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I spend a lot of time talking to clients. Most of that time is spent discussing strategy and how to help them better reach their business goals through their digital efforts.

“ But Richard, you say, my competition is killing it, they’re the leader in our market, they’re stealing business from us, their website is so much better than ours! ”

As a natural part of this process, we talk about their competition: what they’re doing, what products/services they offer; the experience on their sites; and so on. And this is healthy. If I learned nothing else from business school, it’s that a well thought out competitive analysis is a valuable endeavor (also, how to calculate the present value of future free cash flows… my head still spins).

But time and again, I watch my clients get stuck in the muck of comparing themselves to their competition, and here’s the thing: while a competitive analysis is a good point of reference, it should be just that: a point of reference. Your digital strategy and design should not be built upon what your competition is doing. Otherwise you’re just duplicating their efforts, which is not strategy and does not give you a competitive advantage.

But Richard, you say, my competition is killing it… they’re the leader in our market, they’re stealing business from us, their website is so much better than ours, (insert your concern here)…
I hear you, and I empathize. But, please remember:

• Unless you have a (wo)man behind enemy lines, you don’t know how your competitors’ digital efforts are performing for them, whether they’re driving qualified leads, where sales are being generated, whether they’re reaching their projected goals, and so on.

• You don’t know whether their digital presence is what they want it to be. They may be working on a redesign themselves to better service their audience’s needs.

• You lack context for the decisions your competition has made and why they have been made. And context is critical to understanding any business decision.

• You might have the same general target market as your competition, but the devil is in the details, and your competition may have refined their vision for the future focus of their business.

• You don’t know whether your competition’s customers are happy with the digital experience and communication they are receiving.

• And so on…

If I don’t base my decisions on my competition, what should I base it on?
Your customers, of course!
At the end of the day, it’s your customers who have the best idea of what is good and bad about your services; it’s your customers who buy your products; and for better or worse, it’s your customers who keep you in business.
So start getting to know your customers, as intimately as possible. In fact, obsess over them.
There are oh so many ways to do it. If I were you, here’s where I’d start:

A great place to start any customer discovery is with a look at demographics and psychographics to understand more about the type of individuals buying from/engaging with a business.
This information provides a sense of the prevailing trends governing the types of individuals interested in particular products or services… Where are they from? How old are they? How much money do they make? What interests do they have? Where do they get their information?

Once you understand a bit about your customer demographics, it’s time to learn what’s driving their behavior. One way to do this is through Empathy Mapping, a collaborative exercise that helps teams to synthesize insights and data they already have to create a more full picture of your audience and motivations.

That data tho. Dig into your existing data to understand how your customers interact with you online. Some basics include Google Analytics to understand where they are and what they do on your site; Social Platform Analytics to grasp how they engage with you socially across platforms; and Heat Mapping tools to see where their attention is focused page-by-page on your site.

Analyze the content and sentiment from your social channels, industry and product forums, review sites… anywhere your customers spend time dialoguing and communicating.
A few places to start: Socialmention, Yelp, Amazon Reviews, Angie’s List, crowdstorm.com, consumersearch.com, Consumr, epinions.com, consumerreports.org, Foursquare, Google Reviews, and so on.

When I work with a new client, outside of talking directly with customers, I get the most value from talking to Customer Service. This group understands your customers arguably better than anyone else in your organization, as they’re the ones interacting with your customers, answering their questions, alleviating their concerns, fielding their frustrations. Talk to these people – they’re some of your most valuable (and likely underutilized) assets.

All of the above are ways to identify insights and data retrospectively – it’s mostly backward looking. Historical data is immensely valuable because it will help you forecast future behavior and trends, but you shouldn’t stop there.
Find opportunities to proactively learn from your customers by sending out surveys, requesting on-site feedback, interviewing customers (both brand advocates and customers you’ve lost), hosting focus groups, and any and all other means you have of engaging with your audience base .

You’re right, it’s a ton of work. It takes time and money and energy. But you know what’s even more taxing on your resources? Getting your strategy wrong; building the wrong product; providing the wrong experience; communicating ineffectively with your market.
Even if you only do a fraction of the above investigation, you will be blown away by the amount you learn. I guarantee you’ll discover something new about your customers that will impact your digital strategy. And it will be much more powerful than copying your competition.

So, obsess over your customers, and let your competition fret over you. Your current (and future) customers will thank you for it.

– The Enchantment Team


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