Tuesday, July 6

Understanding Competition: Differentiate Or Die

In the midst of the last recession, I returned to Las Vegas after spending a few years in Los Angeles and Reno, Nev., rounding out my portfolio as a wide-eyed copywriter with some experience as a creative director and communication consultant. No one was hiring.

At the time, online marketing was only imagined. Public relations firms weren't taken seriously. And advertising agencies were laying off professionals with much more experience and, frankly, better books. The freelance market was extremely competitive, especially with an influx of Los Angeles creatives keen to the idea that Las Vegas was weathering the economy better.

The challenge was simple enough. If I wanted to break away from the part-time job I picked up to pay the bills, I had to find a way to compete. Book-to-book, I couldn't win.

It wasn't that their samples were better, per se, they simply had more of them. And, in many cases, their account experience was much sexier. When you place a Porsche advertisement next to a power company, most marketers would pick the Porsche, never mind any campaign results. So, I had to make a choice: differentiate myself or watch my early career wither on the vine.

Five Steps To Differentiate Your Business.

1. Listen To Prospects. As an upstart freelancer, I couldn't afford a market research firm. So, I did the next best thing. I called every agency but never pitched them. Instead, I asked for input. I asked them what they hated about freelance writers.

2. Identify The Difference. They told me precisely what bothered them. Freelancers in this market, they said, were unreliable (here today, employed tomorrow); adjusted their rates based on the client (small shops paid less, big shops more); didn't always meet deadlines (the feast-famine nature of the business); were too specialized (agencies need generalists); and attempted to nickel and dime clients on revisions (two-hour jobs became ten-hour jobs).

3. Embrace The Difference. Got it. Don't do all that stuff. More importantly, make it a proactive message. I opened one of the first generalized writing services firms (permanence) with consistent pricing (transparency); guaranteed deadlines (authenticity); and built revisions into the estimates, charging less if the job took less time (meet expectations they didn't even know they had).

There were a dozens other reinforcements, but the point is made. These differentials set the stage for one thing — the first assignment. The rest has to be earned.

4. Deliver On The Promise. Messages are not enough. You have to deliver on the promise and exceed expectations on the core competency, in this case, writing services and creative. If you could win the first assignment and then deliver award-winning, results-driven copy and creative, there would be less reason to look anyplace else until the market changed.

5. Solidify And Evolve. Branding is a function of the actions you take, which underpins the relationship between the client and product or service. But like all relationships, personal or professional, they change over time. You always have to look for ways to keep the spark in the relationship alive with innovation. Our expansion focused on strategic communication and, later, social media.

Strategic Thinking Doesn't Consider Size.

The story might be tied to a small firm, but the principles apply to any size company. AT&T has more coverage area; Verizon is more reliable in key markets. Apple owns innovation; Microsoft, the industry standard. Google mostly owns search; Facebook took social. FedEx targeted corporate; UPS captured retail. Amazon owns a platform for buying; Ebay, a platform for selling.

Differentiation is everywhere. It even came up as a topic raised by Jay Ehret, host the online radio show Power To The Small Business, during taping last week. Ehret proposed that if your company is trying to be better, it often becomes the same.

And if it becomes the same, I might add, your product or service will likely die. Sometimes it will die quickly, the result of the competition crushing it with more visibility or a broken brand promise. Or, sometimes it will die slowly, with the only differential being price until the price becomes so unprofitable that someone goes bankrupt or is bought outright.

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