If market domination isn’t what your client is after, you can stop reading here.
Carving out your own place in the market landscape is no easy feat. It’s about knowing your audience, knowing your product, knowing your competitors and knowing how you fit in as an essential part of the puzzle. Let’s face it, we all want to be that missing je ne sais quoi. We all want customers to buy our products thinking, saying and feeling: “You complete me.” And your clients aren’t any different.
In order to successfully scale your client’s business, you need to have a pulse on market trends, their competitors and their company’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, translate all that data and key insights into an actionable marketing plan that sets their brand apart.
Welcome to the world of competitive analysis, a methodology to assess one’s place in the market, identify competitors (direct and indirect) and build a marketing strategy in response. Regardless of your client’s industry, reaching their target audience is more competitive than ever before. So you need to stay ahead of the curve—because this is about the livelihood of you and your clients.
What is a competitive analysis?
Competitive analysis, or competitive intelligence, is the process of gathering and assessing data about other companies vying for market share in your client’s industry. Your ultimate goal is twofold: 1) See how your client’s business and their products or services stack up against competitors. 2) Develop strategies to make their brand the clear choice among customers.
Pooling data from multiple sources and touchpoints, both internally (your client's sales records, quarterly goals/projections) and externally (market forecasts/reports, competitor promotions), gives you a broad picture of where their brand ranks and how to penetrate new areas of the existing market.
The importance of competitive intelligence and analysis in marketing
Conducting an in-depth competitive analysis has far-reaching implications, impacting every aspect of your client’s business. Here are just a few benefits of how market research and analysis can make a difference.
Understand your client’s strengths, weaknesses, challenges and potential
The core of any competitive analysis comes down to a SWOT analysis. A 2x2 matrix assessing your client’s business’ (as well as products) strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. When identifying strengths and weaknesses, focus on your client’s business alone. Items that fall under weaknesses and opportunities relate to your client’s market or industry as a whole.
Strengths: Things your client does well, including qualities and values that set them apart from their competitors. They can be product or resource focused. Don’t discount the expertise and strength of your client’s team. Human capital is incredibly valuable.
Weaknesses: Things your client’s business lacks, limitations to their resources (finances, inventory, technology, employees, knowledge) or areas their competitors simply do better.
Opportunities: An underserved or emerging audience for your client’s products or services, lack of competition, a growing need for your client’s products or services (Did somebody say face masks?), or trends in the market.
Threats: New competitors or an oversaturation of competitors in your client’s market, instability in the industry or new regulations/laws that make doing business more difficult, negative changes in public perception about the products or services your client offers, bad publicity (your client’s product is being recalled), or quite possibly the worst situation, no product-market fit.
Enhance product features or service offerings
Complete an audit of your client’s products or services. Do a side-by-side comparison of their products or service offerings with their competitors, tallying their strengths and weaknesses. When conducting your audit, here are some basics to consider:
Does their product have better specs?
Does it have a unique selling point (made in the USA, locally sourced, vegan leather or Fair Trade Certified)?
Do they offer services that are hard to find?
Is their staff more experienced, or more sought after?
Are their products or services over-priced, at-market cost or below the market standard? How does this price point position your client—as a luxury brand, or value for the money?
Clearly identify areas in which your client’s products or services make them stand out in the market and areas they can improve to better compete.
Diversify a product line or develop new products
Building on a product or service audit, you may realize your client needs to up their competitive game by expanding business offerings. Look outward at your client’s competitors and see how they’re able to take a larger share of the market by giving customers more of what they want.
If your client has a service business, they can quickly up sales by creating custom branded products promoting their brand, or dropship products related to their industry. Let’s say your client owns a pilates studio. They can diversify their business offering by selling pilates and yoga related products, such as mats, fitness rings, foam blocks and more. Plus, with print on demand, they can create tees, tanks, leggings and totes with their logo and studio name. Chances are their most avid clientele will buy these items, boosting sales while promoting their business.
Assess the market landscape
Analyzing your client’s competition gives you vital info about the market as a whole. When you identify the major players of any market, you soon realize if it’s oversaturated, dominated by one MVP or if there’s healthy competition and room for growth.
