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.

 

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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

Raise Prices? In This Economy?

An effective pricing strategy is essential to every business,  because one goes into business to make money.  Freelancers and business owners deserve to be paid just as every worker expects payment for services or labor performed.  Determining how to price products is fairly straightforward  (what is the cost of materials? what is the price of labor?),  but pricing services,  especially intangibles,  can be daunting.  Many Freelancers operate in the knowledge economy  (e.g., providing leadership training)  and it’s not always possible to benchmark your prices against that of competitors’.

Add to the mix that clients are well aware that they have the upper hand in nearly all fee negotiations.  Exploitation is alive and well and there can be shameless manipulation to obtain your top-drawer services at bargain-basement prices.  The smug assumption is that if you refuse to work dirt cheap,  then it will be easy enough to find someone else who will.

Then there are the  “clients”  who request free services in exchange for  “opportunities for exposure”  or  “future paid work”  that I strongly suspect never materializes.  (Why would it?  Once you’ve built their website for free,  they no longer need you.)   In my experience,  nonprofits are the worse offenders and they do it with a clear conscience.  They rationalize their disrespectful behavior because their budgets are thinly stretched and their organization is all about doing good.  Ha!

Yes,  there is risk to raising prices in this climate of hyper cost-consciousness,  but every once in a while one must raise prices and there may be compelling reasons to do so now.  Your price increase may be in response to any number of factors,  not the least of which is to synchronize the value you bring with the fees you charge.  Or maybe you just plain old need more money to maintain your preferred standard of living as you hand over more money than you should for groceries and gasoline.

The art of pricing is to charge a fee that simultaneously reflects your perceived value to clients and allows you to achieve your desired bottom line.  To that end,  you can discover useful competitive intelligence at http://gsa.gov/mobis and learn what others in your specialty charge the US government for consulting services rendered.

To access,  see the search box at top right and enter a professional category  (e.g. project management).  Scroll through the businesses listed until you find one based in your geography.  Look to the right,  click  “terms and conditions”  and view the services and prices revealed.

If you learn that your prices are rather low by comparison,  then it might be time for a price increase.  Additionally,  if clients remark that your services are a wonderful bargain,  then it’s definitely time to give yourself a raise.

Be aware that billing practices can either help or hinder the introduction and acceptance of a price increase.  It’s easier to bill by the hour and for small jobs that may suffice.  But hourly billing can expose you to haggling over your hourly rate,  making a price increase unpalatable for those who’ve worked with you before.

A flat project fee holds many advantages and typically benefits both Freelancer and client.  A project fee also makes it easier to institute your price increase.  To make sure that you don’t lose money on a job,  obtain written project specifications  (to avoid  “mission creep”)  and calculate the number of hours/week it should take to successfully complete the job.

Be sure to add in at least 2 – 3 hours extra per week to accommodate unexpected delays.  You may even choose to discount your  (discreetly increased)  fee somewhat,  in exchange for the stability of working on a long-term project  (because those extra hours allotted may not all be used).  Furthermore,  you should also specify a weekly cap for hours worked and set an hourly rate for time worked in excess of the cap.

Your mission,  should you decide to accept,  is to get paid what you’re worth.  Investigate MOBIS to learn how your prices compare to competitors’.  Whatever your pricing,  if you feel that an increase is in order,  be strategic about your approach.

Billing a flat project fee whenever possible is likely to be helpful to you and your clients  (they’ll know the project cost up front).  A modest price increase may be best,  or perhaps increase only the prices of selected services.  Most of all,  as discussed in previous posts,  you must work with the right clients and sell the value of your services.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Go to the Front of the Pack

I’m a little bit of an egghead and every once in a while I like to read a good study,  to keep myself current,  or even ahead of the curve,  on matters of health,  business or anything else that catches my eye.  Recently,  I read an interesting study on strategic competitive positioning,  a survey study done this year at Babson College’s Babson Executive Education.

