What are your top 3 methods for conducting effective competitive research?
Talk to customers: they will tell you why they evaluated different vendors and what they liked/disliked about them;
Talk to channel partners: they have a deep understanding of the market and the other vendors;
Talk to analyst firms: they have seen all the major players and know them well and can help you identify their strengths and weaknesses.
You noticed that I did not mention "do internet research" but that's a given... competitor websites, support portals, and more can be great sources of competitive data that you can get for free if you are good with search keywords. I have uncovered landing pages for promotions a competitor was not broadly announcing; have watched sales demos from competitors, and found detailed pricing proposals just by being creative with Google keyword searches.
The outcome you are targeting with your competitive research plays a role in the efficacy of your research method. So have the outcome in mind before you start, that way you will already be on the path to success!
Competitive positioning - There are plenty of tools around like Klue, that scrape the web and sources data and information about your competitors. But you will need to add color and context based on your specific differentiation. You may also want to do some primary research on your competitors here too, look around their website, documentation, and you may even want to sign up for a demo.
GTM Strategy - Diving into win/loss data related to competitors is a great way to understand the gaps you need to message around or the opportunities you need to exploit.
It really depends on a few factors: time, resources and who the competitive research helps. I would answer these questions to help you gauge how deep you go. There are entire PMMs dedicated to competitive research and you may not have that type of time/resource so you need to determine the level of effort you put into this.
- Time - is this an extremely urgent question that needs to be answered in the next week, three weeks, 6 weeks, 12 weeks?
- Resource- do you have a budget, if so, how much is it? Can I do this myself or do I need an agency because it has to be run across several geos, segments etc. Or, do I need any other team's support to do it? Is desk research enough?
- Who this research helps - Who is going to be using and consuming the research I do? Is it the sales team? Product team? Executive team? If it’s an executive team, it may need a higher burden of proof because it may be in service of really company-wide decisions.
Once you’ve determine that there are various tactics you can explore but here’s a few tactics for common situations I’ve seen:
- The sales team needs training on a new competitor on the scene and battlecards - This can be an urgent need and requires little budget. I would start to dig into a competitor's recent investor decks, webinars, YouTube channel, blog posts, new releases/changelog, messaging, set a google alert for them or use a tool like Crayon/Klue to track them. I’d also set a framework for your competitive set (who are top competitors, secondary competitors and up and coming) to determine how comprehensive the battle card needs to be.
- You need a full tear down for execs / marketing take down campaign- You can do all of the above + collaborate with any internal research or competitor-focused teams, look into things like what roles/jobs they’re hiring, what conferences they’ve spoken at, what their executives are saying in press interviews / on LinkedIn, use a free log-in to their product or their customer community, identify customers who switched from a competitor and interview them!
- Your product team needs to know a specific part of the product suite and what problems they’re solving in a certain space - A competitor help center / knowledge base often is a gold mine for how their product works and the technical nature of it that’s really helpful to product teams. Help docs can reveal a lot! Big announcement and launch events, webinars and customer newsletters are helpful ways to see what products are most important to a competitor.
- Your sales team needs to know how to deposition your biggest competitor - Go really deep on their messaging and dig into win/loss data or G2 reviews to really zero in on where you win vs. this customer and where they win. Also interviewing customers who switched to you from a competitor helps here too.
Customer interviews are the most beneficial resource to land "how" you are different vs. competitors and "why" it matters to your customers. Instead of focusing on three research methods, I will recommend three types of interviews you should consider when researching a competitor:
Switcher interviews: Interview customers who recently switched from a competitive solution to yours to understand what attracted them to your company and the key reasons for choosing your solution over the competition.
Churners who left to competitor interviews: Interview customers who recently churned from your company onto a competitor (typically, CSM teams collect this information) to understand what capabilities and/or benefits they sought with the switch. Understand what they consider your greatest strengths and weaknesses as a solution and the importance of those to their decision to churn.
Prospects interviews: Interview unbiased prospects who use a competitive solution to understand their perceptions about your company/product and what they consider the critical differentiators of their existing solution to others available in the market.
I’ve found the top 3 sources of competitive research to be:
- Peer review sites. G2 and other review sites are the best source of information because it comes straight from the users. Even though most reviews will be positive, pay close attention to the low star reviews and what customers say in the dislike section within the positive reviews. This is where you’ll find your kill points.
- Competitors’ content. Deep dive into what they post on their website - videos, guides, documentation, case studies, blog posts, etc. Some competitors disclose all the technical details and showcase their product, while others are more secretive. But if you do some digging and Google searches you’ll uncover what you need.
- Sales feedback. Reps are talking daily to prospects who are evaluating your competitors, and prospects often share a lot of information, including competitive sales decks, pricing, product weaknesses, etc. And don’t stop with the sales teams, others within your company know people who work at competitors or hear information from their networks. I highly recommend having a competitors Slack channel to share and collect competitive intel from across your company.
- Bonus: win-loss interviews. Here prospects will provide a detailed assessment of how you stack up vs the competition if you just ask and keep probing.
Analyst or other market reports are useful, but biased. Secret shoppers are another interesting strategy, but it isn’t scalable and the information becomes quickly outdated. Glassdoor reviews from employees also sometimes disclose interesting information.
Then once you have your research do a SWOT analysis to identify competitors’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats and then turn it into actionable battlecards and competitive plays.
I've found a few of the top methods for conducting competitive research:
- Competitive Content - Starting with your key competitors and understanding how they're positioning themselves, what content they are creating and releasing is a great starting point. Based on your product expertise (of your own product), this should give you some high-level insight into key differentiators. You can also infer a lot between what they share versus what they don't (for example, is their technical documentation available or do you need to be a customer and log in? What about their pricing and packaging... is it live on their website?)
- Review Sites - Such as G2, Trust Radius, and others. There is generally a lot of value in looking at the positive AND negative reviews of your key competitors on review sites. Being mindful of how those reviews are changing overtime can also give you insight into their focus and strategy.
- Customers who previously used a competitor - It's likely that you have some current customers who have used at least one of your competitors. Hop on a call with a few each month/quarter to understand what they liked or disliked about that other solution and why they transitioned to your product. You can also do this in the other direction and look at customers who have recently churned and try to talk with them -- response rates for this is generally lower, but it can be a goldmine of information.
- Win/Loss Data & Interviews - As a part of your sales process you should be collecting data on why you won, or lost, a deal. Aggregating these insights on a regular basis and tracking them can provide trends on why you're winning and losing for quantitative data. For a qualitative perspective, going deeper and conducting 1:1 "closed won/lost interviews". In my experience, these interviews are a valuable source of insight and depending on team size and bandwidth even conducting a few per quarter/year can equip you and your sales team for success.
I'd love to add that presenting competitive research is as important as conducting it. View research as a product: Identify your "user persona" and understand their "needs". Address all those needs in your competitive research report, using a simple format (content & design) that speaks your users' language.