The conventional wisdom in the marketing world years ago was that you never talked about your competition. It was almost as if by not mentioning them, you were able to deny their existence. If your potential customers weren’t aware of your competitor, why in the world would you want to change that?
That didn’t stop companies from making comparisons, but they would compare their product to “Brand X” or to “The leading brand.” A competitor’s company or product was never named.
That began to change somewhat. Ford and Chevy went head-to-head in commercials—each proclaiming they were superior. Macs and PCs hurled (sometimes humorous) insults at one another. It became OK to mention your competitor—as long as you made sure your competitor came out on the short end of the comparative stick.
Like so many other long-held marketing views, the practice of ignoring your competitor, or of maligning him, has changed. Today it’s OK to talk about your competitor—and even to acknowledge his strengths. What the heck happened to make that OK? And what should you do about it?
As seems to be the case with so many marketing changes, what happened was the Internet. Customers no longer had to accept what a company said at face value. The Web gave people easy access to information and they began checking things out for themselves. Not only could customers check facts (which they did), but they could also solicit the unvarnished opinions of their peers. An increasing number of customers today have done their homework on the Web before they make the decision to buy—especially when they are making purchases of big-ticket items.
Smart businesses understand that the customer is in control. Rather than trying to hide information from potential customers, they actually help them find it. Smart businesses know that not everyone is their customer. Rather than spending a lot of time, energy, and money courting people who will never be their customers, they direct them to someone else who can help them. A company that specializes in high-end, customized, interior design for instance might direct budget-conscious readers to a competitor who specializes in lower cost, standardized interior design solutions. What does that accomplish? It helps the budget-conscious reader find what she really wants. It keeps the business from wasting time pursuing someone who really isn’t an ideal customer. It opens the door for the standardized solution company to refer people who are looking for something more than they offer (i.e. a custom solution). And it can even motivate a reader to refer the company to a friend who is looking for a higher end solution.
Does it actually work? If you ask Marcus Sheridan, he’ll tell you it does. Marcus started a swimming pool company in 2001 and watched as the economy began heading south, taking the pool industry with it. Marcus decided he’d better do something and began blogging about pools—focusing on the real questions customers had about buying, installing, and maintaining pools. One of the big questions people had, of course, centered around which brand of pool they should purchase. In particular, he was asked to compare two brands—brands he didn’t even carry. So Marcus talked openly, honestly, and fairly about his competitors.
What happened to Marcus Sheridan’s company? It grew to be one of the largest of its kind in the world, and Marcus went on to become an inbound marketing guru known as “The Sales Lion.” (By the way, you can read his thoughts on talking about your competitors here)
If you start talking about your competitors, will your business grow in the same way? Not necessarily. But Marcus didn’t do it as a “trick” to grow his business. He did it because he wanted potential customers to have the best information possible so that they could make the best decision possible. What it did was cement his reputation as someone who was knowledgeable and trustworthy. And the fact of the matter is that people like doing business with experts they trust.
It’s important to remember why potential customers are checking you out online in the first place. They don’t show up to buy—at least not initially. They are on your website or they’re reading your blog because they are after information that will help them make a good buying decision.
Should you talk about your competitors—in a nice way? Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do. You don’t have to give your business away, but sometimes pointing people in a different direction—even when it’s away from you—can end up building your own reputation and business more than you can imagine.