Update Your Competitive Intelligence

At any point in the life of your business, it’s wise to update your competitive information. Depending on the type of enterprise that you operate, refreshing your competitive info can be as easy as taking a 30 minute walk around your neighborhood and making note of new businesses that are preparing to open. Reading local newspapers is also useful, since there is frequently mention of new stores and restaurants that are scheduled to open.

Your customers can be excellent sources of competitive information as well, in particular if your venture draws primarily from customers who live or work in the immediate neighborhood, and that’s another reason why you, business owner friend, want to develop good relationships with customers.

B2B service providers don’t have it so easy when it comes to obtaining vital or actionable competitive information, I’m afraid. The problem is, there’s often no way to know the identities of competitors. Everyone who offers services similar to what your organization offers, everyone who works with clients of a similar profile ($1 million or less in annual revenue, $1 million to $10 million in annual revenue, and so on) and everyone who submits a proposal for an assignment on which you’ve also bid is a competitor. It’s nebulous, to say the least, but nevertheless I encourage you to find ways to extract relevant competitive data from every available source.

Reading your industry and other business journals and joining a networking or skills development organization tailored to your specialty is probably the most effective way to confirm which services that clients you want to work with are requesting most often as well as the services they may request in the future.

It won’t hurt to create a more or less formal Competitive Analysis document (an Excel spreadsheet will work nicely) for your information, so that you can review and update as desired. In your Competitive Analysis spreadsheet you can identify your direct and indirect competitors and perhaps choose to focus on four or five, maximum. If you can learn enough to evaluate their strategies and determine their strengths and weaknesses in comparison to your business, so much the better, but it’s more likely that you’ll only be able to document the products and services they offer and check out their client lists. If you see ways that you can rename or repackage one or more of your own services in the hopes of making yourself more marketable, then by all means go for it.

Another compelling and potentially actionable reason to perform a Competitive Analysis is to enable yourself to evaluate what makes your products and services unique in ways that appeal to clients. It’s especially important for B2B service providers to articulate any distinct competitive advantages you have over the competitors you’ve identified.

Furthermore, you can refine your data and clarify the picture by grouping competitors according to how directly they compete against you. It may be helpful to ask yourself questions that will serve to further describe your competitors. These questions include:

1. Who are your top three direct competitors and how busy are they?
2. What services do competitors offer that you don’t and vice versa? What might that mean to clients?
3. Can you assess your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses?
4. In which media outlets do competitors advertise and how frequently do the ads run?
5. What other types of marketing do your top three direct competitors do?
6. What potential threats do your competitors pose to the marketing of your products or services?
7. Do you see additional opportunities for marketing your products and services, in terms of new customer groups, niche markets, or reconfigured service packages?

Pricing is also a big factor in competitive information and once again, B2B service providers are at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining pricing information about competitors. However, there is a way to gain insight into the pricing of similar services in different parts of the country by checking out the bidding prices listed in the U.S. Government contracting system MOBIS. See “view catalogue” on the far right. Choose a company and click. Scroll through and find pricing info for that company.

MO
BIS

Thanks for reading,
Kim

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Follow the Winners

In one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part II (1974), Michael Corleone (youngest son of the Godfather) says “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” That advice was quickly adopted by those in business, who interpreted the line as a warning to keep a sharp eye on competitors.  No one wants to be blindsided by the competition and made vulnerable to the loss of revenue and market share.  That fear can keep one awake at night.  But how much time and effort should be spent looking over one’s shoulder and how often does such behavior result in anything that’s actionable or profitable?

Some business experts recommend that rather than obsessing over competitors, perhaps wondering what you might copy, instead study successful business leaders in other industries. When looking to keep your organization relevant and vital, strategies implemented by leaders at successful companies in industries other than your own can provide lessons and inspiration that will benefit you and your business.

To launch and sustain a profitable business, it is essential that you offer products or services for which there is a growing market, that you recognize and articulate a strong value proposition that attracts customers and that you devise a smart and efficient business model to put it all in motion and deliver the goods.  It makes sense to study innovative entrepreneurs from a variety of industries, so that you can learn what worked for their organizations and think about how certain of those strategies and tactics might be applied to your venture.

You might start this unique form of competitive intelligence by walking into a bookstore and browsing through the business section. You’ll be certain to find at least one or two interesting books, perhaps in memoir form, written by entrepreneurs who overcame significant obstacles and setbacks, only to prevail and build multi-million dollar organizations.  You might also look for speaker programs at nearby colleges, local chambers of commerce, or other business organizations that from time to time are known to host speakers who tell the story of how s/he built a successful enterprise.

