategy is your secondary competitor. For example, Builders FirstSource makes and sells building products for residential new construction. They’re a lesser-known name but a competitor for you, Lowes, just the same.
  • Indirect competitors. This is a tough category and one that requires some thinking. Indirect competition would be someone selling a substitute which might be usable. For Lowes, main indirect competitors are local landscaping businesses, interior designers, plumbers, electricians, etc, although those folks may be Lowes customers, too. This is why indirect competition gets complicated. To further complicate matters, indirect competitors can be anything from cold weather, which discourages would-be home improvers from getting on the roof, to the local beach, which discourages anyone from doing anything other than lying on a towel on a hot day.

Once you know who your competitors are, you can start to do your homework:

1. Call them. Place a good old-fashioned phone call and request information. (If they’ll know you by your voice, have a friend do it.) See how they handle your phone call. Answered quickly? Takes forever? Nice person? Rude? How good’s their follow up? Now, do the painful part—call your own company and do the same evaluation. Compare and contrast. Take notes. Make changes as needed.

2. Buy something. Buy something from yourself. Buy something from your competitors. Do it by phone, online, by mail or in person—any way you and your competitors sell what you sell. Again, compare and contrast. Take notes. Make changes as needed.

3. Visit them. If they operate a brick-and-mortar store, stop by, or send a trusted spy on your behalf, to play customer and shop around. If they’re online, visit their website and take notes on anything that you like or don’t.

4. Analyze them. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Which of their on-phone techniques worked? Which didn’t?
  • How fast did they follow up, if at all? (I’m shocked at how many companies just don’t bother. They’re just leaving money on the table, not responding to a request. So guess what? Their competitor’s going to get the cash!)
  • How were you “the customer” handled in person? On the phone? Online?
  • Regarding their online store, which of your competitors’ home pages are razor-focused on the information a customer needs? Which aren’t? Is their site content helpful or does it get in the way of a customer’s ability to quickly make a decision? Or worse, make a purchase? What’s missing? See anything that gives you ideas you can use on your site?

Now, let’s get all tech on your competitive research. To go even deeper to dig up info on your competitors, check out these fabulous tips from Sean Campbell’s webcast for Marketing Profs on how to use Google to dig up information on your competition. Works particularly well for B2B companies.

  • Uncover valuable information hidden in their site. On Google, use the term “site:” in front of the URL that takes you to the section of their website that you want to hunt through. Then start adding keywords to keep refining your search. For example, if you’d like to search through MarketingProfs’ case study library for articles about email campaigns, your search query would appear as: site:www.marketingprofs.com/marketing/library/casestudies email
  • Discover which areas within your competitor’s site have prime info. When you’re not sure where in the site you should be searching, but you have a topic in mind, use “site:” in conjunction with the general website URL. Then add “inurl:” followed by the keyword topic. For example, to produce a list of email-related resources in the MarketingProfs resource library (not restricted to case studies), you could search for: site:www.marketingprofs.com inurl:email . You can refine this search by adding keywords, too.
  • Root out presentations and documents online. To find PowerPoint presentations, whitepapers, and other specific document types, add a file type parameter (e.g., filetype:ppt) to the searches described above. Once again, tack on keywords to refine your search. For example, to produce a list of email-related .pdf files on the MarketingProfs site, you would search for: site:www.marketingprofs.com filetype:pdf email Be sure to search for all generations of a file type (e.g., doc and docx, ppt and pptx, etc.).
  • Use third-party websites. You can search third-party publisher sites, partner websites, and social networks using the same kinds of queries, adding keywords to refine by company or product name, topic, you name it.
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