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We all know it's good advice to know your competitors, but how many entrepreneurs actually take the trouble to regularly research their competitors and find out what they are up to?  Business on the Internet is fast-paced and changing rapidly and those who can't keep up get left way behind.  It's a never-ending task because there are new businesses entering the marketplace continually, as well as new developments in the pipeline that could be a threat to your business.

If you know who your competitors are and what they are up to, you are in a stronger position to market your own products and services effectively, set your prices appropriately and stay ahead of the game.  If you're competitors have an Internet presence, it is so easy to analyse your competitors and develop strategies to beat them in the market place and these days it is vital to know your competitors because of the sheer amount of competition on the Internet -- it literally spans the globe.

Check them out

Apart from conducting Internet searches to find your competitors, you should also look out for them through off-line advertising, direct mail, press releases, exhibitions and trade fairs, customer’s forums, patented products, planning applications and local gossip.  Visit their websites, order their marketing materials and brochures and go to trade fairs if they exhibit to find out who they are and what they are up to.  Find out:

·         How they present themselves – the quality of their website

·         What impression they make

·         Their attitude towards their products and their customers

·         Who runs the business

·         What prices they charge

·         Their range of products or services

·         Their marketing strategy

·         Who their marketing is aimed at

·         How busy they are with marketing -- do they advertise off-line?

·         The quality of their marketing materials

·         How efficient they are in terms of answering queries and delivering goods

·         How easily they can be contacted

·         What follow-up services they offer

·         What are their strengths and weaknesses

·         What new products and services are they developing?

Be a customer

One of the best ways to check out your competitors is to deal with them as if you were a customer.  If you find this awkward, try to get someone else -- or preferably a few other people to pretend they are customers:

·         Visit their website

·         Order their marketing materials

·         Contact them with a query by e-mail

·         Phone them with a query

·         Place and order with them

·         Monitor the length of time it takes to send your order out to you

·         Notice the quality of the packaging

·         Evaluate the product

·         Invents some issue where you will need follow-up service or advice and check out how they deal with it

You could also find out something about the amount of stock they keep by enquiring about a bulk order, or ask if they supply on a wholesale basis or have an affiliate network to find out more about the breadth and reach of their business.

Beat the competition

Once you have enough information about your competitors, you can formulate a plan to make your business and your products and services stand out from the rest.  You should be able to evaluate where your competitors are superior or inferior to your business and how you can improve.

You should also be able to spot any gaps in the market and see which areas are already saturated.  A thorough investigation might throw up ideas for opportunities where you can develop new products.  At the very least, you should be able to improve your website and update your sales copy and marketing materials, as well as reassess your prices.

You can also evaluate the way they deal with their customers in terms of answering queries promptly, efficiency in their shipping practices and their after sales service.  You should always strive to improve in this area as customer service is a vital part of the success of any business.

Knowing your competitors is such a valuable exercise -- it can highlight new opportunities for your business and allow you to develop an innovative and original USP that your competitors have never even dreamed of, putting you way ahead of the game.

Good luck!