Finally, since so much in life hinges on relationships and developing a strong and supportive network, remember also to reach out to those whom you know.  When you stop and think, you’ll realize that you cross paths with business owners and leaders on a regular basis.  We see and interact with these smart, successful professionals at neighborhood association meetings, at the garden club, at our place of worship, while at the gym and when serving on a not-for-profit board.  I’m willing to wager that you’ll be able to develop a friendship with at least two of these individuals and find opportunities to talk business now and again.

So extend yourself and get to know a little better the people with whom you regularly interact.  Start with some friendly small talk and and work your way toward having real conversations that lead to developing relationships.  At some point, you may be able to segue into a conversation about business, at your organization and theirs.  If you reach the level of trust that includes sharing stories about business challenges and tactics, you’ll be fortunate to have found a friend and perhaps also a mentor.  The experience will be much more satisfying, and effective, than spying on and obsessing over your business rivals.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Nike, goddess of victory, awards Heracles (Hercules) with the prize of a laurel wreath for his win at the 776 B.C. Olympics. Courtesy of the British Museum in London.

Competitive Intelligence: The Role of Social Media

To those who think you know all the ins and outs of using social media, fasten your seat belts.  If you created a LinkedIn profile at the turn of the century, started out with MySpace and later jumped to Facebook, became an early adopter of Vine and now work Snapchat, I have news for you.  Social media platforms are not just one-way PR broadcast channels that let you tell the world how brilliant and popular you are.  You can (and should) do some of that, but there is more.

Maybe you already do more?  You regularly use social media to encourage comments from customers about their experiences when doing business with your company.  You understand that social media is a two-way street.  But, still, there is so much more.

Social media can be effectively used not only for inbound and outbound marketing, but also for keeping tabs on competitors.  Social media is ideal for gathering competitive intelligence that can make you a smarter marketer, salesperson and business owner.  Here’s how.

First, determine who your competitors are, something that’s not always easy and obvious for B2B service providers.  Discover who your competitors are by meeting them.  The most efficient method to meet your competition is to join a professional society, where you’ll meet fellow accountants, life science marketers, event planners, etc., or join one or more chambers of commerce.  In four or five visits, you’ll meet a good cross-section of peers who do what you do, or something very similar.

Make it a point to talk to these people. Get to know them somewhat and exchange business cards, for they are not your enemy.  In fact, they can probably give you some valuable advice.  You should be willing to share a pearl or two of wisdom with them in return, as long as you don’t give away any proprietary information.

Once their business cards are in your possession, the second thing you’ll do is set up Google Alerts, so you’ll receive notice of their company’s print or online mentions, at no charge.  Whatever your competitors choose to publicly announce, you’ll quickly know.  It will be so enlightening to have the PR of competitors delivered directly to your inbox.

You’ll learn who will keynote at a conference, who will moderate or serve on a panel, who’s released a new product or service, who gets quoted in local or national press, or who will teach as an adjunct professor this semester.  Discover who’s quoted you, or if there are sites linking to your website or blog.  Monitor the content marketing of competitors (e.g., blogs and newsletters) and assess the perspectives and even the expertise of those whom you’re working against.

You can also receive alerts for your own company, to reveal what others are saying about your enterprise.  You’ll learn whether you have supporters who give you compliments in newsletters or blogs, or if someone is undermining you on social media.  Use competitive intelligence to shape your response and support your reputation management.

Regarding the successes of competitors, there’s no mandate to imitate what they do and that’s all to the good.  Be yourself.  But what you learn may inspire you to take, or not take, certain actions based on information you’ve gleaned from the three or four competitors you select to follow.  Set up a Google Alerts account to track key words and phrases and you’ll be happy that you did.

You might also try Hootsuite, a paid service, and use it to search podcasts and webinars by topic and engage in social media listening, for less than $20/month.  The primary role of Hootsuite is to allow users to write posts and manage all of their social media accounts from one site.  Those who are active on multiple platforms find Hootsuite very convenient.  Plus, the analytics reports included with the service reveal which of your social media tactics and strategies are worthwhile and which need rethinking.

Finally, if you can budget $80/month, then take a deep dive into your competitors’ content marketing activities with BuzzSumo.  Examine which content is getting traction for competitors, the shares competitors’ content receives and how your company’s content stacks up in comparison.  It’s possible to receive an update each time selected competitors publish content and you’ll also be able to compare the overall performance of your company’s content with that of competitors.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: His Master’s Voice (1898), starring Nipper the dog, by British painter Francis Barraud. In 1901, the painting became the logo of what would eventually become RCA Victor.  EMI, JVC and HMV (His Master’s Voice) have also owned the logo rights.

