Your business doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and although it may feel as though you don’t have the time or resources to “keep tabs” on your competition, not doing so can put you and your company at a needless competitive disadvantage. Conducting competitive research can not only help you determine if your business must change and/or improve to stay competitive, but also how you can differentiate your business and its brand in the marketplace by standing out and staying ahead of your competition.

Make Time For Competitive Research

Running a small business is hard work, and for the owner or general manager, keeping the doors open can sometimes feel overwhelming. It’s therefore understandable that many of those who own and operate small businesses don’t feel as though they have the time or resources to regularly look beyond their own front doors and learn what competing businesses are doing. However, imagine if a collegiate or professional football coach failed to conduct research on opposing teams – their team would have no idea how they stacked up against the competition, wouldn’t know which teams had the best quarterbacks or even what type of offensive philosophy the opposing coaching staff employed. Although your small business may not compete “head-to-head” with other businesses like football teams compete with each other, having no idea what your competition is doing can have serious consequences, both for your branding and your overall competitiveness and viability as a business.

Do As Much As You Can

Some businesses, especially large corporations with extensive resources, hire professionals and third-party firms to conduct comprehensive competitive research on an ongoing basis. For many small businesses, there are often no available resources to either hire professionals and/or to conduct ongoing competitive research. However, there are methods that you can use to conduct informal competitive research on your own, with little to no monetary investment. Although this type of informal research may not provide all of the benefits of an ongoing professional assessment, it can help your business become more competitive and enable you to develop a brand strategy that differentiates you from your competitors.

Identifying The Competition

The first step to competitive research is identifying your competition. To begin, pretend you are a potential customer doing research on the companies and organizations in your area that provide the product or service you need. Write down a number of search queries you believe a potential customer would use, such as “carpet cleaning companies in [your hometown],” or “reputable carpet cleaners in [your hometown].” Always include the type of business and the geographical area that your business services – at this stage of your research, it is not important to know what other companies in your industry are doing in other states or regions of the country.

Collecting Data

Once you have identified your competition, it is important to create a list (preferably a spreadsheet) of a number of different attributes of your competitors, including but not limited to the name of their business, the URL of their website and/or social media pages, a copy of their logo and tagline, their mission statement if available, and a short list of their rates or prices for products and services. If other businesses in your particular industry have unique attributes, be sure to include those as well. Last but certainly not least, take personal notes of your own impressions of each business. It is important to apply your own personal knowledge and experience when composing these notes, but try to keep personal biases, grudges and inflammatory language out as well – it is unprofessional, could needlessly skew your research, and could be damaging to your reputation if accidentally leaked or read by a co-worker, consultant or especially by a client or customer.

Conducting Additional Research

Depending on the results of your research, you may find that your informal project has shed enough light on your competition, or you may discover that the overall picture is still incomplete – if so, you may need to employ other tools such as customer surveys and “secret shoppers” in order to gain more information or repeat your competitive research at regular intervals. Clients and customers can be encouraged to take surveys with coupons as incentives, and many will take the time simply if they’re asked. Employees, friends and family members can be utilized as secret shoppers, but in order to collect the most complete and accurate picture of a competitor, it is important to ensure that they remain polite, professional and anonymous.