Don’t copy competitors, learn from them. Your site is part of a broader experience people have as they try to accomplish what they set out to do.
Your customers are different, your product is different, and your service is different from your competitors. And yet people draw their expectations from the ecosystem in which your site lives. You can learn from competitors, and you do learn from competitors all the time. The trick is to maximize the benefit.
1. Don’t Look at the Wrong Competitors
Teams look at competitors all the time by reviewing sites they like, sites that seem innovative, sites decision-makers suggest, even sites with good conversion rates. All wrong. To learn something that is going make your site better, you have to get systematic about choosing competitors.
2. Upstream Competitors Set Expectations
People use the previous site as an anchor – the layout of the landing page, the categories in the global navigation, the length of pages. We see this in moderated lab tests and online research. What people experience immediately before using your site has a significant impact on the perception of your site. That doesn’t mean you should copy what that upstream competitor is doing, but you should understand it.
3. Top Sites Make an Imprint
People like what they have come to expect on sites they use all the time. Top sites could be the sites with the most traffic in your vertical, but they can also be sites you know your users go to all the time. These are the sites that are shaping user’s vocabulary or their perception of a process or their aesthetic. If your team is considering reviews, you should be looking at a site that everyone knows for its reviews.
4. Focus on Behaviors, Not Demographics
Don’t eliminate competitors solely because the site doesn’t focus on your demographic. People are driven by their goal and the context more than their income or age or tech fluency. Favor sites that support the same task and are used in the same contexts, because those will yield data you can use.
5. Get Rid of Checklists
A lot of companies still rely on a spreadsheet of competitors, ticking off key features. Whether prepared by an expert or an intern, a checklist is guaranteed to get you off-track. Checklists weight more features, broader capabilities, and the latest thing more positively, but users generally don’t.
6. Analytics Will Only Get You So Far
Analytics can provide benchmarks for visits, bounce rates, page views, and time on site. Great start, but only part of the picture. No analytics tool gets at the experience people have using your site in real-life context. You need to learn about what the user wants to accomplish, how they went about it, how they felt about the experience, and what they did or will do based on that experience. That calls for an experiment.
7. Base Your Experiment on a Common Task
A common task is one that is typical for your site, but it should also be a task that is common to other sites you are studying. This is a powerful way to ensure a meaningful comparison. Now you can learn from the site with the highest success rate (and highest perceived success rate – it’s often different), by analyzing what about the site facilitates success.
8. Use Metrics to Determine What’s Really Working
Without some kind of measure, there is no way to determine which site among competitors is setting expectations in a good or bad way. Experience is complicated but metrics should be simple. Focus on usability, engagement, and likelihood to convert to get at the whole experience. A usability metric like success rate measures how easily people are able to get stuff done. Engagement is about perception, so relevance or value will tell you more than time. Likelihood to convert is what people take away. Are they motivated to come back, are they thinking about your site in a new way, are they considering a switch?
9. Look for Patterns
Now that you know which sites are setting positive or negative expectations for the experience people have on your site. Let’s say that upstream competitor A has the highest success rate for a common task, people spent the most time exploring, and they felt happy after using the site. A tough act to follow! Now it’s time to take a look at the site and see what is working. If you have recordings of sessions, interactions, or verbatims, it is even easier to pinpoint high-performance patterns and make sure your site aligns with them.
10. Keep Going
Competitive studies don’t have to be annual, comprehensive sweeps of the entire competitive landscape. Competitive data is most useful when tightly focused on a problem you are trying to solve for your customers. Ultimately, it’s not about copying competitors, it’s about understanding users.
This post was originally published on Change Sciences
About the Author
Pamela Pavliscak is founder of Change Sciences, a user experience research and strategy firm for Fortune 500s, startups, and other smart companies. Over the past 15 years, she has logged thousands of hours in the field trying to better understand how people use technology, and has run hundreds of UX studies on almost every type of site you could imagine.
In 2012, Pamela began a spin-off startup, developing a service to collect competitive user experience data with a layer of intelligence baked into the system. Today Change Sciences collects competitive UX data for e-commerce, financial services, travel, entertainment, publishing, and other industries and works with all the big brands you would recognize.
Though Pamela runs a UX company, she works more often with CX, competitive intelligence, global marketing, and business strategy. Pamela splits her time between NYC and the Hudson Valley, NY. She speaks about data of all shapes and sizes and user experience research and strategy. She also volunteers her time to support STEM in schools and women entrepreneurs.
Image Source: JD Hancock via Flickr