Lead author H. James Wilson competes in triathlons and he used those competitions and their participants as the study framework.  Triathletes assess competitors in a clean and simple fashion:  who is Front of the Pack,  Middle of the Pack or Back of the Pack?  The first two groups are ranked as actual competitors and the latter is seen primarily as new to the triathlon scene and nothing to worry about.  MOPs and BOPs have one goal and that is to improve their time in every event they enter and move up to the FOP.

Wilson applied the FOP,  MOP and BOP classifications to 300+  global companies that had recently reported facing intense competition within their respective industries.  He segmented the companies as follows

  • FOP if they achieved greater than 15%  annual revenue growth in FY09  (5%,  16 companies)
  • MOP if they achieved 1-15%  annual revenue growth in FY09 (48%,  145 companies)
  • BOP if they showed flat or declining revenues in FY09 (47%,  144 companies)

The essential question of strategy is,  are you heading in the right direction?  Wilson knew that the FOPs were doing more than a few things right and to get to the heart of it,  he analyzed the FOPs and identified three ways in which they outpace the also-rans.  He then developed the following survey questions based on those strengths.

Wilson’s data indicate that if you can answer yes to each of the survey questions,  you’re on your way to the FOP.  How do you stack up?  Something to think about.

1.  Are you/is your company becoming more effective at meeting the needs of clients/customers?

Despite the economic downturn that spawned the planet-wide recession (depression?),  FOPs have maintained the trust,  confidence,  loyalty and dollars of their customers.  FOPs understand what customers want and they are better at anticipating future needs and trends.  They put resources into keeping a finger on the pulse of the customer and they know what resonates.  FOPs are proactive in market research and customer outreach.

2.  Have you/has your company recently implemented a significant innovation campaign or launched numerous small-scale innovation pilots?

Brainstorming ideas for new services,  fresh approaches,  an innovative marketing campaign or self-development plans is an important beginning.  It is always necessary to think things through,  examine the big picture and weigh the possible outcomes of your actions.  Just remember that  “implement”  and  “launch”  are the key words.  How many good plans have you left to languish on the drawing board?  FOPs understand that results come from deeds,  not words.

3.  Are you/is your company becoming more collaborative with other Freelancer colleagues/other organizations?

High levels of cross-company interactions distinguish FOPs more than any other factor studied.  FOPs are also more likely to inform those in their network about business opportunities.  As a result,  FOPs receive the benefits of reciprocity more than most,  when referrals come their way.  Think of  how you might include selected non-competing colleagues in business opportunities that would be mutually beneficial.  Perhaps this is the smartest way to scoop bigger contracts for both?  Plus,  you’ll gain exposure to another’s business methods and perspectives and that information will make you even more savvy and competitive.

Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving,

Kim

Keep Your Competitors Closer

Freelancers get business by three methods:

1). Proposals, ideally submitted by invitation and not “cold”

2.) Referrals, made on our behalf  by a source the client trusts

3). Reputation, meaning repeat business from our client roster

The most successful Freelancers skillfully promote the urban legend that we provide exceptional services, solutions and expertise that clients can absolutely depend upon. That perception creates trust and  gives our clients the confidence to bring us in when a project is approved for outsourcing.  Your client is convinced that when you are on the scene, an excellent job will be done and with a  minimum of fuss.  You will make them look good.

Competitive intelligence will provide important building blocks for your story.  One must periodically assess the strengths and weaknesses of  major competitors:  compare and contrast products and services offered, observe how they market themselves,  make note of selling points that are emphasized  and learn how you stack up.  It helps us to look from “outside in”  at how our services and business practices might be perceived by clients.

Analyze and benchmark

  • Compare your services to those of competitors:  what do they do sufficiently well that  motivates clients to hire them?
  • What do they do incompletely or perhaps poorly?
  • Who is on their client roster and which are their target markets?
  • Who are the front runners among your competitors and how did they get there?
  • What relationships and/or competitive advantages do they leverage to get business?
  • What is showcased on their websites and in other marketing materials?
  • Where do they advertise?
  • Does an internet search bring up good PR or anything noteworthy?
  • With whom do they collaborate or partner?

