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.
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.
Gamification is a marketing buzzword of late that involves using scoring and reward mechanics to encourage new users of a site or a piece of software to stay engaged. Foursquare is famous for offering badges for various activities, which promotes further use of their application.
But gamification is not just for startups and mobile app developers. A recent visit to a MN charity showed how they use these tactics to engage new donors and to fulfill their mission of feeding children in need around the world.
Feed My starving is a charity devoted to delivering nutritious, culturally acceptable meals to families in impoverished countries. In collaboration with food scientists at private companies they have developed a $1.32 packet of dry food that can feed 6 kids when cooked. FMSC buys the ingredients, fills the packets and ships them to partner charities across the globe, who ultimately deliver them to needy families.
The game mechanics come into play during the packing stage. All of the food is packed by volunteers at one of their packing facilities in Minnesota, Illinois and Arizona. Everyone is divided up into teams, where they work to fill bags with the 4 ingredients, seal the bags and pack them into shipping boxes. It’s a great time and amazing how many meals a group can pack in an hour and a half. And it works! In a year the organization can ship over 120,000,000 meals with the help of 500,000+ volunteer packers and the food reliably arrives to those that need it. They have the highest possible rating at Charity Navigator.
But why use people, strangers, to fill the bags at all?
Wouldn’t it be more efficient to ask staff members to do it rather than train new groups for each shift? And there must be machines or at least measuring equipment that could help automate the task of filling plastic bags with a consistent amount of rice. I think the answer is that the benefits of gamification, especially the increased feeling of ownership amongst volunteers, outweighs the potential inefficiencies.
While any contribution from a donor helps, it’s the long term partners that are really useful to a healthy charity. For any non-profit, it’s a challenge to get people involved and invested. Unfortunately donors are often asked to mail out checks and never hear from the organization about the results… until it’s time to ask for another check.
Reward systems change that by offering measurement and feedback immediately. It’s clear from the moment you walk in as a volunteer that Feed My Starving Children has long term relationships in mind. Entering their facility you’re greeted by the staff and given a nice introduction to how the ministry works. Subtle scoring systems and rewards start from there.
Volunteers are divided into teams and gather in the packing room around a station. By design, all the teams are in the same room with identical set ups, establishing a playing field for competition. Quietly, the staffers mention how many packs fit in a box and how many boxes a typical team can pack during a session. So the benchmarks have been established.
The staff never tells volunteers to rush or to try to set packing records. But do offer tips on how to operate quickly (“hand signals can speed up re-supplies by a few seconds”) and they start the packing session in the same way a race might start. Ready, set, go.
During the session, there is up-tempo music playing across the room’s speakers and the room gets loud with teams trying to communicate with each other. Of course some good-natured trash talking is included and teams start to shout out how many boxes they’ve finished. Each team is pitted against the rest and pretty soon there is singing, chanting and dancing going on as the ingredients fly. It’s super fun but very much about winning.
Once a session is completed (after a count down of course) the groups gather back in the meeting room to hear the numbers. Staffers tally up the packs, boxes and palettes completed and share the results of that day’s session. In all the times I’ve been to Feed My Starving Children to pack meals, I’ve always been assured that our group was phenomenal, much better than the average group’s output. Either I’m just that good or FMSC is using intangible rewards intentionally to give volunteers a sense of pride, ownership and some bragging rights.
Finally volunteers are informed that all of the food they’ve packed has been paid for by the organization, costing hundreds of dollars. Previous donors have paid for the food packed in that session and FMSC needs more donations to enable future volunteer crews. The appeal is all very well done and guilt-free but it’s very persuasive, as I can personally attest to.
In all, they’ve created a personal connection through a fun, competitive experience using game mechanics, which results in more volunteering, more donations and more word of mouth. This post is just one example!
For more information on Feed My Starving Children visit fmsc.org and seriously consider bringing some friends and volunteering. It makes a great team building event, birthday or night out and you’ll be glad you did.
Working at a company that serves consumers, I’m all too familiar with how competitive a space it is. Individuals are presented with an incredible amount of choice when shopping online and have real power to promote or sink a company’s good name.
We marketers have a wealth of information available to us too, including what our competitors are up to. Using persistent search tools and RSS you can listen to what any web-focused company is doing, almost in real time. That can provide valuable info and insights. (I use these monitoring tools every day.) But they also present a danger of shifting a company’s focus.
Our stated objective is to serve our customers in the best way possible, which will lead to organic growth. However, each time we see a company in our market place launch a new product or offer an interesting tool on their website, it sets off a minor panic. Why don’t WE offer that product? What is the fastest way that we can develop that feature for OUR website? Soon we’re letting our competitors dictate which products and designs we offer and how. The obvious problem with that scenario is that we will always be following the leader, not catching or surprassing them.
No one in our marketing department would come out and advocate moving to a flawed strategy like this but the mentality tends to creep into our decision making nonetheless. Watching competitors is great if we can remain focused on our customers. If not, it’s time to turn off the firehose of information that is distracting us.