 

Success Story: An Artist’s Collective Turns the Corner

The CLIENT

The arts economy in New England in general and Greater Boston in particular, is significant.  ArtsBoston, a 175-member not-for-profit arts service organization that researches  important statistics regarding the local arts community, found that more than 18 million visits are made to arts and cultural events every year, ticketed and free events, including dance, musical and theater performances; visits to museums and art galleries; and attendance at ethnic cultural festivals.

It has been my pleasure to work with two of the three most respected collectives of visual artists in Boston including the largest, whose membership exceeds 200.  Eighteen months ago,  the larger organization referred to me the smaller, 80-member, loosely  affiliated sister organization. The two have overlapping memberships, where nearly the entire membership of the smaller are also members of the larger group.  The membership of both collectives consists primarily of painters, sculptors and photographers, with a smattering of ceramacists and artisans such as bookbinders and calligraphers. Management for each group is separate and independent.

All artists in the collectives maintain studios in an art and design district consisting of several 19th century former warehouse buildings and the artists of the smaller collective are all located in one of those buildings.

Both collectives offer nearly identical special events programming as a method to reach out to potential art collectors.  Each holds an annual open studios art walk event, where member artists open their studios and invite the public in at no charge to see, discuss and when visitors choose, purchase artwork.  Since 1986, the larger group has held its signature open studios event in September and the smaller group holds its annual event in May.  Additionally, since about 1998, the smaller group has held the monthly open studios event branded as First Friday.

The CHALLENGE

The smaller arts collective was facing increasingly diminished audiences for First Fridays, which are held on the first Friday of every month from 5:00 – 9:00 PM January through December.  Attendance at its May open studios event was likewise softening. Artist membership in the group had stagnated.

Competition between the local artist collectives has in recent years become intense, the result of a proliferation of open studios events that has diluted the target audience of middle class to affluent collectors who reside in the tonier city and suburban enclaves.  Boston has 22 neighborhoods and 12 annual open studios events, with dates coordinated by the city and held from April to November each year.  Additionally, nearly every city or town contiguous to Boston, plus numerous outlying suburbs, have over the years launched open studios art walks.  In July and August the action moves to the historic summer artist colonies in MA, including Cape Ann, Provincetown and towns in the Berkshire mountains that beckon to vacationers from around the country.

The DECISION

The collective is managed by two member volunteers.  They reached out to their counterparts in the larger organization and asked how that group managed to maintain attendance for its annual open studios event, which has reversed previously declining numbers.

Within two weeks I met with the leaders of the smaller collective and after listening to their story,  recommended that an energized marketing plan would most likely provide the remedy.  Over the past three or four years,  a shortage of time and a dose of complacency had caused the managers to slack off on marketing their events to the target audience.  Recently, First Fridays had been listed in only one print and three online events listing services.

Member art sales were shrinking because fewer collectors or potential collectors visited studios.  Membership in the collective was dropping slowly, as artists re-examined the value of the collective at renewal time.  Operating income was negatively impacted. Artist participation in First Fridays waned, which could only cause the target audience attendance to wane.  It was an impending death spiral.

The SOLUTION

A comprehensive and consistently implemented marketing campaign was launched in an increased number of targeted print and online media outlets, which was the core of a strategy to greatly improve outreach to collectors and potential collectors.  More visits to studios would enhance the possibility of art sales and promote the conversion of aspiring collectors to collector status.  Over the subsequent months, additional media outlets were identified and included in the campaign.  Presently, 14 online media outlets and five print outlets now carry the First Friday listings each month and the listing for the annual open studios event in May.

A paid display ad (one-quarter page) will now appear annually in a free print publication that has high readership among tourists to Boston, since outreach to that group has become a priority.  To estimate the potential impact of tourist dollars on contemporary art sales in Boston, in 2016 the Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston, which features 21st century art only, received 210,000 visitors, according to the Boston Business Journal (and the Museum of fine Arts, the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science each received in excess of 1.1 million visitors).

Content marketing is also part of the campaign launch, designed to reach the collective’s members and non-members through the collective’s newsletter.  Membership retention and recruitment are in many ways the heart of the marketing campaign for without active and engaged members who believe in the mission and are happy to carry it out, the collective will cease to exist.

The monthly newsletter now includes a member artist spotlight that features an image of the artist’s work plus a brief artist bio.  The artists volunteer to participate and the response has been enthusiastic.  As a way to persuade the 10 -15 non-members in the building of the collectives’ benefits, an annual newsletter customized to provide an update of the work that the collective’s members find especially useful and making an appeal to join is now being sent.

