1. Money

Get a Competitive Edge

Great free tools for carving out your niche in a crowded marketplace

By

Get a Competitive Edge
Photo by Flickr user _kaway_
Whether you craft the world's most luxurious stationary or provide concierge service for pampered pets, we all want to think our business ideas are second to none. But don't let that line of thinking keeping you from falling victim to "pie in the sky" syndrome. Key to understanding the competitive landscape for your business, and where you fit it, starts with a little strategic research.

For small businesses and entrepreneurs, defining the competitive environment for your business can seem daunting. Nonetheless, it's an absolutely critical part of developing your business plan and growing your business. Taking the time to study the competitive landscape may also alert you to some lucrative niche market opportunities.

Here are some tips for free and online resources that will help you get your feet wet -- without getting overwhelmed.

Watch the trends

Google Trends and Google Insights are two great tools that allow you to look at web searches for any topic you can dream up and see trends over time. For instance, a Google Insights search for "cake pops" and "whoopie pies" reveals that web searches for the latter had remained constant for some time, while interest in the cake pop had skyrocketed in the past few years.

A search for different beverages such as lager, IPA (a type of beer) and cider, and saw clear seasonal patterns around cider searches. You can easily segment out geographical areas to further pinpoint where consumer trends exist.

Keep tabs on the competition

Make a list of your nearest competitors. Use tools like Google New Alerts to have new articles about these business delivered straight to your email inbox.

Looking at your competitors' social media mentions is another great way of staying on top of opportunities and looming market challenges. Tools such as HootSuite or Tweetdeck will allow you to keep a column of "keywords" that can track all mentions of a specific competitor or product in one easy-to-access place.

Use these news articles and mentions to figure out ways to better differentiate your product or services. If a competitor's latest initiative or campaign focuses on reliability, for instance, you might use your competitive intelligence to do one of two things. You can develop impressive examples of your reliability that may trump your competitor's examples, or you might want to take a different tack and focus on your enterprise's track record in the realm of innovation.

Compile great data

Reputable studies are a great way to get a total picture of your market niche and where you fit in. The most obvious place to start is by searching blogs and trade publications in your industry for the most cutting edge research and reports about your market. Other ideas:

  • SimplyMap is a powerful software program that allows users to generate sophisticated demographic maps using 70,000 data variables related to demographics, employment, real estate & housing, crime, businesses, consumer spending and points of interest. Many city libraries have a subscription to SimplyMap -- call your local branch to find out more.
  • Pew Research Center offers tons of free comprehensive and reputable reports on the "numbers, facts and trends shaping your world."
  • Census.gov is a huge clearinghouse of data that details just about every strata and sub-strata of American life. For that reason, it's a goldmine of intelligence on the vital trends that affect your business.
  • Slideshare is a social network for presentations, and, in some cases, business plans. Take a look at what others have researched relative to your target market. Some of your work may have already been done for you!
These are just a few great ways to understand your place in the competitive landscape. Equip yourself with the key info and reap the strategic rewards.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.