How to Reach Your Competitors’ Customers Online

I remember one episode of “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch” (my TiVo didn’t have much recorded that day!) where Sabrina’s aunt realized that her regular coffeehouse customers were frequenting the competition. Aunt Hilda was clueless as to why her coffeehouse was empty while the place around the corner was crowded with her ex-customers.

Doesn’t the scenario sound familiar? How many business owners or managers wish they could get inside the minds of their competitors’ customers and find out what their competitors are doing better? In the real world, this is almost impossible to do, short of standing outside their competitors’ stores and quizzing customers as they leave. But what seems unachievable in the real world is relatively easy to achieve on the Internet.

Virtual Surveys

Imagine being able to identify customers as they enter or leave your competitors’ Web sites, and ask them a few questions about why they visited that site, their purchases, and their user experience on that site. Currently, survey pop-ups can be created and executed only by site owners, since they need to modify the pages on their site to invite users to take the survey as they enter or leave the site. But if a brick-and-mortar electronics retailer wanted to find out why its target users were flocking to an online competitor like 800.com or buy.com, there was no easy and precise way of finding out. Until now.

InsightExpress, an online market-research affiliate of NFO Worldwide, recently partnered with NetZero, one of the survivors of the free ISP game, to develop a unique competitive intelligence offering. Through CyberTarget, its online market-research division, NetZero targets users from a base of more than 8 million users based on their online behavior: the sites they visit, the amount of time they spend there, and the specific online paths they take. A research application service provider (ASP), InsightExpress simplifies the process of creating and conducting online surveys through its Web site. That electronics retailer could use this service to target users from online shopping categories like computers, software, music and CDs, or it could directly home in and survey users who visited 800.com or buy.com.

The InsightExpress-Cybertarget service offers online market researchers some unique opportunities for competitive analysis. For starters, they no longer have to randomly target people to ask if they visited certain Web sites and rely on their responses. They can target users who visited particular Web sites — sites in a certain category, for instance, or particular competitors’ sites. By targeting and surveying these users, market researchers can profile their competitors’ online audience — how they use those sites and what their user-satisfaction levels are. The surveys could be extended to explore product perceptions of noncustomers and carry out head-to-head SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) assessments.

Not a Panacea

As promising as this service is, users should be mindful of a few potential problems with it. One has to do with how current its demographic information is. NetZero still has me demographically categorized in my previous avatar — younger, living in a different state, using a different type of computer, and in a very different income category.

Another concern has to do with how representative the demographics and psychographics of people using incentive-based or free services are compared with those of the average U.S. Internet user. A few users may raise the privacy flag or protest the invasiveness of pop-up surveys, even though they gave up most of those rights when they clicked the “I Agree” button to get free Internet access. Also keep in mind that the registered user base is always greater than the active user base.

And finally, while InsightExpress touts the quick turnaround time of its surveys, if very few NetZero users visit a particular competitor’s site, you may have to wait quite a bit before you reach the number of responses you aimed for.

That said, if you feel you have more to gain by spending a little more than $2,500 to target and survey 100 users who visited competitors’ sites, go for it! And while it took Aunt Hilda a little less than 30 minutes to figure out the problem and win her customers back in TV Land, it may take you a bit longer, so email me those success stories…

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