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Keeping an eye on the competition without following the herd

When it comes to competitive analysis, it’s relatively easy to see what happening out there but a lot harder to know what to do about it. Skipping the hard part can lead to limited benefits or outright bad decision making.

Lemmings falling off a cliff

Here are some examples of the varying degrees of thoughtfulness that can be given after recognizing what a competitor is up to, and the implications.

Blind following: A direct competitor is doing this, therefore we should do it too. Observing what a company is trying usually affords no insight into results. Even when there are results offered as part of an interview or case study, consider the source carefully. They are often presented to paint the sunniest picture possible.

The best case outcome when chasing companies in your market is to match their functionality but to be behind on timing. There may be a time and a place to follow but in the long term it’s a losing strategy. The trouble is that when you see your direct competition doing something enviable it’s hard to resist the desire to duplicate it, especially when you can see the potential so tangibly.

Another option is to out-do the competition’s idea. This is easier said than done but if you pull it off you’ll not only put yourself in a great position but also nullify the competitor’s effort to some degree. In most cases it’s not enough to be incrementally better than the first mover though. You’ve got to cover the topic at hand or address the need in the marketplace so well that there’s no question who did it best and to make it difficult for the next company to outdo your effort.

A better option would be looking for relevant companies in non-competitive industries. If a company is innovating outside of your marketplace, copying and adapting their idea is a great strategy. The extra effort required is to see how the principles involved translate to you and your industry before diving in.

Another way to use competitive intelligence without following the pack blindly is to copy the strategy but vary the tactics. If you can diagnose the reason why your competition is doing a certain thing you can evaluate it and, if it fits for you, gain a shortcut to generating successful ideas.

For example if you sold Halloween costumes and sought mentions to improve your SEO strength, you might observe your competition offering free family-friendly costumes to mommy bloggers for them to review. They are engaging with publishers within the industry in order to encourage coverage and to generate links and social mentions. For your company, you might find the best way to utilize that strategy is to reach out to bloggers to ask them to collaborate on a ‘best of’ list of costumes to be published on your site. Potentially the collaborators would be credited within the article, offering an incentive for them to promote the piece. It’s still engaging with publishers to encourage coverage but finding a different way to get there.

Finally, you can use research on the competition to figure out what not to do. We are all looking for a Blue Ocean Strategy, or the chance to carve our a niche and dominate at what we do best. If you look at what your archival is doing you can better understand their positioning strategy. Sometimes the best response is to run in a different direction. If they are staking their claim to a territory you’re not interested in, you can take steps to distinguish yourself from their position.

With a little thoughtfulness, competitive analysis can be a great tool for business planning. The key is resisting the lazy temptation to copy first and ask questions later.

The Sacred Moment of Unboxing


Shopping online is great for selection. It seems that no matter what you’re after, you can easily find multiple vendors willing to ship it to your door.
The age old knock on e-commerce is that you don’t get your hands on your product before you buy. Or even after you buy – not immediately anyway. You have to wait.

That’s why your heartbeat might speed up a bit when you spy a brown box on your front step. The virtual experience you had a few days before has now shown up in the real world. You’ve already paid and endured the waiting and now the payoff is here. Will the product be right or will you be disappointed?
There is even more anxiety if you’re trying a new vendor – are they legitimate? Or did you just get ripped off by a shady scammer?

Once the box is opened, all is revealed. It’s a make or break moment for an online business. How the customer reacts will determine whether or not they remember your name, how they’ll review you online and what they’ll tell their friends. The moment of unboxing can be great for business or it can be a lost opportunity for growth.

In Pow! Right Between the Eyes, Andy Nulman encourages marketers to use the power of surprise to make an impression. It’s relatively easy, can be extremely inexpensive and remarkably effective. So why not apply that wisdom to the critical moment of unboxing and give yourself the chance to maximize the opportunity?

That’s just what MFM Apparel does when they deliver their unique t-shirts, illustrated with quirky characters. The resident artist, Saman, draws a small cartoon and message for each order that goes out the door. It’s an unexpected, personal touch that reaches customers at that critical moment.
The rest of the process was pretty mundane when I shopped at MFM – browse for a shirt, check out online and wait for it to show up in the mail. The shirt was delivered in a boring white mailer too. But the surprise message inside was fun and memorable – surprises usually are. And during the unboxing, the fun of the unexpected extra rubs off on the product which rubs off on the vendor. And here we are.

If you’re selling online, consider carefully what your customers will experience when they open up your box. And if you’re interested in powerful word of mouth marketing, consider using the element of surprise to make sure that experience is a positive one.

Logical Marketing: An Oxymoron

I’m a pretty logical thinker. I like to systematically break down a problem into its base parts until I understand all of the variables. I love figs. When I need make a decision (especially when spending money) I’m obsessive about research, listing pros and cons and triple checking my work. The problem is that people don’t really make decisions based on logic, myself included.
The truth is, we’re much more primal and impulsive than we like to think. If it were possible to be completely honest about why I do the things I do or buy the things I do, I wouldn’t find a list of benefits or features. I’d find emotion, needs, justification.
The truth is, even logical arguments aren’t logical if you look closely enough. I’m reading Godel Escher Bach right now (a real mind bender!) and it shows that there is no completely self evident statement. You can always question the assumptions of an argument into statements and then question the assumptions of those statements, on and on indefinitely. Eventually you need to just accept that a concept ‘feels right.’ In other words, you need to take a leap of faith.
So despite my love for data points and even though it makes me feel better to have all the background on an issue, it still comes down to feelings. My takeaway from a Marketing point of view: speak to emotional benefits, indirectly if need be, and take a flier on a project every once in a while.