I’ve got a shocking revelation for you: you are competing with more than your competitors.

You think about what you do for a living a lot – chances are you’re immersed in it for about 8-9 hours every day, if not more. Funny thing is, your target buyer is probably thinking about you a whole lot less than you’re thinking about them. Worse, even getting to know you is a chore, as thousands of signals battle daily for their attention.

In this post, we’ll look at who your competitors are – not the ones in your own business’s backyard, but the “other” competitors competing for your target audience’s attention. We’ll discuss how you can identify these other competitors, where you can find them, and how you can audit and analyze their own marketing efforts.

Your Business’s Competition Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

If you’ve been doing any kind of digital marketing over the last few years, chances are you’ve got a pretty good idea who your competition is within the digital space. You’ve got your software like SEMRush or SpyFu; maybe you’re even using Open Site Explorer to look for competitors’ backlinks or doing research into topics related to your business in a tool like Buzzsumo.

This is correct behavior.

This is also giving you an incomplete picture of your competition.

Like that iceberg that sunk that big ship in that movie/actual history that one time, there’s a lot more below the surface of what your online analysis tools can tell you.

Consider the following:

  1. How much have you adapted your marketing practices (and website) to take advantage of the changing landscape of information availability?
  2. Which keywords does your site actually rank for? Are there any surprises?
  3. How do your marketing efforts reflect the current goals of sales and overall mission within your business?
  4. When is the last time you asked your target consumers what they think of your business? How would they describe it? What are they considering purchasing when also considering your products/services?
  5. When’s the last time you mapped all the content, those keywords, and that target consumer feedback to your sales and marketing funnel, lead scoring, automation, etc.?

If you’re one of those reading this and saying to yourself, “I’ve been a terrible marketer,” have no fear. We’re going to help. Let’s dive into each of those scenarios above, then diagnose what we can learn from them.

The Battle For Attention

According to Microsoft and other organizations that love to post this popular story, you may have an attention span shorter than the average goldfish. Your audience, taken as a whole, almost certainly has an attention span that short…which is less than 8 seconds. That’s as long as it takes Luke Perry to become a bull-riding champion.

A quick spin around the internet, though, and it becomes clear that most of us are just not as cool as Luke Perry on a bull. The estimated average web load speed of position 1 websites (the first natural result that comes up in a keyword search) in Google is anywhere between 9.82 and 13.84 seconds, according to SEOChat. In other words, the top ranking websites on the entire internet take an eternity to load compared to the attention span of your average goldfish, millennial skateboarding One Direction fan, or serious professional who is too busy answering emergency phone calls, deleting unsolicited vendor email offers, taking random personnel requests and sending executive performance reports to wait for your website to finish loading.

You’ve heard all the platitudes: the right content, and the right time, to the right audience, with the right offer, at the right time, with the right content… etc.

Well, it’s true. There is a reckoning happening on the internet every day, where consumers vote with their attention spans. Consider the following online shopping behaviors:

  • 47% of web users expect a page to load within 2 seconds,
  • 40% abandon a site that takes 3 seconds or more to load,
  • 79% of web shoppers will not buy again from a site they feel has performance issues, and
  • 44% will tell their friends about a bad experience shopping online.

You can bet the results are similar for B2B websites and other non-ecommerce sites.

So what does this all mean for you? It means, regardless of your competition, if your website speed isn’t up to snuff, you’re losing goldfish. You are competing with any website that is offering a better user experience to the end user. As more and more Americans continue to turn to their smartphones for answers – Google estimates 96% use their phone to answer questions when they arise – the speed and responsiveness of any website is a chief factor in attracting and retaining their interest.

As you can imagine, the competitors you have identified have a very real and serious advantage over you if their website is faster. Speed alone is enough to make incredible differences in conversion rates, and speed and user interaction are both relative to website rankings. Is it way past time to speed things up for you?

Search Competitors

Your competitors are not just those companies that sell something similar to what you sell. Very often they can also include businesses that exist on the fringes of your products or services, that offer custom experiences or offer a piece of what you do as part of a larger packaged offering. Or they could be something completely different altogether, but they use a similar term that you also use to describe something different.

The word “set” has over 460 accepted definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary is currently working on how to define it and words such as “run” and “put” in its next edition. Maybe your product name doesn’t have that many definitions or learned lexicographers trying to define it, but that doesn’t mean the words aren’t used by other brands in other ways.

A real life example comes from one of our clients, Airstream, the producer of the Interstate, the best selling Class B Diesel motorhome for the fifth year straight. There’s no denying that Airstream’s Interstate is in a class all its own – but that product name is also shared by a well-known car battery company, a bank, and countless highways across the country. That hasn’t hurt the search potential of their product. But that’s not always the case.