Define your competitive advantages

  • Catalogue what you do that clients  value
  • What services do you offer that your competitors do not and what value do your clients place on those services?
  • Audit your customer groups—have you ignored a possible niche market?
  • What relationships might you leverage to give you the edge when submitting  bids and obtaining referrals?

Create the spin

  • What common themes do you see in the marketing messages of your competitors? What do the front runners say to clients?
  • Where do you see yourself as offering the better value proposition? How can you most effectively communicate that to clients?
  • How can you  retool your message to highlight services or buzzwords that grab the clients? Reflect those in your marketing materials, advertisements and on your website.  Incorporate into your elevator pitch and sales talking points.
  • Build a PR campaign around an event that features you—a speaking engagement,  a workshop you will present, the relaunch of a service.  Send out press releases and follow up with phone calls.  Develop relationships with the business press by taking the right person to lunch or coffee and talk over ways to get your name mentioned.
  • Advertise,  however modestly,  in publications that your target audience follows.  Advertisements should lead to editorial,  however brief,  being written about you.
  • Cultivate relationships within the industries that you service,  either directly with those who may hire you,  or with those who can influence decision makers.

Keeping an occasional eye on competitors will yield many benefits.  Competitive intelligence  keeps us in the loop about which clients are hiring and the demand for workers within our field,  keeps us abreast of the activities of our professional peers,  makes benchmarking possible and helps us to sell our services more effectively.  Competitors help us to sharpen and clarify our approach to business.  They make us better.

Competitors need not be sworn enemies, despite the adversarial position that must be assumed when vying for market share.  Competitors have much to teach us about doing business.  In fact,  judiciously cooperating with competitors is good business.  There may even be occasions when competitors will collaborate.  Frenemy is perhaps the best way to describe the ideal relationship to our competitors.  Use them as you strategize to grow your client list.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Starting a Business? Consider Your Customers and Competition

Once you’re clear on the difference between an intriguing idea and what may be a genuine business opportunity and you’ve chosen what product or service you will offer,  it is then time to carefully consider who your customers will be.

The entrepreneur must define the customer well,  by using demographic and psychographic (lifestyle) data. The more specific the customer profile that is created, the better the ability to deliver what the target customer wants and will pay you to obtain.

When an entrepreneur fully understands who the customers are,  then he/she can understand what compels them to buy,  how to sell to them (on line or bricks and mortar?),  how to market to them,  how to price the product and how much time and money it will take to win those customers over.

This is why it is always preferable to enter a business in which you have experience.  The best way to know customers is by talking and interacting with them.  That allows you to tailor your services to meet their perceived needs and expectations.

If you’ve already done business with your target customers,  you will have a significant advantage and are better positioned to create a profitable venture.

Be sure to flesh out your customer info by speaking with others who do business with your target customers.  Suppliers and Freelance vendors  can provide lots of useful info. Speaking with your competitors will likewise be very helpful.

Visiting conferences and trade shows that are frequented by your target customers is a smart move,  as those are forums where information is shared.  Competitors may be more forthcoming in these settings.

Analyzing the competition will be a key success  factor for the business.  This is how you’ll find out what customers want from businesses similar to your own,  what benefits they think they’re getting and what price they’ll pay to have what they want.

A thorough competitive analysis allows the entrepreneur to refine the market niche and identify additional competitive advantages.  Good competitive info sets the stage for your marketing and sales strategies.

Visit the stores,  the restaurants and the websites of your direct competitors.  Check out where and how they advertise.  Study their message and methods of interacting with target customers.  Are your competitors making money? How do they make that happen?

Make sure that you have a critical mass of advantages that will improve your chance of success,  be it a hot product,  strong relationships with target customers,  experience in the business,  influential friends or a healthy budget to spend on start up costs.

You probably don’t  hold all of the cards, but before you take the leap  make sure you have enough to give yourself a good chance of winning the game.

More later,
Kim