The RESULT

The number of visitors to First Fridays has gradually climbed to about 500 on average each month.  As documented by the managers, historic lows occur in January and February, when attendance can dip as the temperature drops, the snow piles up and only 200 or so art aficionados will attend First Friday.  Months with the highest visitors are April through June and September through December, when up to 700 visitors may appear.

Membership in the collective has risen over the past 12 months from just over 70 to 80 members.  There remains 10 -15 artists in the building who are non-members.  The group hopes that one or two non-members will sign up each year.

I hope you enjoyed the case study.  Thanks for reading.

Kim

 

 

Six Steps To A Successful Marketing Campaign

Numerous times I’ve advised Freelance professionals to launch a marketing campaign to promote themselves and their services. How about we touch base regarding the core components of a successful marketing campaign?

I.   Identify your target audience

Step One, you must understand who you want your campaign to reach and influence and that would be those clients and prospects who are most inclined to use your product or service. It is possible that along the way others may become interested in what you have to offer and new or niche markets can be recruited, but target market groups must have the motive and money to use your category of product or service.

Step Two, decide the channels that you will use to reach current and prospective clients. Marketing campaigns are most effective when they broadcast the message through various media: print display ads, videos, testimonials on your website, or a case study. Social media can also be part of a well-designed marketing campaign, if you can engage current and prospective clients through those platforms. The members of your target audience could be reached more than once and that is a good thing.

There is also the indirect and ongoing marketing campaign that Freelancers are advised to conduct. Providers of B2B services especially should periodically attempt to line up an appearance on a webinar, a panel, or at a conference podium as a way to enhance the value of the intangible resources that you sell, that is, your expertise and judgment. Sponsorship of a local charity is also a good choice for some. Remember to send a press release to the local newspaper to try for yet another channel. A newspaper (or online) item is more believable than a print ad, because it is perceived as unbiased.

2.  Know the competition

As you create your marketing campaign message, keep direct competitors in mind. The marketing message should promote the expertise, experience, judgment and attributes that make you superior to others with whom clients and prospects might do business. Your message should be designed to overcome current or potential objections to you and persuade those with motive and money to choose you because hiring you will make them look good.

3.  Identify the key marketing message

What do you need to make known to current and potential clients that will help them to develop the trust and confidence needed to do business with you? Refer to your knowledge of the competition and also refer to client hot buttons and address those issues clearly and convincingly.

4.  Build the brand

In the marketing message and campaign, find ways to enhance your brand, that is, your reputation. Clients do business with those they know and like; they do even more business with those they trust and respect. Building up your image, or (tactfully) bragging about your already noteworthy image is a key element of your marketing message.

5.  Create a budget

Time and money are among our greatest resources. Once you have your version of the ideal marketing plan in draft form, calculate the financial cost and a roll-out timeline. Make sure that the campaign ROI makes sense for your venture. Tie your marketing efforts to expected sales, to the best of your ability and don’t squander your resources on fruitless strategies.

6. Track performance

I’m a little bit backward in that an important step in the campaign will be mentioned last. Establishing goals and objectives for your campaign are a must-do. This process will guide you in making decisions that shape what the campaign will consist of and furthermore, will help you understand what kind of influence you can wield through marketing. Decide what you want your marketing campaign to achieve and confirm the metrics that will measure and acknowledge its success or failure.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Keeping Tabs on the Competition

Merry Christmas! No matter what business you’re in,  it is important to be aware of the activities of competitors.   We can learn a lot from them,  lessons of  both the what-to-do and what-not-to-do variety.   But be mindful that it is inadvisable to base your marketing strategies and sales stories on what competitors do and say.  Such an approach is reactive.  Your business interests are better served when being  proactive.

In other words,  it’s smarter to be yourself.  That takes a certain amount of confidence,  yet there will be no real success in life or business without a secure and healthy sense of self.  Without that character trait,  one cannot be authentic.  Clients respond best to authenticity.

To help yourself stay true to yourself,  start by acknowledging your strengths and remind yourself of where you excel.  Next,  as you monitor the competition,  rather than obsessing over what they are doing, pay attention instead to what they’re not  doing.  Where and how can you deliver value that clients will value and how can you best package and deliver it?

Another big way to beat the competition is to create a good experience for the client.  Think about how it may feel to do business with yourself.  Do you make it easy? Do your business practices inspire trust and confidence? Are you able to anticipate and show empathy for client needs?

