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How to Build a Better Product Strategy with Competitive Research
How do you influence your product strategy? Learn why competitive intelligence is important to product development.
Most product marketers understand the important role competitive intelligence plays in developing a strong go-to-market (GTM) and ongoing marketing strategy. But depending on how your company is structured, the work you put into developing a competitive analysis may not be put to good use. In companies where departments are siloed and collaboration is rare, a product development team may never review the competitive insights product marketing develops.
That puts the company at risk.
Why Competitive Intelligence Matters to Product Strategy
Product managers work hard to develop a product that works well. But a product can seem to work great in isolation, yet be viewed as a disappointment by customers if it doesn’t compare favorably to similar products.
When customers are researching and trying your product out, they won’t be evaluating it based on its own features and benefits alone. They’ll be comparing it to other products on the market. The decision to buy or not will be directly influenced by what they learn about your competitors’ products, as will their opinions of it after purchase. Your product can check all the boxes they need and solve their problems, but if they learn another product includes even more features, or does the same as yours but costs less, it won’t matter that yours is satisfactory. It will look disappointing in comparison.
This fate has plagued many products, particularly in the realm of technology. If your perfectly good product doesn’t measure up against a similar item promoted by another company, it will spell failure.
In revisiting the Zune, Microsoft’s attempt to cut into the iPod market, Slate’s reporter found that it was just as good as the iPod. The problem is it came later, when the iPod was already a household name. And it wasn’t better. Customers didn’t care that it did its job well. They didn’t see any reason to switch from the product they knew to a new one that wasn’t an upgrade in any meaningful way.
For the work of your product team to pay off, everyone involved needs to fully understand the competitive landscape your product is (or will be) a part of. Developing solid competitive intelligence—and making sure it’s shared with the product development team—is how you make sure your product has a design and features that will shine in your space.
How Product Marketing Can Ensure Competitive Intelligence Is Part of Product Strategy
Your average product marketer won’t need to be sold on competitive intelligence (CI). You know it’s part of the job for good reason. What can get complicated is getting the product development team to give it the same level of priority you do.
For your work to pay off, you need them to care about what you learn and incorporate it into the larger product strategy. At some organizations, that will be a lot easier said than done. But there are a few steps you can take to make progress in that area.
1. Work on gaining executive buy in.
In the 2020 State of Product Marketing report, most respondents reported feeling misunderstood in their company. Only 5% said they feel like their organization fully understands and values product marketing. If other departments don’t value or see the point of your work, it stifles the potential for collaboration.
Getting support from your executives won’t automatically bring the product development team on board, but getting support from high up in the company is powerful. If the product department is hearing from their bosses that working CI into their processes is important, they’ll be more likely to treat it as a priority. Without that upper-level support, if they’re struggling to balance a lot of priorities on a short timeline, giving time to competitive intelligence is likely to get pushed to the side.
2. Make the case to your product development team.
Bringing the executives on board means the product team will be allowed the time and space to include CI in the product development process. But to ensure they care about the insights you have to share and actually take them to heart in how they approach product design, you need the product team themselves to understand the value of CI.
Luckily, you’re marketers. Use your marketing skills to make your case to the product development team for why the competitive research you’ve done matters, and why it should play a role in their overall product design process and strategy. Demonstrate how good competitive intelligence ensures their work goes further and is more appreciated by the end user. And convince them it likely means less work in the long run, since a product that’s competitive out the gate won’t need as many tweaks and updates as one that launches to more criticism than fanfare.
3. Provide insights in a format they can use.
Good competitive research involves collecting a lot of information. Gathering large quantities of relevant data is an important step to gaining a thorough understanding of the competitive landscape you’re a part of. But when you have loads of information, parsing it all becomes its own challenge.
Don’t deliver the raw material to the product development team and expect them to sift through it. If the task of making sense of competitive information looks overwhelming, they simply won’t find the time for it. Instead, figure out the main takeaways in what you’ve learned that matter to the product strategy specifically. That probably includes the specific features that are common to different products, elements of design that make them easy or difficult to use, and some of the main customer feedback that people provide on their experience with various products. Pull out the details you deem most relevant to the product development team, and present it all in a way that makes it easy for them to process and put to use.
4. Maintain two-way communication.
Don’t just deliver the information and be done, listen to what they think as well. They’re product experts. They’ll have an understanding of why the product works the way it does that you don’t.
It’s your job to help be the bridge between their knowledge and experience, and what the end customer is likely to think and feel about the product. To do that well, you need to understand what they think and feel as well as what your target audience does. So don’t just talk; also listen. And let what you learn from them play a role in the overall strategy you develop.
5. Invest in an ongoing collaborative relationship.
If you treat gathering CI and incorporating it into the product strategy as a one-time project, you’ll immediately start falling behind your competitors. Your competition isn’t going to stop innovating. They’ll keep releasing new products, new features, new updates, and taking new approaches in their marketing on a regular basis.
Next year, the competitive insights you shared with the product team will already be outdated. If they base their work on information that’s no longer accurate, the work you put into competitive analysis won’t be worth as much. Your product could still be viewed as a dud based on expectations changing between your last CI report and the product’s released.
To avoid that eventuality, treat CI as a regular process in your organization. Work on a system that keeps the lines of communication open between product marketing and product development. Talk to them about what kind of process works for receiving competitive insights regularly, absorbing them efficiently, and incorporating them into their processes. Is there a particular content format that makes the most sense? A communications or collaboration tool you can use to stay in touch and on the same page?
By getting a system into place to enable ongoing collaboration, you can make sure everyone stays up to date on your industry and competitors. And you won’t risk your product falling out of fashion because you can’t keep up with the competition.