These days, new firms come seemingly out of nowhere, preempting existing companies with different technologies or approaches they never saw coming. Think about how craigslist blindsided traditional newspapers or how Napster and iPod shook up the music business.
Marketers can no longer narrowly focus on dominant industry players. Instead, they must continually monitor the broader market for new developments that could affect their companies, products and brands, suppliers, and distributors, because all can significantly affect margins and profitability.
True competitive intelligence requires understanding how diverse audiences perceive your company. These audiences include customers, prospects, suppliers, distributors, competitors, and financial markets. To keep abreast of market activity influencing your business, start by understanding how your company is viewed as a whole, as well as how your brands, products, pricing, and customer experience are seen.
To this end, a strategic framework is needed to examine and understand the business across attributes including strengths, weaknesses, product offering, pricing, markets served, and needs met. At a minimum:
Monitor competitors by channel. Players can vary: online, catalog, and retail. As companies grow and leverage their online presence, the landscape can change.
Assess competitors by brand or product line. For example, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, and Crate and Barrel compete on some lines, not on others.
Understand how target consumers talk about your company and products. Such conversations often don't use your own marketing-speak or model numbers. Consider the landscape from your consumers' perspective. How they define your competitive set is important. Engage customers in a dialogue by asking for their input at every touch point. Assess this input, as it could contain critical competitive information. Consumers may talk about your product relative to another company's.
Track sites containing negative information about your company. Monitor what consumers say about your firm, especially the most vociferous ones. Protect your brand by buying other URLs, including international and negative versions (e.g., www.YourCompanyStinks.com). Track what happens on similar competitive sites to determine whether there are important trends you should be aware of and act on.
Use this framework as a guide for information you need to track. To understand how users perceive your products and the conversation around them, check the following:
Shop the competition. Though it may sound obvious, I'm surprised how often clients skip to more elaborate analysis without covering the basics. See what competitors offer and how they merchandise and price their products. Subscribe to your competitor's marketing, communications, and blogs, both corporate and those of executives, board members, and investors. Where reasonable, experience their purchase process and customer service. Evaluate every step in the purchase decision process to determine how your competitors compare.
Utilize third-party market data. Resources such as Nielsen//NetRatings allow you to assess your site's performance relative to direct competitors. Remember, an important competitor may be defined as a niche player by a data provider and may not appear on this type of report. Alexa can also provide broad measures relative to competitors.
Leverage search engines for competitive information. Search reveals how people think:
Check your company name, brand, and product keywords on major search engines to see where you and your competitors rank.
Examine paid listings for these brands. Monitor keywords to determine who's investing to talk to your customers and prospects.
Use Hitwise to understand how customers get to your site and your competitors', where they come from, and where they go when they leave.
Enlist a search marketing firm to help with deeper competitive analysis.
Analyze the digital conversation. This includes blogs, message boards, and ratings both for you and your key competitors. Every industry has nuances in terms of how consumers talk about products and the type of information for which they search. Consider what's said and who's saying it. Evaluate both positive and negative postings to understand how the market is shifting:
Search blogs and feeds to discover important brands and products, both yours and the competition's. Then, set up searches on Google News Alerts, PubSub, and Bloglines, based on what you discovered. Blogs have turned the Web into a conversation, so respond to a posting about your business or products in real time. These tools enable you to view the information almost as it's posted. They can also locate important information that may rank low on a search engine.
Use Intelliseek's Blogpulse to get an overview of what's being said to help you form questions to analyze.
Analyze links and clusters (how much discussion there is around a product or brand) and activity (the frequency with which people post about a subject) to understand which posts and blogs sway opinion.
Tap into more sophisticated analysis, including filtering and weighting discussions by audience, subject, and time to expose emerging trends. Companies such as Intelliseek, BuzzMetrics, and Cymfony provide deeper analysis than ongoing monitoring.
Today's digital footprint, while increasing corporate transparency and yielding greater power to consumers in the marketing dialogue, enables marketers to measure conversions. From a competitive intelligence perspective, this means you must monitor conversations relative to competitors and their products to identify opportunities, threats, and trends. You must be able to discern whether the conversation about your product reflects a smoldering crisis, raving fans, or nothing at all. Make an ongoing commitment to listen to and assess public dialogue.
Heidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies, an interactive marketing consultancy. She has over 20 years' experience helping clients increase profitability by developing innovative marketing programs to acquire and retain customers based on solid analytics. Clients include New York Times Digital, AccuWeather.com, CheapTickets, and the UJA. Additionally, Riverside Marketing Strategies has worked with numerous other online content/media companies and e-tailers.
Prior to starting Riverside Marketing Strategies, Heidi held a number of senior-level marketing positions at The Economist, the Bookspan/Doubleday Direct division of Bertelsmann, and Citibank.