Looking to up-level your entire business’s ability to succeed in market?

For Product Marketers, there are few better ways than competitive analysis. Developing a view of the competition leads to sharper positioning and messaging, higher win rates, and better informed product direction. But even more than this, and on a deeper level, strong competitive analysis (CA) orients your teams to the space your business plays in, revealing market realities in ways that guide a strategic response.

Unfortunately, many Product Marketers find CA both overwhelming and ambiguous. And it’s no wonder — there’s a lot to consider before even getting started. What information should you gather and how much is enough? Which of the many potential sources should you use and why? And what form should the final analysis take, exactly? It’s easy to get lost.

Luckily, there’s no one right answer to these questions. There are a lot of different types of information you can incorporate into CA and multiple ways you can structure the work. How you manage these choices of content and form depend entirely on the goals, resources and timeline you’re working with. And while all of these particular choices are important, what matters most to the success of your analysis is not its tactical execution, but your approach to driving it. To that end, here are a few key points of approach you should always bring to every CA project.

What matters most to the success of your competitive analysis is not its tactical execution, but your approach to driving it.

Take the bird’s eye view

When you’re corralling and analyzing a ton of competitor information, it’s easy to end up with a view of your space that’s fragmented at best and misrepresentative at worst. Stuck in all of the specifics you’re gathering about competitors, you might struggle to see the larger landscape. Or, having found a competitor weakness early in your research, you might stop trying to understand their place in that landscape because you think you’ve found what you need. In order to avoid these myopic mistakes, take the bird’s eye view, describing your space and competitors as they are before attempting to draw any conclusions or make recommendations on how to respond.

So rather than catalogue every piece of relevant information or immediately probe for weaknesses, simply aim to understand your competitors holistically, from their perspective and that of their customers. What, according to their own positioning and messaging, defines their value in market? How do their product capabilities deliver on that value and what use-cases do they unlock? How do those use-cases align to the niche they’re carving out for themselves as a business? Ideally, you will have developed such a strong understanding of questions like these from your competitors’ points of view that you can effectively market their own products.

Rather than catalogue every piece of relevant information or immediately probe for weaknesses, simply aim to understand your competitors holistically, from their perspective and that of their customers.

Similarly, you want to understand your competitors’ customers to the point that you can channel their voice. What verticals, roles, business sizes and other segment types do they belong to? What do they say they value in your competitors’ products and where do they see shortcomings? How does what customers say about these topics align with what your competitors say themselves? Once you’ve worked through these questions as fairly and deeply as possible, you’ll start to see the big picture of your competitive space.

To nail this picture down, it’s helpful to shift gears from analysis to synthesis, briefly summarizing your competitors at a high level by defining them in terms of three basic facets: their product, their market, and how their Product Marketing connects the two. Of course, there will be a lot of detail you exclude from these summaries, but that’s the point — to convey only the essentials of their place in the market. (As a side note, if your competitive space happens to include multiple categories, it’s helpful to summarize these facets at the category level as well.) Once you’ve described these three facets for your competitive set, you’ll have a clear, holistic view of them on which to base the rest of your analysis.

Engage teams early in the process

CA shouldn’t feel like a solitary fact finding affair. Rather than trying to plan, research, and compose your analysis prior to sharing it with anyone, take a collaborative approach from the start. Because if your goal is truly to improve your entire organization’s ability to understand and engage the competition, then you’ll want to involve sales, product, success and other relevant teams early and often. Not only will this improve the quality of your data, but it will also build alignment around your analysis and, in the long run, foster a stronger culture of competitive intelligence.

To start, gather initial input from relevant teams on which categories and competitors are trending so you understand what’s top of mind. Although this input shouldn’t prevent you from researching other competitors, it should be factored in as you plan where to spend your research time. Then, once you’ve gathered all of the raw data for the analysis, organize it into a presentable form, share it with your teams and solicit their feedback. That way, you can crowdsource any clear gaps or outdated inaccuracies you might have missed in your first pass, and, particularly in the case of sales, gather additional insights from your teams’ own direct experience with customers. Although it might feel premature to share the raw data of your analysis in this way, opening it up for review will only strengthen it.

In addition, when teams understand the data you’re basing your analysis on, it will be easier for them to understand the conclusions and guidance you draw from it — whether that’s an individual competitor’s strengths or how you should position against a larger competitive set. If, on the other hand, teams aren’t familiarized with the data underpinning your analysis, they may not internalize and act on your findings because they don’t have a solid understanding of the ‘why’ behind them.

Finally, engaging teams early in your CA work helps foster a strong culture of competitive intelligence. By socializing teams to objective data about competitors — not just your own point of view on them — you’re empowering them to learn more about your space and take the same critically neutral approach you do. Although measuring the value of this kind of culture is tough in the short run, in the long run it ensures your teams and business stay connected to the competitive realities they need to navigate.

By socializing teams to objective data about competitors — not just your own point of view on them — you’re empowering them to learn more about your space and take the same critically neutral approach you do.

Prioritize outputs

Part of what can make CA feel daunting is the fact that it has so many potential outputs — from sales training and collateral on individual competitors, to product briefs on common capabilities and areas of opportunity, to cross-functional highlight presentations. In order to manage all of these potential outputs, take a strategic approach by prioritizing them according to the relative impact they can have for your teams and business. Although this prioritization work might sound like it makes your job harder, the opposite is true. By narrowing the focus of your analysis to answer only the most pressing questions, you free yourself from needing to answer every question and produce every output all at once.

By narrowing the focus of your analysis to answer only the most pressing questions, you free yourself from needing to answer every question and produce every output all at once.

Of course, in order to know which questions are most pressing to your business, you have to be attuned to where its needs and opportunities are. This again means engaging your teams in the CA process. Which competitors are your sales team struggling to position effectively? Which aspects of your offering has your product team struggled to develop a direction for? What executive team concerns are shaping the future of the business? Understanding and assessing the urgency of challenges like these will help ensure your analysis aligns well with where your teams need the most help.

As a key caveat to the previous point, you should let the findings of your analysis prioritize some of these outputs — not just teams’ current concerns. If, for instance, you discover that a new competitor is going to market with positioning nearly identical to your own, or that your product sorely lacks in a capability that’s becoming table stakes, aim to address those issues sooner than later. After all, your analysis should be bringing new thinking and direction to your competitive strategy based on the research you’ve done. Otherwise, if you focus only on the challenges you’re hearing about internally, you might miss the opportunity to enable your teams on other, perhaps more critical ones they aren’t even aware of yet.

Once you’ve defined your priority outputs and executed against them, you can always develop additional ones with the foundation of competitive intelligence you’ve built. But by limiting your initial focus, you’ll help make sure your CA work is addressing the most important problems first.

Developing a competitive analysis takes a lot of time and patience, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. If you keep your eye on the big picture, involve teams in the process, and work towards a clear set of high impact outputs, your analysis will be on track to move the needle for your entire company.