Sometimes it can seem like in-depth, comprehensive evaluation of competitor activities has been hijacked. It’s all about analysing the SEO traffic and online presence of peers. And it is easy to see why – with so many clever platforms and services and the weight of Google behind it, SEO analysis is an easy and powerful win.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that an internet search on competitor analysis throws up SEO first and foremost. And more and more blogs point to evaluating competitor content, SEO structure and social media integration as the “three easy steps” to stand-out analysis.
But this approach doesn’t give a complete picture of what companies actually do or make, how they are organised or what gives them an edge. A focus on the digital strategy doesn’t give the full story and can detract from the real facts and complexities underlying a competitor’s advantage.
There is huge value in stepping back and evaluating competitors or new entrants in a market in a holistic, systematic and deeper way. This means giving proper weight to the fundamentals of business performance, strategic positioning, product mapping and organisational capabilities (as well as digital marketing activities!).
Providing an evidence base for decision making
The strongest competitor research provides evidence to support a change and is most valuable when there is a genuine business imperative driving it. In our case, clients might be building a business case, developing a product or justifying an investment.
The research and analysis required involves looking closely at what others in a market are actually doing, how they are doing it and whether they are successful. But it also goes further and is driven by relentless, targeted questions about how competitors operate to gain an advantage.
Often, the central question being addressed is quite specific. For example:
- How are our competitors reacting to a shift in the market?
- How are they addressing a new challenge?
- How are they structuring to deliver their offer?
- Should we invest in a new product/service/market?
- What are other players doing that is different from us?
Good competitor intelligence answers these questions directly, and almost as usefully, can often raise questions that might not have been considered. The insight and value that differentiates the resulting analysis derives from a set of clear questions to address.
Fundamentals of competitor analysis
Ongoing (or frequent) monitoring of competitors is part and parcel of good business practice. And this definitely includes tracking digital activities. But, for deeper understanding, an analysis of a single competitor, or group of relevant direct and indirect competitors can include consistent comparison of any number of elements.
There is almost a pick-list, depending on the need. It includes: financial analysis, funding, strategy, leadership and governance, organisational structure, business segments, customers, customer awareness, sales and marketing activities, regulatory context, key partnerships, product mapping and development, pricing, geographic spread, market size, market penetration … And it is likely to include specific analyses, such as SWOT analysis, Forces at Work or peer benchmarking of products or activities. These elements are the building blocks of a thorough competitor analysis.
No “three easy steps”
Actually, that isn’t quite true, there are some obvious and easy wins. A trawl of free and public sources will pull together the basics – company websites, financial reports, press coverage and plenty of free and paid-for sources that aggregate data (Hoovers, Bloomberg, Dun & Bradstreet). And there is internal knowledge to gather, saving hours of research and bringing useful insight. You can quickly achieve a good, high-level view, which at times, will be enough.
However, a more granular, evidence-rich picture that can genuinely inform real business decisions is harder to achieve. And incredibly time consuming. It involves reading product brochures (including the smallprint), trawling websites, reading financial reports and endless press releases, checking job adverts, chat rooms, looking at conference presentations and online interviews, reading blogs and social media posts … Volumes of information to process and pull together. There is constant validation as you work through endless iterations of the same thing, piecing together a picture and drawing out insights.
It isn’t rocket science, but does require discipline, structure and hard graft. Even an appetite for boredom. It takes time and capacity, something senior executives and decision makers just don’t have. All too frequently, tasks are only partially completed or are delegated to more junior colleagues, with a resulting lack of rigour and consistency. And possibly insight?
The real value-add
We are being a bit disingenuous here, because it isn’t just know-how and time. There is something more that comes from the experience of analysing companies and organisations for clients in high pressure situations, time and time again.
It’s a few things: being comprehensive, but with a forensic eye for detail; a consistent approach that facilitates comparison; allowing for divergence when you get a scrap of a suggestion; and the confidence to make assumptions and triangulate these with evidence or relevant context. Our clients also value having an outside view, looking at competitors both objectively and with an open mind. It is all of this combined that leads to the most powerful competitive intelligence. The real value-add.
At Research Matters, we are quietly proud (and rather enjoy) getting down with the detail, drilling through the data and digging for the insights. We can sprinkle some SEO analysis in too, if need be. We draw it all together to present a forensic view of the competitive environment, with the key takeaways and actionable results. The aim, always, is to help our clients get to grips with the real issues and to think differently about the questions driving their business development and strategic direction.