How to conduct competitor research in B2B markets
February 18, 2021
Why competitor research matters
Best practices when conducting competitor research
Why competitor research matters
As Jeff Bezos has consistently argued, it is more important to focus on what your customers want than on what competitors are doing: “If you have a customer-centric culture, that cures a lot of ills. Let’s say you’re the leader in a particular arena; if you’re competitor-focused and you’re already the leader, then where does your energy come from? Whereas, if you’re customer-focused, and you’re already the leader, customers are never satisfied.”
However, just as you shouldn’t focus on competitors without considering customers, you shouldn’t focus on customers while ignoring what competitors are doing.
There are several benefits to conducting competitor research (also called competitive intelligence). It enables businesses to:
- Reframe the competitive landscape. Businesses often believe that their competitors are just businesses that sell similar products. But this is an overly-simplistic perspective. Disruption tends to come from companies outside the existing product category because it’s easier to redefine the category. Newspapers would not have seen Google as a direct competitor – after all, it didn’t sell newspapers – but over time, newspapers have lost significant portions of their advertising income to Google. Therefore, it’s essential to reframe the competitive landscape to look beyond the existing product category. One way of doing this is using B2B jobs-to-be-done research
- Identify new challengers in the market. These upstarts may be a significant threat in the long-term, even if they are not a problem in the short-term
- Determine which competitors you should be most concerned about. It’s tempting to focus on the rival that generates the most revenue or spends the most on marketing. But the most significant threat may be the competitor with the new business model, or with a differentiated positioning, or the competitor which is most-loved by customers
- Understand which audience segments are targeted by competitors. Different competitors may be targeting specific segments in the market, either by building products tailored to certain customers or by tailored marketing efforts to particular segments. If you can identify who competitors are targeting, you can determine whether there are any under-served segments. You can also identify segments that will be challenging to target because everyone is trying to communicate with them already
- Identify relative strengths and weaknesses. The target market is likely to have a perspective on each brand’s strengths and weaknesses. While their perceptions may not be reflective of reality, they should be taken seriously. They can help you understand what differentiates you from competitors as well as what makes rivals stand out. Sometimes, you may identify a feature that a competitor offers that your company needs to launch to stay competitive
- Explore what competitors say about themselves and you. If a rival uses sales presentations and meetings to push a specific message about your solution, you need to be aware of it so that you can counter it in your own messaging. For example, Competitor A may offer a simple solution that has less functionality than your tool. They may tell prospects that your solution is over-engineered and has lots of features they won’t use. Your messaging needs to reframe the issue, reassuring prospects that your solution allows them to achieve their objectives better while still being easy to use
- Benchmark your activity and performance. Businesses generally have strong opinions on their own activity or performance. For example, a company may be unhappy with an email open rate of 1% or an overall growth rate of 20%. Or they may think that their marketing mix is optimal for their industry. These opinions exist in a vacuum – even if the business doesn’t know how competitors are doing, they will have a view on whether their own performance is good or bad. But it can be advantageous to understand how or what competitors are doing. This information provides an extra layer of context to judge
- Ultimately, inform the development of a go-to-market strategy that meets customers’ needs
your performance or activity
Indeed, it is pretty surprising just how much information you can gather about your competitors depending on the methodology you use.
