I would like to take whatever steps possible to encourage dialog – please feel free to comment below or email me if you have a question or something to share. In the last two weeks we have looked at the consumer behavior that leads to a purchase and how you can develop a strategy to complement it, and how to design an effective online presence for your company. This week, we will examine ways you can use the Internet to learn more about your company, your customers, your competitors, and the industry you do business in. In the business world, knowledge truly is power – the more you know about the forces that play a part in determining your success, the better you can predict them, adapt to them, and ultimately control them. And there is no better place to research these forces than the Internet. So let’s learn how!
Earlier this year, I switched jobs from the online marketing department of one company to the online marketing department of one of its direct competitors. That afternoon, talk swirled around the office about how I was going to “reveal the secrets of the online marketing strategy” to my new company. While on some level I understood the concern, I had to chuckle at least a little bit. Nothing that happens on the Internet is even remotely private, and any online marketer worth his or her salt could quickly research and tell you anything you wanted to know about their competitor’s online strategy without much difficulty. Simply put, anything your customers can see, your competitors can see too.
However, this doesn’t mean you should abandon or even reduce your online marketing efforts. Quite the opposite actually – depending on exactly what you do, the Internet is still probably the best place for your marketing efforts. What it does mean is that in order to be as successful as possible, you need to learn how to understand what the Internet is telling you about your company, your competitors, and your industry. Learn the best places to look, learn the best information to look for, and learn how to act on it when you find it. It may sound simple, but you would be surprised how many business owners I have talked to that go straight to the Internet to search for something in their personal life, and had never thought of using the Internet for competitive research. Ok, so we have established that it is both possible and important. Now let’s focus on how to do it.
Step One – Read EVERYTHING You Can About Yourself
No, this isn’t an attempt to turn you into a narcissist. Think of it as being self aware. Scour the Internet looking for your company name, click on every single link, read every last page, and keep a log of what you found. Repeat this process at least a few times a month. This serves a number of purposes:
- Ensure the accuracy of information. This is as simple as making sure that all of the data posted for your company is accurate and consistent. Double check the addresses, phone numbers, hours, and anything else posted to make sure it’s all correct. Earlier this month, I looked up a restaurant, decided to eat there and drove to the address listed on both their website and Google Places. Nowhere to be found was the restaurant. So I called the phone number on their website, and was given directions to a new address. Upon arrival, I told the manager of the problem and she kind of shrugged and said “oh yeah, we moved about a year ago”. Uh…ok. A year, and their website still had the wrong address. Well, I wonder how many of their customers ate someplace else in the meantime when they couldn’t find them?
- Read your own reviews. Depending on your industry, there are different avenues to check. But review sites are all the rage in 2011 and negative reviews (or even a lack of positive revues) can sink your business in the eyes of a new client. If consumers are posting their negative experiences with your company you need to take appropriate action to address their concerns. Many review sites will allow you to post a response in the event a situation has been atoned for. If they are posting their positive experiences…well, everyone loves a pat on the back, right?
- Stay on top of social media. Even more so than a review site, social media allows the opportunity for a service recovery in the event of a negative comment. If someone tweets that they hated your restaurant, reply to apologize and ask them how you could have been better (and offer a free meal). If someone’s Facebook status says that your carwash only got 1/3 of the dirt off their SUV you can reply with an apology and offer some coupons in exchange for a second chance. In the event someone says something completely false, baseless, or tasteless…well, you can always let your attorney know.
Step Two – Read EVERYTHING You Can About Your Competitors
When it comes to learning about your competitors, the Internet is a virtual goldmine, full of nuggets of priceless information. Hopefully, after last week’s look at how to design your site (and online presence) to be as successful as possible, you took my advice and identified a few competitors to take compare your site to. But don’t just stop with the usability of their site – look up every possible piece of information you can. You might be surprised how far some competitive data can go in terms of explaining what might have otherwise been a mystery. If you have a sudden drop (or increase) in sales, it would certainly be good to know what the other guy is (and is not) doing. A few things to look for:
- Their Website. Sounds simple, but raise your hands if you have identified your top competitors and look at their websites at least once a week (and be honest!). Chances are, if they are in the midst of a major change of strategy or product lineup, their website will say so. If they are making dramatic changes to the site itself, take note of what the changes are see if you can learn something from them. There are a lot of things to take note of here – how quickly did it load? Does it look correct in different browsers? Try loading it from a smart phone or tablet – does it retain its look and feel? Aside from the nuts and bolts, what can you tell about their business strategy and value proposition from their website?
