Competitor research – more than just keeping up with the Joneses

By Posted in - Monitoring & Research on December 12th, 2017 0 Comments

As we approach the end of the year, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the things we’ve been asked about at Pickle Jar in the last 12 months. In doing so, I realised that there was a common thread running through many of the most frequently asked questions. Whether this was as part of a larger project or just an informal chat, that thread, essentially, was:

“But what is everyone else doing?”

It’s a fair question. We’re all tempted to compare ourselves to others, and that applies as much to our companies and institutions as it does to us as individuals. But why do we want to do this? What are we hoping to learn when we try to measure ourselves against someone else?

Competitor research and benchmarking is a hugely valuable exercise. We do it all the time for our clients. We’re even carrying out a series of content maturity studies for universities right now, which will help them assess their performance against others in the sector in the future. It’s always worth spending some time looking at what others in your industry are doing – especially if you consider yourself to be one of the leaders in your field. But always ask yourself why you’re doing it.

What do you want?

If you’re doing some digital benchmarking, what are you hoping to achieve? So you find out that other universities have more website page views than you… what does that tell you? What other information are you gathering to help you put that in context?

Or you want to compare your social media activity to some competitors – so you carry out a review of their posts and interactions, and it turns out they all get better engagement rates than you. Oh no! We must copy them, you think.

But not so fast – why is their engagement higher than yours? Are people latching on to their page as a way to complain? Do they have a low follower count, leading to disproportionate interaction rates?

Sometimes it helps to look at our own activity rather than what’s going on elsewhere. Looking at our own past successes and failures can be more enlightening than trying to work out why someone else is doing well. There’s always context behind what we find.

And that applies to more than just what we can look it in a quantitative review. I was recently asked for my opinions on how universities should carry out social listening… to which the only answer is “it depends”. The needs of a university who want in-depth analysis of all their online mentions are very different to those of one that wants to be able to interact regularly with users on a few specific platforms. Both of those are different to someone who wants to reach beyond their own mentions to find wider audiences.

Getting inside

Another question I’ve been asked was about internal structures – how do different universities structure their content creation teams or their marketing department, or who do they let have access to the website or official social media accounts? Because we’ve worked with a lot of universities, we can answer these questions – but I still always ask back: “Why do you want to know?”

Finding out that another institution has a ten-person team approving all website content is helpful, but we should also consider the challenges and decisions that led them there. If we don’t, there’s a risk of simply copying a structure without understanding why it is how it is – and who knows if that structure is suitable for another workplace?

What works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. Everything has context, and it’s only by looking at your situation holistically that you’ll work out what’s best for you.

So I’m not saying that you shouldn’t carry out competitor research or benchmark yourself against others – but always ask yourself why you’re doing it, and what you hope to do with your new knowledge.

If you’ve got a question about competitor research or sector best practice, let me know – but remember, my answer will always start with “it depends”.

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