Any competitor knows the importance of learning from those they are up against. Athletes might watch videos of past games, artists could look at their competitors’ past works, and chess players familiarize themselves with their upcoming opponent’s favored moves. Businesses should do the same. Innovation is imperative, but when it comes to attracting customers, it never hurts to learn from the other players on your field.
You should never outright copy, of course. Copying is lazy—not only is stealing ideas unethical, but customers will also notice. Your goal instead is to emulate: what are your competitors doing, and how can you do it better? Here are a few tips for figuring out how.
Learn who they are
The first step is to identify who your competitors are. They might be obvious, but there might also be a few who are hiding in the shadows, or maybe some who offer a wide range of products and services with only a handful in direct competition with you. You can also categorize companies as primary, secondary, or tertiary competition. The size of your business will impact how extensive your research should be—there is little need to find similar companies in Montana if you are a local business in Florida and neither of you is exploring the e-commerce space—but make an effort to Google different aspects of your industry and see who is offering similar services.
Refrain from copying
As an entrepreneur, isn’t it frustrating when you see another business offering a product that is exactly like yours? Or an advertisement? Absolutely—so you do not want to be guilty of it.
Look at the technology industry: Apple bought the company that developed the voice assistant Siri and released it in 2011, and Google Now, a near-identical feature, emerged on the scene a year later, followed by Microsoft’s Cortana. It works the other way around, too, because after Spotify became popular in the US, Apple Music entered public consciousness in 2015. iPhones gave birth to Android phones, tablets still beget tablets, and ideas circle around again and again in what David Pogue from Scientific American calls a “cycle of mimicry.”
Consumers can tell that these tech giants are stealing ideas from one another at the cost of innovation. Amazon Echo and Google Home have different voices and physical appearances, but their functions are arguably the same. If you copy your competitors, you might keep pace, but you will never outrun them.
Assess their strategy—and improve
Instead, Derek Halpern, creator of the website Social Triggers, advises not to copy ideas, but to replicate their strategies. Why do they do what they do? What is working for them, and what is not? This is why athletes sometimes study up on their opponents: they do not want to repeat the same plays, but they want to discern what effects specific moves achieve, and how to determine when opportunities arise to use them.
Scrutinize your competitors’ marketing approaches. If they create blog posts, podcasts, eBooks, whitepapers, press releases, case studies, or other content that is proving successful, feel free to do the same. What is their SEO structure? What do they do to get followers and likes on Instagram? Your podcasts, eBooks, social media entries, and so on should not be about the same topics. Offer customers different insights into your industry that they cannot find from other companies, and do your best to make them even more user-friendly and visually appealing.
Listen to what customers say about them
Almost every industry is already saturated with similar businesses, which means that you do not need to look far when researching consumer demand. Instead of experimenting with what customers want through tedious and expensive trial-and-error, read your competitors’ reviews. If people complain about their website, make sure yours is easily navigable. If they complain about the usability of a product or the friendliness of service, then yours needs to meet their expectations. If they say that online content is dry or uninformative, then everything you write should be thorough and engaging.
Again, improve on whatever there is room for—and there is always room! Distribute your content through different channels that your competitors may not have explored yet. Offer products that compensate for flaws in competing merchandise. Establish yourself as a thought leader in your field through writing articles and answering questions on Quora. Your goal is not to fall behind, but it should not be staying side-by-side, either. You want to be multiple steps ahead.
Emulating your competitors helps you learn from mistakes without making them first, and it keeps your products and services up to date with consumer demand. When you analyze your business competition, what do you try to replicate and improve upon?