Being cognizant of the use of product names and terms in the online space can be crucial to their success. It can mean the difference between instant recognition or instant obscurity. And it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it enterprise – which is part of the reason why SEO and paid digital search campaigns should consider branded terms alongside non-branded keywords.

Chances are, there is another company out there that is using some the same names, terms, and phrases to explain and define their thing that you’re using to explain and define yours. Be aware, and be forearmed to continue to defend the online space around your brand, products, and services.

Who You Were, Who You Are, and Who You Want To Be

When’s the last time you reviewed your corporate goals? What is the golden egg that the company is chasing? It could be a revenue number, products sold, or a shift in products, services or business model.

Is your website reflective of that goal? An even better question: does your website reflect your business goals, but with a real, human face that also represents your culture and why you’re in business in the first place? When is the last time the website was updated to reflect current goals, current culture, and current best practices?

All too often, marketers get trapped in translating the “what” on their websites – what the business does or what it sells. This is important, but it’s not the only thing. It changes, and if you’re not constantly changing it you begin to compete with yourself.

Telling the story of “why,” as Simon Sinek describes in his Golden Circle – giving customers the story behind why your company is in business – is important in creating continuity on the website. Your business will change, with market factors, new products, new leadership and hundreds of other factors. As such, if your website is solely what-focused, you are going to be competing with yourself before too long, working to change away from what you’re known for to something you’re not.

Your website needs to stand out to others by being why-focused, giving the story to your users about the why behind your business. On a why-focused website, it’s absolutely fair to then show your users who you were before, the history of your company and what you’ve done and sold; what you are now, the story behind your current efforts and what you sell now; and finally, what you aspire to become, where you want to go and how you envision the marketplace and your goods and services in it in the future.

As Sinek would say, the goal is to do business with those who believe what you believe. In order to do that, you had better create an experience that captures and breathes life into your company beliefs.

If your website is only selling a good or service, then you’re competing with what you were before and what you will be tomorrow. If your website tells the story of who your business is and why, you’re much better positioned to attract the type of customers you want no matter what you sell.

Your branding and your messaging matter. Don’t compete with yourself, and lead with the important stuff first.

Audience Perceptions

In the age of big data, qualitative data has started to become viewed as less valued, less important. But I will let you in on a little secret: the most important thing you can learn about your business is what your target consumers think about your business.

If your customers perceive your brand or your products to be mid-market, too expensive for the quality, or some other factor you hadn’t considered…tough. You have a perception problem, and it’s going to take work to correct that perception. You could be competing with businesses and brands you never considered, because those are the brands that your customers see as analogous with yours.

Consider this scenario: you are the manufacturer of a high-end luxury watch for adventure enthusiasts. Your product features all the bells and whistles a product like it should but with a traditional analog quartz construction, and that commands a premium price point. But recently, a slew of new digital products pitched to the same potential buyer as your products have hit the market.

The ecosphere around your product has changed. Are you listening to what your customers and potential customers are saying? Perhaps they feel that these new digital watches are equal to the quality of your product, but at a better price – and so they have labeled your products as “overpriced.” Or maybe the digital watches are priced similar to yours, but interact with other digital devices. Now customers are labeling your products as “antiquated” or “old-fashioned.”

Maybe this is okay, if your sales don’t change. But on the other hand, if sales are down, you could have a perception problem on your hands. The savvy marketer is one who has stayed on top of these new product announcements – and what the market is saying about them – and pivots their messaging to meet the new demands and ideas of a changing marketplace.

I have sat in countless meetings with countless executives who have battled, argued, and fought against customer feedback. “That’s not who we are,” they’ve said. And they are dead wrong – because it’s not your company’s reality that matters. The customer’s perception is your reality. Period.

Do Some Research

So, what is your customer’s reality today? Are there online reviews of your product? Do you have reviews of your business or products you produce on Yelp, Amazon, or other popular feedback channels? What have you done to address any concerns received in those reviews?

What about social media? What is the perception of your brand, products and/or services, and customer service on social media channels? Do people post their experiences on your Facebook feed, positive or negative? How do you respond? When do you respond, how quickly?

Are you familiar with Brad’s Wife? Cracker Barrel is – now they are very familiar with how an ignored social media post can turn from playful banter into tasty goodness for the food blogosphere…and then explode into a major online media event covered by Fortune and the Washington Post. #justiceforbradswife has become much more than a playful meme. It’s a full-on public relations disaster for Cracker Barrel, and a major social media opportunity for chains both national and local to take advantage of some free and fun publicity.

Do not underestimate the power of your customers or their millions of internet friends on social media. Do not lose control of your brand on social media. Do not fire Brad’s wife.

Ask Good Questions

While you’re busy not ignoring your social channels or places that review your products or services, be sure to cross this last thing off the list: ask your customers what they think of you.

This can be as simple as a quick satisfaction survey, but you can learn so much more by asking more detailed questions like which brands they considered before choosing yours, which products or services they considered before settling on what they purchased, and what most influenced their purchase decisions.

