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The Product team’s guide to market
and competitive intelligence.

6. Shaping your product with competitive and market intelligence.

What is it, and why is it important?

In the past chapters, you have gone through finding your niche, mapping out your market, and doing a hard evaluation of the current state of your product and business. In this chapter, we will dive into some of the deep and dirty.

First, we will go into seeing where your future customers are unhappy with the existing products in your chosen market. We will continue with learning what is resonating with those individuals and organizations, and then finally move into predicting the future.

Let’s dive in!

The market has seen enough copycats.

In the 2000s, there arose a mentality that looking at competitors was a perfect way to give yourself the Monday blues. It was just frustrating to see how easy it seemed for them to expand and get customers, and many great businesses then became copycats. Those that ignored their competition and the available solutions on the market would find themselves without a product-market fit and a customer base.

Those that ruthlessly copied each other would die in growth as they had to go head-to-head with the big players to disrupt the market. It became a race to the bottom and commoditization of many markets. You could choose from 1000 different website building tools, 100 of music streaming sites, and tens of thousands of social platforms and viral media sites.

Progressing into the 2010s, things changed. Book after book from “The Lean Startup” to “Blue Ocean Strategy” and numerous podcasts would embed concepts of differentiation, uniqueness, adaptability, and agility. The challenge is that you finish with a lot of theory (and a lot of homework). The overarching message from all this theory is formed into one concept.

“The person who knows the customers the best and answers it gets the money.”

People are so desperate for a real solution, that you now find services like Mint that have 14,000 buyers appear in the pipeline while they were still building the first release. Other great software like Parlor (teamparlor.com), ProductBoard (productboard.com), Close.io (close.io), EnjoyHQ (enjoyhq.com), or Sunrise Calendar (now acquired) answers the needs of users very clearly. Since they understand it so well, they can operate in hyper-competitive markets with great success.

Learn from the market leaders’ evolutions.

Learning the evolution that the market leaders have taken can demonstrate markets, opportunities, and language that you need to be aware of.

To do this, first, take a look at your competitor’s website. What language are they using? How are they positioning their product? Take those as notes. If you want to create a product that delivers DVDs and BluRays right to someone’s door, then it may make sense to look at how Netflix positions itself, and then back to its history.

To map the journey, your best tool is the website of a business. All traffic, ads, investors, social media, and marketing focuses on driving traffic to the website for conversion to customers or leads. Using a tool like archive.org or Waybackmachine, you can see the journey and how it has adapted over time. You will find that many SaaS companies may have started more general or in a different niche. 

You will want to look for:

    1. How did they change the positioning of their product?
    2. Do they serve different use cases? Have they changed language over their journey to capture new markets?
    3. Is it clear the markets they are targeting based on the language used at different points? What industries have they gone out of?

If you look at GoDaddy, as an example, you can see that they targeted real estate agents back in the 2000s, in 2008 they focused on personal sites, in 2013 it was small businesses, and now they focus on entrepreneurs and online stores. If you have a product-focused on websites for real estate, take a look as to why GoDaddy stopped playing in that market, and if you are building a product focused on blogs and personal sites, see their language and decisions from that period.

(P.S. You should use a tool like Rival to track this in a fine-tuned manner going forward.)

What are the customers and staff of the market leaders saying?

Every industry has pundits and review sites where customers and previous staff request functionality, complain, or ask for new features.

Reviews bring significant value as users are telling you how the other products in the market are failing them. You won’t always find listings, but each one that exists is invaluable. On sites like G2Crowd, the customers of companies are paid to write honest reviews, and on sites like AlternativeTo, you can see the votes and comments people leave for their product. Comments like “would be better if they had this” or “as this company is out of my price range now.” Less is more for customers with specific needs, and they often are missed.

Within workplace review sites (like Glassdoor), employees anonymously share the concerns that they had while working at that location. Frustrated previous employees may say things like “the company has strayed from their vision and plateaued.” or “the new pivot stalled and let a bunch of us go” or “we used to have great customer services, but it is all gone now.” Sadly many market leaders that have stagnated begin to have reviews showing that the customer is becoming the least important thing.