In an oversaturated market, or one that has a clear leader, you need to be honest with your client. Draw attention to hidden opportunities and strengths they have and how they can potentially pivot their products or services to capitalize on the market. For example, if your client is in an oversaturated drone market, they could pivot their product offering and focus on high-end drone accessories, like cameras.
If your client is in a market with fair competition and no clear market leader, overhaul their marketing plan. Harness the power of influencers to reach new audiences, incentivize repeat business, change up their product line or offer popular services in bundles and more. Moreover, clients in this kind of market need to be made aware of possible threats. What are their competitors doing now that could cut into their future market share? How can they stay smartly on the offensive? Support your clients with strategic planning that accounts for their current situation while anticipating changes to the market.
Identify emerging segments
Combining what you learned from your client’s SWOT analysis and the current market landscape, you should be able to start connecting the dots to new opportunities. Emerging market segments and niche audiences in particular could mean big rewards for your client. New segments enter markets with more or less buying power, while others in the population age and their needs shift. Additionally, public perception about certain products and services change over time. Pay attention to the root of evolving attitudes. Nowadays, many businesses are directly impacted by a lack of economic stability and consumers that are choosing to save instead of spend.
Your clients need guidance on how to adapt their marketing efforts and messaging to cater to new segments, or the fluidity of existing ones. What worked for their initial target audience or customer-base may not lead to conversions with new audiences, especially in times of economic uncertainty. However, if they are able to speak to these segments in a meaningful, authentic manner, they’ve come more than halfway to building a loyal consumer base.
When addressing niche audiences, research is the only way to their hearts and their pockets. Invest the time in thorough research, engaging with focus groups and developing buyer personas for your client. Ultimately, it’ll come down to truly understanding the unique pain points of this group and then putting a spotlight on how your client’s products or services is the solution they’ve been waiting for and can’t miss out on.
Create a strategic marketing plan
Chances are this is why your client called you in in the first place. They have a product. They have potential customers. They just need help communicating to their audience why they really need this product. Your client won’t realize all the research involved to get your agency here, down to the planning stage. But that’s why you're the pro.
Knowing your client’s industry and target audience are the working variables in a performance-driven marketing plan. You have to live, breathe and believe in their product or service like a devout cult follower. To ramp up the conversion process, create an archive of marketing and promotional messaging your client’s competitors use. Then, ask yourself the following:
What words keep appearing? Are they industry specific, or more friendly and familiar?
Is the ad copy text heavy and loaded with stats, or just a simple and direct call to action?
What kind of visual story do they create to sell their products or services?
What emotions are they appealing to?
Which part of the market audience are they targeting?
Would you or your client click on the ad if it popped up on your Facebook feed?
Maintaining an archive of competitor ad exemplars is a great way to engage with your client about marketing materials and ad formats. All conversations are centered around shared examples, giving you common ground for dissecting the competition and plucking morsels of winning material to use and A/B test in your own marketing campaigns.
Review operational processes
Product and process are no doubt interconnected. A competitive analysis prompts you to take a hard look at the tools, systems and technologies that your client and their competitors use. Investigate the structures and processes at play in your client’s business:
How can your client best allocate their resources (human included)?
Which routine tasks or processes can be automated, or perhaps even cut altogether?
What SaaS programs do businesses in their market use and why?
What new technologies address common challenges in their industry?
Be open and honest when you share your findings. It’s not an attack. You're helping them streamline operations. Oftentimes inefficient company processes and workflows go unchecked for years and an outsider looking-in, even for a short time, can offer invaluable feedback.
Improve distribution models
Similar to inefficiencies in operations, companies offering the same product or service might employ distribution channels that are outdated, no longer practical, or worse, no longer financially rewarding.
Get a firm grasp of your client’s distribution model. Do they get their products directly from a manufacturer, or do they work with one or many wholesalers? Track your client’s expenses end-to-end—from purchasing products, stocking them or storing inventory, to selling it to their customer. Where along this chain can they reduce costs (inventory, handling, transport)? How’re your client’s competitors able to cut distribution costs while maintaining the integrity of their products or services? Like a detective, it’s your task to uncover mysterious clues that point to how your client can maximize profit margins.
