Identifying Your Competition and Differentiating for Success

Rowers at the Head of the Charles.

Anyone who owns or manages a small business expects steep challenges to come with the territory. Humans are imperfect, so there are endless potential disruptions housed in almost every aspect of an organization, regardless of whether you are a solo practitioner or leading the charge along with a group of employees.

​Hiccups may take the form of technology troubles, human resource issues, financial mistakes, office space struggles, time management conflicts or performance standards. And that’s just on Monday. While these and other possible problems are typical to any business, you can only hope they won’t all hit at the same time.

One of the biggest demands on energy and willpower for any small business owner comes in the form of attracting, converting and retaining a loyal customer base. Whatever your product or service, customers are your lifeblood. Keeping them happy is critical to your continued success.

So, what stands between developing an enviably robust catalog of satisfied and engaged clients and finding your new biz inbox empty? In the simplest words, it’s knowledge of your competition.

Understanding the profile(s) of your competition is one of the most important exercises an entrepreneur should undertake. Identifying your competition, uncovering how they do business, and finding out what they offer their customers are essential facts to gather. It’s worth spending the time and energy necessary to learn about who is vying for your customers’ attention, besides you.

Before I submit any marketing recommendations to a new client, I always insist that we start with a strategic intake session. Ideally this will be a sit-down, face-to-face meeting, where I’m able to ask questions about my clients’ business goals, marketing objectives, and hear stories of past marketing victories and failures. It’s also where I start to paint a more detailed picture of their target audience. I’ve found this early-stage meeting is a great way to get to know my new client a little better, helping both of us become more familiar with each other’s communication styles and relationship expectations. It also provides a showcase for my own abilities around facilitating a productive business conversation, sifting through varying degrees of extraneous information and revealing a cohesive, manageable set of observations and recommendations. These are skills that are always better demonstrated than described.

I spend extra time during this intake session talking about the importance of understanding the competition, with my goal being to discover how much my clients know about theirs.

I define competition on two primary levels:

1. The first level includes businesses within the same industry as my clients. These are more obvious competitors — sharing a similar business focus, range of products or services, and type of customer base. I label this a challenge of parity — where consumers in the outside world perceive everyone within this particular industry to be the same. It’s beholden upon marketers like me to help our clients tease out a differentiator, something that makes their business stand apart from the rest, even if they are located just down the street from their competition.

2. The second level of competition is broader and harder to confront. This is the intangible competition for a customer’s time, energy and willingness to change. We are naturally creatures of habit so asking us to alter our behavior requires a fairly compelling reward. We’ve all heard stories from disgruntled neighbors or friends who complain about price, quality, service or availability, only to continue to purchase said product or shop at said store simply because it’s closer to home or work. Add to this complicated set of behaviors, many consumers are better educated these days than ever before due to easy access to information on the web. Just like with industry parity, it all comes down to sharpening a subtle but effective edge that we hope will nudge the potential customer into taking the leap. Positioning your company as more efficient, better informed, more responsive or simply more convenient and then following through on your promise, are all worthy platforms on which to set your business apart.

So what are some of the best resources to research competitive businesses? If you enjoy a more confined service area, then starting within your local geographic radius may be enough. Those businesses with a wider reach will need to expand their competitive research into larger concentric circles.

Local competitive information can come from:

  • Local Business directories (online and print)
  • Local chambers of commerce
  • Local paid media outlets
  • Local networking events
  • Geo-targeted web searches
  • Word of mouth

If you are a business with a wider potential customer base, or if you don’t rely on a standard brick and mortar storefront, you may have to go beyond the local research.

Some broader information channels include:

  • Online customer reviews
  • Regional or national networking events
  • Participation in webinars or podcasts
  • Online search engine rankings
  • Website reviews
  • Annual reports
  • Advertising and other outbound marketing efforts and placement

My role as a marketing strategist is to guide my clients through this self-reflective process and competitive information gathering effort, reminding them of the need to always keep their eyes on present and future competitors. More than anything else, though, I’m here to work with them to identify and eventually communicate what it is that makes their company’s product or service distinctive in the eyes of current and prospective customers, and to continue to deliver on that unique selling proposition with care and consistency over the long haul.

Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the owner and media director of Richardson Media Group, an agency specializing in media planning and buying, advertising campaign management, and SEO.


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Anne outside the door of the Richardson Media Group office.

In addition to her role as owner and media director here at RMG, Anne authors the majority of our blog posts and hosts our BSuite podcast. Favorite topics for both platforms include the entrepreneurial journey, sustainability + social responsibility, media planning, media buying, and forming productive agency partnerships.