Here are some sites to explore:

For reviews:
  •  G2Crowd
  • AlternativeTo
  • Radius
  • Capterra
  • Yelp
For employee reviews:
  •  Glassdoor
  • CareerBliss
  • JobAdvisor
  • Ratemyemployer
  • Lookbeforeyouleap

An understanding of the pain points in your market can help with more than just the product direction. Understanding the personnel gaps, mindset, and culture of the market leaders can completely change the way that a product and business is perceived and grows. Uber and Lyft are persuasive examples where the primary difference in the two products boils down to culture, priorities, and driver income.

Each of the items you find that bring meaning or can add some direction into your product and business should feed into a list of insights. As you continue through this guide, you should end with a list of opportunities, demands, needs, and vectors that you can leverage and consider melding into your product.

How are your competitors and the market leaders setting themselves up for success?

It is always exciting how competitive intelligence and market intelligence can predict the future that your organization or product will have to play in. These small details and insights are like living a Sherlock Holmes novel where the minute changes paint the picture of what the story is.

As product builders, knowing the future allows you to craft products and platforms that are unique and powerful. For this section, we will focus on the website, which is the funnel through which sales, hires, marketing, product announcements, and more occur.

Whose attention are your competitors seeking? Blog and updates

  • What events are they going to? Are there new categories of events or conferences that are not the traditional set? Are they sponsoring meetups or symposiums for specific types of the industry?
  • Who is picking up the stories that they share? Are all their announcements linked to paid PR sites, or are they getting featured in specific sources? What type of audience is at those sources?
  • How are they positioning themselves in announcements and media? Is it the same as their site? If not, what can we learn from that change?

What are your future clients looking for? Support threads and forums

  • What are the negative things their clients are saying? What gaps keep getting mentioned? (Great time to draft a SWOT of their abilities)
  • Are there invitations by the company to their users for betas or trial of new functionality? (Search for “beta” on the forums to start, and beta sites.)
  • Is there a section for feature requests? What is there?

Who are the strategically aligning with? Partners and flagship customers

  • What partners and integrations are mentioned, is there a similarity in the direction of those integrations and partnerships? (Check Zapier as well).
  • Do the partnerships complement the service or overlap with what they have traditionally done? It is common for companies to form strategic partnerships to cover the needs of existing customers as they sunset a piece of functionality.
  • Has a customer or partner been removed from the site? Are new customers coming from a specific market or industry background?

What internal gaps are they looking to fill? Job pages

  • What new roles are being hired? In the details, is there any indication of asks that are unusual for a company like this? Specifically, look for changes in engineering teams. Are they now hiring data science when it was never there before? Is a sales or marketing role looking for experience in an industry they never played in before?
  • Do sites like Glassdoor have reviews or feedback from existing customers?
  • What systems are they using to deliver the postings, is it a formal HR system of a specific size? If there is an HR system they are using that costs $1000/month (like BambooHR) or they are using outside consultants, you can extrapolate their focus on hiring and growth.

What have your competitors changed in their offering? Product Pages

  • What features have been added/removed/formatted differently?
  • Have they changed pricing, packaging, or descriptions?
  • What new product content added, from webpages to datasheets to videos.
  • Don’t miss any pricing and packaging changes or tests.
  • See which products and services are scaling up or scaling down.

What key competencies do your competitors’ teams have? Team Pages

  • What is the background of their executive team? Is there a specific focus on new members of the team that come from particular industry backgrounds?
  • Where are people geo-located? If new hires are appearing in a different location or a new office is mentioned, then you can see how they are expanding to different areas?

How is your competitor adapting to customer changes? Marketing Pages

  • Are there changes in the headers of critical areas (like the homepage)? These changes are indicative of SEO practice changes.
  • What fields are looked for on a landing page? These details can show indications of their sales structure and processes. Are they going by the size of the company, revenue, department, or other ways? Are they asking for phone numbers and positions so they can call, or do they prefer email campaigns?
  • What new landing pages or A/B tests are being run. What can we learn from those?

Again, insights around the opportunities and directions of your competition should be noted down and viewed. As you go through the different players in the market, you will begin to see patterns as various companies are following each others’ footsteps. 

These footsteps tell a story of the market direction and do not always focus on the actual users and companies demanding solutions from the market. You now have the fantastic capabilities of seeing the demand and the direction of the market, and being able to see where they do not overlap. 

In the next chapter, let’s dive into how you can take these actionable insights and share them across your organisation and teams.

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