Shape company culture
From employee satisfaction to customer-experience indicators, corporate culture can be a central ingredient to a business’ success or failure. While no company is living it up 9-to-5 in utopia, continually working towards a work environment where all employees feel valued and respected is critical.
Get a sense of your client’s company culture from all levels. Does top management feel one way about the company’s vision and quarterly goals while middle management and support feel another? Do employees like coming to work, why or why not? Are they passionate about the products they sell or the services they offer? Do your client’s company values match their employees' values? Their customers?
For clients in larger companies, you can anonymously poll employees using tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms. If your client is smaller, or prefers a more intimate setting, consider gathering info informally through a custom generated game, like Kahoot!. When employees are on board with the company culture, they understand the importance of business objectives, own their role and responsibilities, and want to make an impact—regardless of their job title.
Forge new relationships
Valuable competitive intelligence should yield solid leads on potential partners in your client’s industry. These could be influencers, or brand collaborators (even those that worked with your client’s competitors in the past, nothing is off limits). Connecting with these individuals can expand your client’s reach, building brand awareness among a whole new audience.
Also consider linking your client to a non-profit, NGO or a social cause that aligns with your client’s values and brand mission. Customers these days are more inclined to buy from businesses that care about their impact on the community and world, not just turning a profit. When going the altruistic route, make sure to choose a cause that your client truly believes in. Make it personal. Here, authenticity is a must.
Identifying market competitors
A central element to competitive research is focusing on strong and relevant competitors. Depending on your client’s industry, this can feel like an overwhelming task and major drain on resources. But it needs to be done. In early stages, the focus is on breadth not depth.
Before you start digging deep into competitor data, quickly reflect on the following aspects of your client’s business:
Target audience: Who are their customers?
Pain point: What problem does their product or service solve?
Unique selling point: How are they solving this problem? How does it bring value that’s different from the competition?
Your client’s direct competitors will be targeting the same customers, that have the same problem, using more or less the same products, services or methods. For example, Blue Apron and Hello Fresh are direct competitors. They both target working professionals in urban areas who don’t have time to buy groceries and make a home-cooked meal. Their solutions are near identical, a delivery service offering meals-in-a-box.
We can quickly sum up their competitor relationship using a chart like the one below:
While it’s critical to get a sense of your client’s direct competition, don’t focus solely on these companies. A narrow view of the market landscape makes it harder for you to recognize and seize new opportunities as they arise, such as emerging audiences. Moreover, it makes it near impossible for your client’s business to safeguard itself against threats, like new companies encroaching on their market share.
Aside from your client’s direct competitors, you’ll want to map out and keep an eye on competitors that share the same target audience. These competitors may offer different products or services and solve slightly different pain points, but they have the same or more in-depth knowledge about your shared target audience. Because of that, they’re in a strategic position to expand their business offering when they see fit, easily cutting into your client’s market. Let’s throw in a couple indirect competitors for Blue Apron to illustrate.
As you can see, each of these indirect competitors are addressing slightly different pain points or offering a nuanced solution, but they are all targeting the same audience as Blue Apron. If one of these competitors decided to expand their product offering to include quick home-cooked meals, they could conceivably attract and convert portions of Blue Apron’s market share.
Once you have a roster of your client’s direct and indirect competitors, choose 5-10 companies that pose the biggest threat. If your client has a specialized niche audience, choose 5 to analyze. If your client is in an extremely competitive market, go with upwards of 10.
From your shortlist, dig into the research and start mining the data. Myk Pono, a marketing and product growth specialist, developed a 4-tiered framework for competitor analysis. Each layer is made up of several telling metrics that capture how a company fits in a given market . To organize your research, create a chart with each of your client’s competitors and gather info on the following:
Year they were founded
Number of employees
Who are their investors?
Were they acquired, or looking to be acquired? If so, by who? What makes this acquisition strategic?
Who are their partners?
Estimated market reach
Target audience and messaging
What products/services do they offer?
Who is the primary buyer of this product/service? Secondary buyer?
Who is their target audience?
What messaging do they use to market their products/services or brand?
What is the feel of their brand?