- Their Links. Inbound links that is, meaning which websites have a link on them that will lead consumers to their site. A good SEO (search engine optimizer) will be able to help you with this, or, visit Open Site Explorer and take a peek for yourself. What this is saying is that you need to understand all of the places that are linking to one of your competitors. Why? Two reasons – 1. You should probably be trying to get links from these same sites and 2. Inbound links (also called “backlinks” in the SEO industry) play a major determining factor in who gets ranked higher in Google search. Next week, our entire entry will deal with SEO and the value it can provide to your company.
- Their Advertising. Let’s think about this logically for a second – if your competitors are doing it, and keep doing it, either A) It is working for them or B) They are not paying attention. I am thinking it’s probably A, but I will let you be the judge of that. Look for all of the ads they are placing – banner ads, paid search, and email marketing. Take note of a few things – the placement of the ad, the product/service offered, and the avenue. Are they running paid search campaigns on Google? Banner campaigns on Facebook? Mobile ads? These are all things you need to know and compare to your own marketing strategy. A good interactive agency will be able to figure out where their ads are without just simply going from page to page looking for them. Also, numerous tools are available to help you harvest competitive advertising data – my personal favorite is SpyFu.
- Their Reviews. What are customers saying about them? If they’re getting positive reviews from the same reviewers or on the same sites you’re getting negative reviews…well, that doesn’t look good for you. Studies have proven time and time again that even if someone doesn’t know the person writing the review, it can have a huge impact on their purchase decision. Amazon built an empire on the concept that people want to know what other people just like them think, even if they don’t know each other. In any event – read their reviews (bad and good) and take note of what consumers think the other guy is doing right or wrong. Maybe you need to up your game, maybe not. The first step is knowing.
- Their Social Media. This goes double if you are not yet participating in social media. Take note of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Social Media is an extremely powerful medium for reaching consumers, but it can also be a minefield. You need to be careful to control the message and engage with your customers without overstepping your relationship with them. Be careful not to underestimate the value of a Facebook like. An upcoming entry in this blog will explore Social Media in far greater detail.
Step Three – Learn About Your Industry
Odds are you probably did learn a lot about your industry by reading up on your own web presence, as well as researching your competitors. But there is always more to learn and to track. No matter what your industry, the Internet contains an almost endless wealth of great information about what you do. Branch out and learn new things. And also, track the following:
- Search Results for Your Product/Service. Google search results (called SERP’s, for Search Engine Result Placement) are kind of like a mini popularity contest. Google crawls the web, and based on their assessment of the quality of a site’s content and the likelihood that someone will click on it, they rank all of the sites that they feel pertain to a particular keyword. We will cover keywords in greater detail down the road, but for now just pick out a couple of terms that you think consumers might be searching for when they shop for your product and keep track of how (or if) you rank for them.
- Competitive Landscape. Odds are, if a competing shop opened up down the street from yours, the proprietor of that shop didn’t walk into your store and introduce themselves and announce their presence. But since knowing your competition is extremely important, you need to know when a new threat suddenly appears on the horizon. The good thing is that even if they didn’t announce their new venture to you, they probably announced it to Google. So by keeping track of Google searches appropriate to your company, you can know pretty quickly when someone is on your heels.
- Consumer Landscape. This is where trade-specific publications and blogs can offer a lot of value. You can learn about new products, services, industry trends, and more. Even if you’re not tweeting anything, join Twitter and find some thought-leaders in your industry and follow their tweets. You will be surprised how much great information is floating around cyberspace that is free for anyone who wants to read it. Another great source of information can be to just type “<your product/service name> blog” into Google and see who Google thinks is doing the best writing. Bloggers will often have great insight into how consumers are shopping for your product/service, and what is important to them. Also, an authoritative blog can be a great place to get a link that will provide tremendous value to your site – more on that in next week’s entry on SEO!
Thank you for joining us this week for another installment of the Findgreatcustomers.com Online Marketing Blog! Please join us next week for a brief intro into the world of Search Engine Optimization. Also, there will be an additional related entry (Knowledge is Power Part II) upcoming (date TBD) that will examine how to gain insight into your customers by analyzing traffic patterns on your own website. As always, please feel free to email me comments or questions, or leave comments below. Thanks!