How can you compete?
By Roy W. MacNaughton | Nov 09, 2007
If you’re a small or medium-sized firm, how do you survive in today’s hyper-competitive environment?You don’t. Or can’t. Not the old way. By old way, I mean the methods you used three years ago. There are just too many outlets selling what you sell, too many choices for consumers — and they know it.
The marketing secret you now need is twofold. You must turn your business into a highly specialized “niche” that sells only a specific kind of product or service. Secondly, you must be prepared to out-manoeuvre the big boys by offering customer service that they just wouldn’t think of giving. They’d say it was too much hassle or too expensive.
Okay, so what is this niche thing? It’s French, meaning a tiny crack in a wall, or a mountain face. In marketing, it refers to a tiny splinter of a market that you might want to find and then exploit. For example, recently I met a woman who sells pillowcases. Just pillowcases. Not pillows, not sheets, bedspreads, or duvets — just pillowcases. She is undeniably an expert in pillowcases. She turns them into new products selling at retail or on the Internet.
As a long time hospitality industry specialist, I asked her if she had ever made any customized pillowcases for resorts or lodging establishments. The lightbulb flashed on. She got it... instantly. I smiled and told her she had just expanded her pillowcase niche.
Why is a niche golden territory for you? The big boys can’t and won’t be bothered going after this small sliver of market share. It’s too expensive for them; they’re set up for mass markets. They live, compete, and die for larger market share. They move and make decisions with the speed of the Queen Mary. Conversely, you’re like a speedy, agile, 16-foot runabout. Moreover, once you establish your “expert-ness” in a niche, and consolidate your beachhead position, it’s very difficult for another to move you out from there. Your entrenched position is much easier to defend, since the entrance to the opportunity is so narrow. You will have that barricaded off.
So how do you find a niche? Spend time digging. Use common sense, the local library, and the Internet. First, check out competitive supply by going to the major search engines (Google, Ask.com, Yahoo, and MSN.com). Use keywords that describe your business category. Use dmoz.org or Alexa to check out the directories of websites in your prospective niche. When using Google, don’t forget to observe the right side of the page to see which other competitors are advertising using the Google “AdSense” program. Judge the value of the keywords with the Google “keyword tool”; enter $100 as the price per click you would pay. That will yield you every possible competitor and price. I found that plain “pillowcases” generate a cost of $1.46 per click, while some advertisers are paying $3.73 per click for “silk pillowcases.” Now you have quantified some real demand for this niche. I counted 49 different keywords and costs per click.
Join Google’s “gmail system.” Have someone send you daily emails containing different keywords. Identify which competitors are paying for such keywords — even in emails! Click on their ads; learn what they’re doing. If they’re paying Google ‘per click’ to advertise there, they must be getting some positive return.
Now try Inventory.Overture.com or www.freekeywords.wordtracker.com to check the number of times someone searched for each of those keywords in the last few months. Now you can see the supply (number and variety of sites) versus relative demand (number of times keywords used in searches and/or price paid per click to advertise). Moderate to high demand, blended with moderate to low supply of sites, indicates excellent opportunity in your prospective niche.
Finally, go to Google Trends; enter the same keywords; observe the levels of interest shown in that niche over the last couple of years on Google and how much media attention has been paid to it. These are just a few tools designed to give you a relative idea of how big, small, competitive, secretive, forgotten, or just plain hidden your existing niche or prospective one really is. Accordingly, these are not mathematical measures of weight or degree.
Naturally, if you’re not a start-up and are already in business, this will tell you what you need to do to improve what you’re now doing, how to “niche-it” or make it competition-proof. Drive locally to book retailers/newsagents to see if there are any publications dedicated to your niche idea. Do they have multiple advertisers? If there is little interest in a niche, there won’t be a magazine or publication dedicated to it and certainly not advertisers. However, don’t shy away from a few competitors. Their presence is positive. It indicates a viable opportunity. Plan to out-compete them. Remember, you still have another secret weapon in your back pocket.
Now investigate the “who” aspect of marketing. Do you really know who your target group is? I mean the number-one group of potential customers you are trying to reach, inform, and motivate. Aim at this primary group of individuals who have the need, access, desire, and money to buy. (If there are not enough of them, immediately re-think your intended niche).
Now you must figure out how you can differentiate yourself, not just with the products and services you sell, but also how you are going to sell them. This is your second secret weapon. It’s all about customer service. I predict that those smart business owners who realize that with so many competitors trying to sell the same old items in the same old way, the entrepreneur who does it in a new, refreshing, stylish way — caring for the customer like no other seller does — will be the penultimate winner.
Obviously, if you can buy an item or service in one of four different locations, but only one of them remembers your name, your birthday, or sends you a card to remind you of check-ups, required service, “insider” pre-public sales etc, which one are you going to patronize?
In order to survive today, you must first look for, find, and consolidate a viable, profitable, defensible niche. Then provide customer service like there’s no tomorrow. If you do, you will not only survive, you’ll need a Mack truck to carry it to the bank.