What brand links do they use?
Include specs for products/services that are similar to the ones your client offers.
How do they price their products/services? Above market, at market or below? How does this price impact its perceived value?
Is this product/service offered as part of a bundle, package or subscription service?
What do their customers say about their products/services?
How can your client compete and win?
Why should customers choose your client’s brand over the competition?
Once you’ve mapped out your client’s competition in detail, you’ll be able to clearly see how to adjust their business and marketing plans in a way that highlights their brand’s strengths and addresses their weaknesses before it can be detrimental.
Basic principles when conducting a competitive landscape analysis for clients
There are as many ways to analyze a market and the major players as there are people willing and wanting to weed through the jungle of data. Regardless, there are a few basics that will inform your approach, keeping you focused on what matters.
Set specific goals or KPIs
Before you begin, sync with your client to establish the depth of analyses needed. If your client has never looked into their market before, they’ll rely on your guidance. As mentioned earlier, a SWOT analysis is a great place to start. Use details from this matrix to define the scope of the research and create measurable objectives. Do they want to bolster their strengths? Are they interested in aggressively seizing more of the market? Or do they need to work defense, reevaluating company weaknesses and plausible threats? How far back in the history of their industry do they want you to research? How far into the future do they want market projections?
Prep work for a market analysis is similar to how you’d construct a design brief. Map out all aspects of the research in advance so you and your client are on the same page. You’ll be accumulating a lot of data. It’s vital to stay focused on your client’s unique needs and how to better their current positioning in the market.
Know the product
Oftentimes a client is too invested in their offering, making it near impossible for them to be objective. While you may not be their target audience, you have an unbiased understanding of how their products and services are perceived and used—at least at the awareness level.
Harness this fresh perspective and pair it with some childlike wonder as you deepen your knowledge about their products or services. Play around and tally up all the features. What are the primary benefits to a consumer? What are some peripheral values? Does this product satisfy you on an emotional or rational need? What else does your client offer (or should) that can compliment this product or service? Challenge yourself to think unconventionally.
Standardize research and reports
While there’s no hard-fast structure or definitive framework to organizing your research, creating a unified standard for your agency should be a go-to play. Templatize all aspects of what your agency covers when conducting competitive research for your clients. This will strengthen communication with your clients as well as ensure nothing gets left out if project’s are passed between members of your team.
Regardless of the template you choose, it needs to work for both your agency and your clients. Make sure that it’s easy to use and digest critical data at a glance. Ideally, your adopted framework should tell a story about the market and inspire action.
Think like your customers (always)
Get in the habit of viewing your client’s market from the consumer’s vantage point. The closer you get to your client’s business, the easier it is to overestimate the value of their products or services. Benefits, features and use cases may all be obvious to you, but are they obvious to your audience? Remember how you felt about your client’s business when you first took on this project? Channel that spirit and hold onto this customer mindset.
Study the competition
Studying goes well beyond taking mental note of what the competition is up to. It demands that you ask yourself: Why are they doing what they’re doing? And, why now? What’s the driving force behind the products and services they offer? What’s different about their mindset that shapes their approach to this market?
It's a constant head game, challenging your ability to anticipate the competition’s next move. But brands with more mental stamina will always come out on top.
Review data routinely
Competitive research is not a one-off project. It’s an ongoing effort that requires sustained, thoughtful attention. Markets are fluid, trends evolve and competitors come and go. Regularly review the competitive landscape to buffer your client’s business from the unexpected and put them in the best position to succeed. Set routine check-in dates to prompt you to return to the data and update your research as needed.
9 tips to staying on track with your competitive market analysis
Now that you’ve mapped out goals for your client and started looking into the data. Here are 9 tips to keep you on track and focused for the research ahead:
Explore competitor funnels
Follow social footprints
Review customer testimonials
Dissect the SEO
Connect with the competition
Be a customer
Check competitor job listings
Consult your team
Focus on the future
1. Explore competitor funnels
Visit competitor sites with the mindset of a customer. Do you know what their business is about? What they’re selling? Which demographic does their site appeal to and why? What cues do you get from the visuals and the language they use? When you land on their homepage, do you know what to do (shop, or book a service)? Is the site easy to navigate? When you click on CTA buttons, do you end up where you’d expect? Is the buyer journey and checkout flow seamless? Explore all these consumer touchpoints to get a sense of how your client’s competitors engage, support and close a sale with their shoppers.
