Running a small business, among other things, takes focus. For many, this involves focusing on their product and their customers. But their focus shouldn’t end there. They should focus on their surroundings -- the market in which they operate.
No business, big or small, operates in a vacuum. Pay all the attention in the world to what’s going on inside your company. But knowing how this compares to the trends of your competitors, neighbors and industry peers is the difference between surviving and thriving.
It’s all about the data. Watch the data long enough, and patterns start to emerge. Understanding those patterns that can help you stand apart from the crowd. Staying engaged and active with this type of market research is difficult, and frankly most businesses simply don't because they’re too busy focusing on daily realities. And there’s just too much data from too many sources it's a challenge to separate which is valuable and what's noise. Focusing on the right data makes all the difference.
Here are a few tips that may work for you:
1. Cast a wide net. Review your company's online presence for what your organization is saying and what consumers are saying. Look at Yelp and Google+ reviews. Are they positive? Can you encourage more reviews from happy customers? Next, look at your presence across all social platforms. Is your company posting regularly, asking questions and putting out content that customers are interacting with? Set goals to try to raise the frequency of reviews and number of Foursquare or Facebook check-ins and photo shares to boost the digital dialogue about experiences at your establishment.
2. Embrace and reward the positive. One emerging platform to monitor is Instagram. Most consumers share moments of joy and discovery through images, and many business owners today are not aware of the volume of images tagged to their business and don't know the conversations taking place based on these Instagram images.
Most consumers share moments of joy and discovery through images. These are moments that are easy to acknowledge and reward and share through the company's social profiles. For example, someone takes a photo of their dinner, tags the restaurant and begins collecting feedback and likes from friends. This shared experience is one that can be easily rewarded by the establishment with a discount offer, free coffee or maybe simply showcasing the picture on the company Facebook or Instagram profiles.
3. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Once you’re getting reviews, check-ins, and likes, compare them to your main competitors'. Are they receiving the same volume, less or more? Read reviews of those companies on Yelp and Google+. Monitor what their customers say and how these companies engage in conversation with customers across social platforms. Find out the deals they’re offering. This way you can quickly learn where your company stands in the context of the industry you’re competing in, leading to both proactive and reactive strategies on your part.
4. Watch your neighbors. Learn from the companies close by as well. Your neighbors -- the companies next door, across the street or down the block -- share a contextual relationship by virtue of location. How are they drawing customers to your area? What deals or offers do they make that you can benefit from or piggyback on to take advantage of a potential shared customer? And what can you do to bring in new customers who may be equally interested in your neighbor’s deals and offers?
5. Take the national pulse. Compete locally, but research nationally. There are likely many other companies doing what your does in markets far enough away that they’re not a competitive threat. There’s only upside in monitoring what kind of offers and social following they receive as a way to learn new tactics applicable to your situation. With a little customization and localization, an idea on the West Coast can play just as well on the East Coast. Proven ideas are in short supply, so take them where you can find them.
You'll execute these strategies differently, depending on your company's age. A newcomer business will be in attack mode, trying to grab market share away from competitors. An established business does the opposite, defending its turf from upstarts trying to move in. Knowing how your business communicates with consumers relative to competitors and neighbors can go a long way in deciding what move to make next.