Tracking the Competition

July 12, 2011

In our last column, we covered how to manager customer perception. Today, let's talk about identifying your competition and positioning yourself for success.

In the business world, we must also get to know the competition in order to position ourselves for success. Some things we traditionally do to identify and learn about our competitors are:
Browse industry association directories
Attend trade shows
Request sales brochures and product samples
Ask prospects whose products they use and why

This last tactic is fun because you never know what reaction you'll get. Some people are tight-lipped and act like you are being deceitful, while others are "loud and proud." One customer took me on a tour of his facility to show me how they used their labels before we sat down to talk. When I asked about their current vendor, the response was basically, "You tell me who it is." So I did. On the tour, I had noticed cartons with the competitor's name on them. The customer had been distant and cold prior to that moment, but between surprise and appreciation for my having noticed, it changed the whole tone of the meeting.

Once you have identified the competition, compare yourself to them in order to figure out how to position yourself for success. A tool commonly used in competitive analysis, which I highly recommend you do on a regular basis, is the SWOT method:
S = Strengths. Closely examine your strengths. What are they? Customer service, lead times, innovative products, small quantities, or something else? What are your competitors' strengths?
W = Weaknesses. Where are you weak? Where are they weak? Consider customer perceptions strongly when answering these questions.
O = Opportunities. Based on your strengths and their weaknesses, what opportunities can you take advantage of?
T = Threats. Based on your weaknesses and their strengths, what are the most vulnerable areas of your business?
In addition to the competitive research techniques I have discussed, you may benefit from using the internet to size up the competition.

James Lowry is the general manager of Lightning Labels, an all-digital label printer in Denver, CO, USA. He is a 25-year veteran of the printing industry with experience in digital, flexo, offset, and commercial printing.

The tools I am going to introduce will not do all the work for you, but they will help you acquire a truckload of data at a very low cost in terms of time and money.

Start at Google or Bing and search for one of your top products. Click on each link that pops up on the first page of the search results (at minimum), including ones to company websites, social media networks, blogs, and discussion boards. Start a list of the brands you run across that are offering products and services similar to yours. Repeat this process for other top-selling products and industry terms, taking care to update your list as you perform your research. Take your list of competitors and run a search for each one. If you comb through each website and take detailed notes, the process will yield a great deal of information about your competition.

Next, set up Google Alerts for each of your competitors. In our previous column, I gave instructions for monitoring your brand with this free service. You can use these same instructions to set up alerts for your competitors. Now you can glean competitive intelligence from these alerts.

The Internet is bursting with information about your opposition that is ripe for the picking. I have created a Cliff Notes version of my Recommended List of Resources for Performing Competitive Research on the Internet. Here it is:
Google Trends, Spy Fu, Alexa and Compete
Online versions of resources like Hoovers
Review sites such as Yelp and CitySearch
Your competitors' e-newsletters
Your competitors' websites (to state the obvious). Note: If a competitor doesn't have a website, or you can't find it, this is a very good thing for you
Online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook: Go ahead, "Like" and "Follow" your competitor's pages, but don't stop there. Search for their brand names and products to find out what people are saying behind their back – to millions of people
LinkedIn is a great place to get the lowdown on the opposition's top brass

After you have compiled your truckload of data, analyze it using the method of your choice. I sincerely hope these online tools help you dig up a ton of dirt on your competitors, and that your analysis indicates you are positioned to crush them to bits (as long as Lightning Labels isn't one of your competitors, ahem). Take a moment to congratulate yourself for not hiding your head in the sand, and then get busy creating a plan for achieving the positive results you desire.

Christy Correll is the online marketing specialist at Lightning Labels, where sales are driven primarily through eCommerce activities.
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