Still, some folks think that post-purchase email follow-ups, customer satisfaction surveys, and the good old suggestion box are just wasted space. Those people are wrong.

The individual response is powerful because it gives you insight into the mind of one of your customers (or potential customers) – and if you wish to earn or retain that person’s business, then by God their opinion of you should matter. Later, after you’ve collected many individual responses, you can analyze for patterns. Both aspects – the individual and the group aggregate results – are extremely powerful and insightful.

Thankfully there are hundreds of ways to get at this kind of data now. You can do traditional market research surveys, but there are other channels close to home: email surveys, thank you page questionnaires, post-purchase welcome packages, and more. These are useful for asking those detailed, “what else did you consider” type questions.

You can also ask users about their experience with your brand or website, beyond just the purchase experience. Several online tools, like UserTesting.com, exist to help you get information about your users’ online experience, regardless of purchase, and the audiences these tools are served to can be customized to fit the profile of your ideal buyer.

All in all, the one thing to remember is that the audience’s perception of you is the reality of your brand, and is very much a part of the reality of your business. I’ll guarantee you one thing: the marketer that believes that surveys are useless and that you learn nothing from qualitative data is the one without a job, looking at his quantitative analytics heading down and to the right, and wondering “what happened?”

Across the Great Divide

Finally, it is absolutely critical to consider what your target buyers are considering in addition to your product or service offerings. I’m not talking about an alternative product or service that they could buy – although that’s important too – but rather, all the other things they could consider purchasing besides your type of thing.

Let’s use our fancy watch as an example again. Imagine a buyer who’s an established professional, who likes the great outdoors and adventure but also likes the finer things. He could be in the market for a fine luxury watch with the kinds of features that those with an adventurous spirit would just love, but he’s also interested in a rugged, name-brand mountain bike, the latest in outdoor camping survival gear, and an African safari trip of a lifetime.

It’s not just consumer goods that have this problem. In fact, with the potential for spur of the moment type of purchases, they might be better off than our friends in the B2B space. A service business must compete with all the other things that their target partners need to purchase to keep their businesses operational.

For example, your business provides software for managing proposals, something that can help many businesses organize and automate parts of their sales process. More efficiency in sales could mean more revenue, more production, more of a lot of things.

But a potential buyer still needs to invest in the staff to execute against work sold; staff to support those that execute the work; sales staff to sell the work; marketing staff to promote the work and the business. A new tool to make the sales organization more efficient does help – but that new software the marketing team wants could potentially triple the number of leads generated for sales. And I heard the operations manager talking about a new point of sale system that takes the guesswork out of picking equipment and parts for upcoming orders…

In any industry, there are alternatives for buyers to purchase beyond just your direct product or service type and your competitors. There are things competing for our sales before our target buyer even knows they want or need our things.

Understanding this – and preparing for it by creating means to compete against it, and capture user attention earlier and earlier in the process – is why so many brands invest in things that don’t immediately feel related to the product or service that they sell.

Red Bull invests in adventure and extreme sports. Rolex, Lincoln, and IBM sponsor TED. Financial organizations sponsor golf tournaments and travel companies sponsor soccer teams. You can imagine a dozen or more instances in your own life where someone is marketing in an area that doesn’t necessarily pertain to precisely what they sell.

These companies are going after their target buyers earlier on in the buyer’s journey, developing brand awareness and providing resources or assistance in something other than what they do in order to nurture and develop that relationship with the customer so trust is a given and there are fewer and fewer unknowns as a consumer travels along that buyer journey to a potential purchase.

Not everyone who sees a sponsorship ad, gets a free gimme at a conference, or downloads a piece of helpful content marginally related to what you do is going to become a buyer. But you miss 100% of the pitches that you don’t swing at, as they say, and in today’s world, you’re missing out on potential customers who are getting familiar with other brands first because those brands show up in the customers’ world and interact with them there, rather than waiting for them to cross over into the brand’s world.

Wrapping It Up

Now that I’ve told you all the ways you might be neglecting “the competition,” hopefully you’ve got a million ideas firing at once. Or if nothing else, you’ve got the hunger to figure out what your customers think about your brand or how your “other” competitors are attacking the marketing place.

To accomplish the latter, check out Part 2 of this two-part series, where I talk about all of the ways you, the modern marketer, can stalk your competition through digital channels to learn from their successes and their mistakes.

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Dustin Clark

As the Digital Marketing Director for Element Three, Dustin works with the Element Three digital marketing department to determine the best combination of data analysis, marketing technology, and storytelling for driving our clients’ bottom line. His background in journalism, digital communication, and ecommerce positions him as a unique voice in the cluttered digital marketing industry. When he’s not writing about the forefront of digital marketing, you can find him jamming with a guitar or at home with his wife and two children.