More than ever, companies go well beyond an online store or about page to establish their online presence. As part of your funnel exploration, pay close attention to content marketing resources. Subscribe to blogs, newsletters and become a regular reader. Watch their ads, tutorials, unboxing videos and more. You'll be able to track new product releases, brand messaging, upcoming promotions and all customer-facing news. Whatever content your client's competitors release is prime source material worth studying.
2. Follow social footprints
Friend or follow your client’s competitors and get a sense of the brand story they tell on social. Which platforms are they on and why? How’re they using this platform—marketing, educational, engagement, another sales channel? Which formats do they gravitate to? Are they working with influencers or brand partners? What kind of content gets the most engagement?
Take it a step further and identify the decision-makers behind company social accounts. Then, follow their personal accounts. You’ll get an insider look into what inspires them and see what translates into the brand.
3. Review customer testimonials
Nobody tells a product story better than a satisfied or unsatisfied customer. While browsing competitor sites, scope out their product/business reviews and testimonials. Get a sense of the competitor’s strengths and weaknesses on a product or service level. Use this insight to position your client’s business in a way that highlights added value, particularly in your messaging.
4. Dissect the SEO
There’s a good chance your client and their competitors have a similar online presence. Nonetheless, web-traffic could be considerably different. What gives? Most likely, their SEO approach.
Step to the dark side and explore how competitors structure their URLs, optimize meta tags, add structured data and more. This should yield valuable clues to their positioning, as well as give you direction on how to improve your client’s competitiveness in the SERP game.
5. Connect with the competition
Take advantage of multiple customer-service channels. You have ample opportunity to make direct contact with your client’s competitors. Use real-time services (phone call, live chat, Messenger), to get more info on their product specs, new features or upgrades, troubleshooting issues and more. You might even uncover something critical to your strategy that you’d never find in a market or industry report.
Plus, you’ll have the added benefit of experiencing their customer service first-hand. How long did it take till you connected with a representative? How did they treat you? Was your issue resolved? How did this interaction leave you feeling? Customer service and satisfaction are key elements worth investigating and including in your analysis.
6. Be a customer
Companies typically don’t spend enough time inside their marketplace. If you want to get to know your client’s industry and the competitive landscape better, become a consumer of their products or services.
Keep in mind, using the product or service is only part of a very big picture. Reflect on your end-to-end buyer journey—from what made you decide to click “Buy Now” to how you felt unwrapping the product packaging. Every little detail matters.
7. Check competitor job listings
Are your client’s competitors hiring? No, don't jump ship. The point here is for you to take stock of the talent they look for. How do they list job postings (on their site, social, job marketplaces)? What terms stand out to you? Is this language reflected in their consumer-facing brand voice? What positions are they currently hiring for and what kind of experience do they require? You might discover open positions that reveal entirely new directions or divisions for the company. Use this knowledge to buffer your client from upcoming threats.
8. Consult your team
You might be sitting on an untapped resource—your own staff. It’s entirely plausible to have an employee who once worked for the competition, and/or has a direct connection with someone currently on the “other side”. Conduct an informal but thorough interview with this individual. Encourage openness and transparency. This isn’t an interrogation meant to extract corporate secrets, it’s about understanding the company culture of others.
9. Focus on the future
Once you’ve finished a competitive market analysis for your client, you’ll be able to draw plenty of conclusions and note new directions for followup research. Remember, despite all the work, competitive research is never a one and done project. For this research to serve as an effective tool that informs your client’s business decisions, you’ll need to continually track fluctuations in the market, consumer behaviors, competitors and more.
View your analysis as a panoramic snapshot of where the market is now, where it’s heading and where your client fits into that picture. Based on the data, include a personal market forecast and suggestions for what your client should do to strengthen their positioning and take over greater portions of the market share.
Ready to jumpstart competitive research for a client? Get started with the marketing research guide for agencies.