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December 13, 2012

Differentiating your firm in a crowded marketplace

When I was doing my ‘due diligence’ before starting Harpeth Marketing, I spoke with scores of research firms across the US to understand their perception and use of marketing and sales inside their organizations.

One of the questions I asked during that process was, “How do you differentiate your firm?

Almost to a man (or woman), the response was something like, “We do great work… we have great people… and we really take care of our clients.”

Sound familiar?!  Is that how you would respond to that question?  And if everyone is saying that – then no one is really different!  Which, for the most part, is the case.

Don’t believe me?  Try this little exercise… take a look at the website of your top three or four direct competitors.  Read through their pages titled “About Us”, How We’re Different” or “Why Hire Us”.  I’d be willing to bet that their words read an awful lot like the words on your website.   Sort of depressing, isn’t it?

And if that’s the case… how can research buyers make a decision?  How do you stand out?  Why should they choose you over your competitors?

While there is no magic bullet, following are 13 ideas to jump-start your thinking about how you might differentiate your firm:

The Big 3:

  1. Industry focus: Establish and build an expertise in certain vertical industries (e.g. automotive, healthcare, technology, etc.).  Start where you already do a lot of your work.
  2. Methodology focus: Become the go-to firm for certain types of work – e.g. online qualitative, ethnographies, mobile surveys, etc.
  3. Application focus: Get even more targeted and specialize in certain research applications, like new product research, patient satisfaction surveys, website usability, etc.

Other ideas:

  1. Technology advantage: Are you an “early adopter?”  Comfortable with new technology?  Be the first one on the block to get and use it – positioning your firm as very innovative.  But be careful… not all of your customers feel the same way about tech.
  2. With your marketing: Flip through the pages of any research industry publication.  Notice anything?  Most of the ads are pretty much the same and are pretty boring.  Stand out from the crowd with unique, interesting, thought-provoking and (most importantly) consistent marketing.  Note: this doesn’t just apply to your advertising but also your exhibit booth, your website and blog, your social media, your presentations, etc.
  3. With your content: Produce articles, white papers, eBooks, webinars and so on to position your firm as experts in your given area.  Note: if you happen to decide to focus on a particular industry, methodology or application – your content becomes even more targeted and hence, even more powerful.
  4. With unique operational processes: A survey is a survey is a survey… but if you can recruit to it, distribute it, process it or report on it an interesting and unique way, you’ll stand out from the thousands of other survey providers.  The same applies to focus groups and other popular research services.
  5. With your size & scope: Take a look at the top of the Honomichl 50.  Many of those firms don’t necessarily have a ‘speciality’ or ‘focus.’  But what they do have is size and scope… they can do pretty much anything for anybody anywhere in the world.  And that’s impressive.
  6. By being contrarian: Want to really stand out?  Swim against the tide… take the position opposite what’s popular.  Be a contrarian with your blog, your articles, your presentations, etc.   Note: Do this only if you really believe it.  Do it as a marketing ploy and everyone will see right through you.
  7. By your ‘first touch’: How do you respond when a new, prospective client submits an RFP?  Probably like everyone else… nice email thank you, maybe a brief follow-up phone call and then a fairly standard bid package.  But what if you could blow them away at this phase?  What if your responsiveness, professionalism and deliverables were so different that your competitors didn’t stand a chance?
  8. With speed: Of the three components of business (better, faster, cheaper), which is most important in our industry?  Everyone I’ve spoken with over the years immediately points to speed.  Can you re-engineer your processes to be the “fast” research firm – in all aspects of the client engagement.  Those that don’t or can’t change their processes will not be able to compete with you.
  9. Who you target: Everybody wants to work with P&G, Coca-Cola, Nike and the like.  Not only are you competing with hundreds of other firms who want that business, it’s incredibly price competitive and the nod usually goes to one of the “big boys.”  But who’s calling on the mid-tier buyers, not the Fortune 50, but the Fortune 5000.  It’s not nearly as competitive and much easier to build ‘relationships.’
  10. With your products: Have you developed a new research process?  A new piece of technology?  Or are reselling something brand new to the marketplace?  Great – leverage the heck out of it.   But be careful, as soon as someone comes along with “a better mousetrap” your product becomes obsolete.

I hope this list triggers some ideas in your mind.  Not a single one of them is easy… which is why so few firms do it.  And here’s the key… once you’ve decided on your point(s) of differentiation… you need to live it.  Build your marketing around it, adjust your operations to support it, train new employees on it, etc.  Then once you do that, you’ll no longer be swimming in a crowded ocean… you’ll have a clear, blue pool all to yourself.

This article was originally published in the 2012-2013 CASRO Journal.

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