Do some reality-testing  while on an assignment and ask your client this:  “What can I do to make things better,  easier,  faster?”  This little question let clients know that you’re willing to go the extra mile and provide services that make their lives easier.  You’ll  look like a hero,  you’ll strengthen client relationships and you’ll position yourself to grab some all-important repeat business.  You may even tweak your business model if you find out that certain of your practices can be an inconvenience.

If you have friends and family who in their jobs hire Freelancers,  ask them what they’d like to see more of and less of in the vendors they work with.  Ask them about what types of behaviors they consider red flags and deal-breakers.   Ask them if they could hand-craft the experience they have when interacting with their Freelance consultants,  what would it look like?

I’ll let you in on a few pearls that were recently shared with me:

  • Let the client know how you will work
  • Answer frequently asked questions before the  client has to ask them
  • Set up a timetable to let them know when they can expect the deliverables and when key milestones will be reached

Aim to make your clients feel guided and taken care of.  This inclines them to trust you and allows them to relax and know that a professional is in control.  You look like a real pro because you are always a step ahead.  You know how to land the plane,  the project is in expert hands and they look like a genius for hiring you.  This also supports premium pricing because you demonstrate in all ways that you are worth the money.   Ta-dah,  you can and will beat the competition!

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Love Thy Competitor

If you are the type of Freelancer/business owner who believes that a primary business goal is to annihilate and destroy your competition,  then you’re likely destined to become a less successful entrepreneur.  Research can now demonstrate the wisdom of the adage,  “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

A 2004 study conducted by James Westphal,  professor of management at University of Texas/Austin,  examined CEO friendships in 293 U.S. companies and found that regardless of the intensity of competition within a given industry,  rival CEOs who formed friendships enjoyed distinct business-related advantages over those who shunned competitors.

According to Westphal,  not only is it possible to make friends with competitors,  it’s advisable.  He explained the advantages of friendships among rivals this way:  when business owners get together,  what do we do?  Talk shop.  We compare notes,  discuss what’s new in the industry,  talk about the economy and how it’s impacting customer behavior.

In other words,  by going to trade industry conferences and meeting,  greeting and getting to know rival Freelancers,  you’ll obtain information and get exposure to perspectives that can help make you more successful.  So think about following a bit of counter-intuitive advice and realize that business is not always a zero-sum game.  A competitor’s win does not automatically mean your loss.

If getting chummy with the competition makes you feel a little queasy,  then get friendly with a competitor based in another locale.  The distance will create a boundary that could make it comfortable for the two of you to trade ideas about cheap and savvy advertising options,  how to make your clients happy,  or how to take advantage of,  or protect yourself from,  market trends.

In some instances,  you may decide to collaborate with a competitor.  It’s potentially risky,  but forging a strategic  collaboration with one of your competitors can benefit the bottom line and help both entities to thrive.  It can be a smart expansion or survival strategy for Freelancers and other small business owners who are trying to remain viable.  Maybe there is a partnership you can set up with the right semi-rival?   It’s called coopetition.

Get to know a fellow Freelancer who works in your own,  or a related,  field.  It’s preferable if each of you has discrete strengths,  with limited potential for overlap.  Meet for coffee and broach the subject of joining forces to make money.  How can you combine your strengths and approach clients with an innovative and more desirable package?  There’s nothing better than giving clients more reasons to do business with you.

Collaborations can work in a number of ways.  Just a couple of months ago,  a lady named Julie presented me with an idea where we can add-on or up-sell certain of each others’ services.  There is potentially a complementary need in a market segment that we share and Julie wondered if some selective cross-promotion would be beneficial.  Together,  we’re hoping to gain entry to clients where separately neither could get in the door.

Another form of coopetition is establishing a referral relationship with a near-rival.  Accountants and bookkeepers have done this forever,  with much success.  Their functions have similarities,  but each party knows and respects the boundaries and knows how to work together.

Nevertheless,  do not be naive.  Take precautions and clearly define boundaries and expectations.  Watch your back and work only with someone you know to be trustworthy.  Also,  do not underestimate the potential for difficulties in establishing and sustaining a coopetition arrangement.  Assumptions about appropriate customer service or corporate culture can derail your best intentions.  Careful planning and execution are crucial if coopetition is to work smoothly.  In close collaborations,  a written non-disclosure, non-compete agreement will be essential.

Finally,  remember where friendship ends and business begins.  There will be sensitive issues that are best kept to yourself,  like new business initiatives or the  “secret sauce”  of how you deliver your unique services.  Keep your antennae raised as you and a worthy competitor mull over ways to share resources or expertise and boost profits in the process.

Thanks for reading,

Kim