June 26th, 2018

When (and Why) Competitor Research Matters

Author: Laura Lynch
Laura Lynch
Director of Marketing

Your competitors are learning from you. Here’s what you can learn from them.

We’ve all been there: we get caught up in our own heads, convince ourselves of the excellence of our great idea, and are on the verge of moving ahead when we decide to give that notion a quick Google search. You know—just to see if anyone else has done something similar.

These quick searches can lead any number of directions. Sometimes we draw a blank, which may seem exciting, until you consider that it could also mean that no one’s interested in this new idea of yours. But usually, we realize that the great idea we had is less original than we believed. Someone else has done it already, and it takes some hard looking to determine of they’ve done it better or worse than how you’d envisioned it being.

Looking to your competitors is an important step in developing any idea, but it’s also one many people skip. Some believe that competitor research distracts from your own vision of your company and what it needs to be. However, without looking at your competition, you’re entering the market blind. You also risk wasting a lot of resources trying to invent solutions from scratch when others are miles ahead.

So, while you shouldn’t become obsessed with it, it is something you should pay attention to. Here are some of the most crucial points where it’s smart to pause and take a look at what your competitors are doing.

1. You’re innovating.

It’s hard to say exactly when you should start competitor research. You obviously need to have some idea in mind before you start seeing what other people are doing, and by taking time to develop that idea on your own, you are more likely to come up with something thoughtful and unique rather than something that just imitates everything else on the market.

On the other hand, leave it too long, and you miss the opportunity to learn important lessons from your competition. After all, no one wants to waste time reinventing the wheel. If someone else has developed something you can learn from, take advantage of it.

2. You’re transitioning.

Sometimes businesses look to their competitors not because they sense an opportunity to lead, but because they’re struggling to keep pace. If you’re in the middle of a shift into a new market, competitor research can help you find your footing. After all, at its best, competitor research isn’t about finding what other people are doing wrong just so you can feel good about yourself. It’s about seeing what they’re doing right so that you can stay sharp.

3. You’re about to launch.

Of course, sometimes people leave competitor research till the very end of their project. This isn’t ideal, because it doesn’t give you a lot of time and flexibility to adapt. However, even late in the game, taking a moment for competitor research can ensure you don’t run into a PR catastrophe. You wouldn’t want to unveil something you’ve billed as the “latest and greatest,” only to discover it’s been done before and the market has moved on.

So, now that you know when you should take a moment to scope out your competition, here’s a few specific things you should try to learn from them while you’re at it.

Set reasonable price points.

Many businesses have a hard time determining how to price their product. I once worked with a customer who wanted to release their product for close to ten times the going rate. Unfortunately, due to production costs, they didn’t have a lot of flexibility in what they could charge.

If they had looked at the competition more carefully from the onset, they could have compared their production costs against a reasonable asking price, and might have looked either for more cost-efficient manufacturing methods, or realized their product wasn’t marketable.

Discover better ways to serve your customers.

In marketing, we spend a lot of time trying to understand what our customers want so that we can better serve them. Well, it should come as no surprise that your competitors are a great way to learn about what features and services are attractive to customers. As these features become popular with customers, they become popular with competitors, too.

That said, sometimes these features get to be too much. Maybe your competitor offers a full-service package full of bells and whistles—but at a steep price point. Why not offer a stripped down, lean version? This is essentially the model that budget airlines have thrived on. They may not be well known for their service, but that hasn’t hurt their profit margins.

Get new ideas and inspiration.

Sometimes, you might think you know what you want to create, only to discover that someone’s done way better than you might have expected. A few years ago, I jokingly asked a friend if he could create a flash card program to help me learn languages. He asked me what kind of program I was looking for, and what I described was fairly basic.

He never got around to it, but a few months later he forwarded me a link to a flashcard app that was far more robust than anything I had imagined. Most importantly, this flash card program offered a spaced repetition method of flash card learning that I had never heard of before—and which proved a far more efficient memorization tool.

I’ve since seen another company use the spaced repetition system from this same flashcard program as the basis for a new language learning app. They’ve taken a great idea, and applied it to a more specialized use.

Don’t imitate—differentiate.

Remember, the point of competitor research isn’t to be the same as everyone else. We’re not suggesting you shut down the critical thinking portion of your brain. Quite the contrary: you should be critical—of your own projects, as well as your competitors.

However, being critical isn’t the same as being negative. It’s important to discriminate between the things you think are bad and those that simply don’t fit your brand. And an enthusiastic outlook on the good things you see from your own business and the brands around you can help guide your business in a positive direction, rather than taking a merely reactionary path.

So, when you see your competitors doing something—even a good thing—don’t just copy. Think about whether or not it fits your brand, and if it does, think about how you might do it differently.

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