First, you can obtain a lot of information about competitors’ overall performance:
- Their sales figures, revenue, or profitability
- How many people they employ
- How many people they are trying to hire – this doesn’t just tell you how quickly they are growing but gives hints about their future strategy (e.g., if they are launching a new product category)
- Employee morale
- Their financial resources (e.g., funding sources)
- How efficient their operations are
Second, you can acquire knowledge about their sales approach:
- How big their salesforce is, where they are situated, and how they are structured
- Where in the sales process they perform strongly or poorly
- The messages they communicate to customers (which need to be countered)
- Customers’ perceptions of competitors’ sales teams
Third, you can attain valuable knowledge about their proposition and marketing strategy:
- The breadth and complexity of their product and service line
- How they distribute their products or services
- Their pricing strategy, models, and tactics
- Their key marketing messages
- The values and mission that define their brand
- How much they spend on marketing and promotion
- Which marketing channels they use
- Which segments they target
- What customers like or dislike about their brand or their solutions
- Why people like or dislike them
- Why people use their product/service or avoid them
Finally, you can gather information about their specific marketing activity:
- Search ads – tools like SEMrush allow you to determine which keywords your competitors target and benchmark your organic ranking against them. You can also estimate how much they are spending on paid search and which search terms they are spending most on
- Content marketing – at a basic level, you can review competitors’ blog pages for how frequently they post, how long posts are, and which content types are used (e.g., webinars, videos). Tools like BuzzSumo allow you to go further. You can explore which content channels and topics perform best to inform your activity. You can also identify influential individuals in the industry that you may be able to partner with
- Company website – at a basic level, you can explore competitors’ websites to get a sense of their user experience, load times, and how they integrate it with other channels, e.g., social media. Tools like SEMrush allow you to explore the backlinks into a company website
- Social media – you can document: which channels a competitor uses; which channels seem to be most successful; how frequently competitors post; what time of day they post; what successful posts have in common; how many followers they have; how quickly their following is growing; what sort of content they are promoting; what call-to-actions they use, if any
- Trade shows – it is also possible to determine how many trade shows competitors attend each year. You can also explore what they do at each trade show, e.g., booth size
Best practices when conducting competitor research
In any competitor research project, there are several best practices to bear in mind.
#1. Prioritize competitors, but not necessarily the obvious ones.
When it is done well, competitor research can take time. Hours and hours can be spent researching each competitor.
Not all of your competitors deserve a full audit. Some may have nothing to teach you.
So thoroughly researching every competitor can be a waste of your time. Our advice is to prioritize the competitors who are most worthy of your time.
When deciding which rivals to prioritize, don’t just select the obvious options. Your most significant competitor may not be the biggest threat to you in the short-term or long-term.
And you may learn more by focusing on ‘indirect competitors,’ i.e., companies who are not in your product category but who you are losing customers to.
#2. You don’t necessarily need to speak to individuals – secondary research is often enough.
Most B2B market research projects require primary research, i.e., you need to speak to the target audience. For example, if you are undertaking B2B segmentation research, ideally you would conduct in-depth qualitative interviews and a quantitative survey.
Competitor research is different in two ways.
First, a lot of relevant information is already publicly available, and you can achieve many of your objectives without needing to speak to the target audience.
B2B secondary research can be a cost-effective and easy way to explore:
- The size and structure of a market
- Perceptions of your brand and competitor brands
- Gathering intelligence about competitor activity or performance
- The steps that the target audience takes when making a purchase
- The political, technological, economic, or demographic trends that are impacting the industry
- The content topics that may be of most interest to the target audience
Second, there are some limits on what B2B organizations can do when speaking to customers and prospects about competitors.
Many prospects will be unwilling to reveal too much about what competitors are doing, especially if they work with that competitor. For example, decision-makers are unlikely to reveal much about what’s included in your competitors’ sales decks
#3. When doing secondary research, tap into the full range of sources…
People doing secondary research often fail to realize just how many different information sources are available to them, especially if they’re researching internationally.
In our experience, there are ten valuable sources of competitive intelligence when doing secondary research:
- Regular government datasets – Government datasets of business demographics help understand a specific market’s size and structure
- Special government reports – In addition to the demographic datasets, there are many industry publications that are published by government departments, e.g., competition and consumer protection authorities such as the FTC. These authorities often post rulings about potential mergers that reveal a lot of valuable industry information
- Company directories and databases – Directories and databases (e.g., Zoominfo, Crunchbase, DnB, Companies House) allow you to gather some basic competitor intelligence. For example, Crunchbase might give you some benchmarks about a competitor’s financial performance
- Marketing research reports – Some research houses publish extensive industry research reports. These reports are often too broad to be useful, but there can sometimes be valuable nuggets among the pages and pages of data. Companies like Statista are separating these monolithic reports into bitesize charts allowing researchers to find relevant statistics without having to purchase an entire report
- Company websites – Companies reveal a lot about themselves on their websites, especially if publicly listed. Investor Relations documents allow you to obtain a lot of information about a company’s strategy, including how they view the market and the risks they face
- Online communities – LinkedIn groups and specialist online communities can often provide a lot of interesting information, e.g., you can learn more about perceptions of a brand
- Academia – Academic institutions’ business departments conduct a lot of research, some of which can be useful in understanding industry trends
- Trade associations – Nearly every trade has an association to represent its interests. These collectives produce a lot of relevant information, including: company lists; trend reports; information about market size and structure
- General, business, and trade press – News articles and special reports can help a researcher to identify trends, gather competitor intelligence, and generally get more background on an industry
- Social and search tools – there are various social and search tools that allow researchers to gather the information they can’t get elsewhere: keyword research tools; website analytics tools; social influence tools; social analytics tools. For example, keyword research tools allow you to benchmark your SEO performance against competitors
#4. …and use a structured approach to manage the process.
When conducting secondary research, there is an understandable tendency to start exploring information immediately.
But there is so much available information that things can get messy quickly. Researchers often end up drowning in data, much of which is irrelevant.
Before you start, you should structure your research. We suggest setting up an Excel template that outlines what information you are prioritizing for each competitor. As you explore each competitor, you should populate the template with what you find, and with hyperlinks that make the sources easy to re-discover.
#5. If you are conducting interviews, don’t just limit yourself to your customers or competitors’ customers.
If you are surveying or interviewing decision-makers, a good starting point is to speak to your existing customers and your competitors’ customers.
Your existing customers will probably be open to sharing information about your rivals, although they aren’t likely to have much intel.
Competitors’ customers are likely to be more guarded but share information if the questions are asked delicately. One way to do this is to conduct a Win-Loss interview. Competitors’ customers are less reticent if questions are framed as part of a broader discussion about their purchasing decision, rather than questions that just narrowly focus on the competitor.
But other audiences may be worth recruiting if you want to gather competitive intelligence:
- Competitors’ former employees (particularly if they were salespeople)
- Channel partners (who may have experience of you as well as your competitors)
- Industry experts (e.g., analysts, journalists, members of trade associations)
- Customers who have left the product category (and who may reveal something about the categories you’re competing with)
- Executive search professionals
#6. Mystery shopping probably isn’t the answer.
B2C researchers have an additional tool in their toolbox: ‘mystery shopping’ competitors. This technique allows them to quickly and ethically gather competitive intelligence.
For example, a researcher working for a fast-food chain can visit competitor restaurants to explore the in-store experience. As long as they behave like a typical consumer (e.g., make a purchase, don’t prevent others from purchasing), the competitor isn’t impacted by the researcher’s presence.
B2B research is different, and mystery shopping is rarely appropriate due to ethical considerations.
B2B products tend to be of higher value, and it may not make sense to purchase a competitors’ product. For example, if you are an enterprise firewall provider, it would cost a lot to buy a product from each competitor.
In those situations, the only way to ‘mystery shop’ would be to go through the entire sales process and not buy the product.
Adience’s view is that this would be ethically and morally inappropriate. B2B salespeople tend to be highly trained and well-paid. Wasting their time for a purchase you have no intention of making is highly unethical.
#7. Regardless of approach, don’t ‘set and forget’.
Companies should regularly review the competitive landscape to ensure that they are on top of the various threats, vulnerabilities, and opportunities.
It is unnecessary to repeat the entire research exercise every time, but it is worth taking time to do some of the basics.
Why competitor research matters
There are several benefits to conducting competitor research. It enables businesses to: reframe the competitive landscape; identify new challengers; determine which competitors to be most concerned about; understand which audience segments are targeted by competitors; identify relative strengths and weaknesses; explore what competitors say about themselves and you; benchmark your activity and performance; inform the development of a go-to-market strategy that meets customers’ needs.
2. Best practices when conducting competitor research
In any competitor research project, there are several best practices to bear in mind: prioritize competitors, but not necessarily the obvious ones; you don’t necessarily need to speak to individuals – secondary research is often enough; when doing secondary research, tap into the full range of sources and use a structured approach to manage the process; If you are conducting interviews, don’t just limit yourself to your customers or competitors’ customers; Mystery shopping probably isn’t the answer; Regardless of approach, don’t ‘set and forget’
Chris Wells is a B2B marketing researcher and strategist. He was previously on the management team at B2B research specialist Circle Research, winners of the Best Research Agency at the 2016 MRS Awards. Chris has helped to deliver hundreds of research and strategy projects for B2B organizations.