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April 03, 2008

Should you talk about your competitors?

By Josh Bernoff

Brand_x It’s a truism in the marketing world that you don’t, in general, talk about your competitors. The apotheosis of this was reached in those silly old soap commercials that compared the company’s product to “Brand X” which it beat hands down. As a consumer, your reaction was “who is this brand X? Of course you’re better than them – that could be anybody. Show me you’re better than the brand I actually use!”

In the social world, and especially among social technology Purists, the wisdom is the opposite. You’re supposed to stop pretending you have no competitors and talk about them whenever they do something interesting. My colleague Jeremiah Owyang (though he’s hardly a Purist) calls this one of the “impossible conversations” in the groundswell and explains that not talking about competitors is "welded deeply into nearly every corporate culture." 

Here’s my problem. One of the other sacred tenets we’re supposed to uphold in the groundswell is to “be authentic.” I strongly agree with this – pretending to be something that you’re not is a big mistake, because you will be found out, and there will be a backlash. But what if you authentically believe your company’s products are the best? Shouldn’t you say so? Why give props to the other guys?

This is real dilemma, especially as more corporations start building social strategies. It’s an archetypal example of the Purist/Corporatist spectrum, with the Purists holding up their competitors and the Corporatists saying “we’re not gonna give those other guys free publicity.”

As usual in these debates, I try to find an appropriate middle ground. And the principle here is “Don’t try to prohibit conversation about your competitors – you’ll lose out. But when speaking yourself, you don’t need to bring up the competition. Just don’t always behave as if they don’t exist."

For example: you run a community of your customers and similar people. People in your community insist on talking about your competitor’s product. What should you do? Certainly, don’t shut them off – they’ll just bug out and talk about the competition somewhere else. Instead, join the conversation, and respectfully offer your perspective.

You write a blog. Should you blog about the competitor’s products or announcements? You don’t have to, but if everyone is talking about it, you might be better off. That’s what HP blogger Eric Kintz did in response to Jonathan Schwartz’ blog post about HP.

Should you twitter about the other guy? Again, only if you’re trying to make a point of your own. 

I agree with Jeremiah (I asked him about this in an email) that talking about the competition shows confidence. People will respect that. But if you really think their announcement isn’t worth commenting on – and nobody else is talking about it either, then don’t bring it up. But if they are talking about it, you'll look silly if you don't give them credit for what they do well, then articulate your own position/

And I think that’s a position people in real companies can live with.

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Comments

Mukund Mohan

It depends on the type of company, your industry etc. So in my perspective its not a black or white conversation. Your middle ground approach while trying to find the shades of gray does not answer the question. Neither does Jeremiah's approach nor the "purists".

Unfortunately as most difficult questions, this is answered best by "it depends". It depends on your size, your industry, your customer and their knowledge of the industry and many other factors.

Most people dont realize the 80% of the time your real competition is the easy approach. For e.g. the real competition to Intuit TurboTax is not TaxCut but paper based filing.

Geoff Livingston

In my mind this transcends social media. In every PR firm I've worked in we taught our clients to talk about competitors, but not to bash them. Reporters and analysts know there's competition and to ignore that would be foolish.

Joshua Konkle

Hi Josh

These competitive issues are researched daily by a good industry sales and marketing group. Sales, the front lines, deal with competitive product discussions regularly.

The critical element is a) avoid denigrating your competitor(s) b) manage the time spent on your products.

Traditional marketeers may be challenged with these issues in written form.

The most experienced in dealing with this situation, albeit live not written, would be sales engineers, product managers, technical evangelists, etc.

The goal is to have your audience thinking positively about your product, post haste!

Donald Trump has good advice on competition from creating it to managing it...
http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/post/PLNKCN0PUUPW6QQB

JK

Search Engine Optimization Journal

We'd have to agree with one of the commenters up above saying "it depends". It truly does. We wish there was an easy middle ground for choices such as these but fact is, you need to think deeply in terms of whether it will benefit or hurt your business to mention them. You can acknowledge their existence without necessarily bringing up their name as the more the name is brought up - negatively or positively...it's exposure.

Julie Gomoll

Should we blog about our competitors? It's a moot point, imo. It sounds quite similar to executives asking "should we participate in this new-fangled social media movement?"

It's about transparency now. If you *don't* blog about your competitors, you'll look/sound like you're trying to hide something.

Your competitors are out there doing their thing whether you blog about them or not. You might as well participate in the discussion about them.

Melfi

Completely agree with SEOJ. It really depends on the circumstances. For a client that has a product already on the market, I would say it is ok to mention the competition. As Geoff said, reporters and analysts know there are others in your space.

In yesterday's WSJ, the CEO of Burger King mentioned McDonalds, Taco Bell, and BK had all increased the quality of food on their menus. It made sense to reference his competitors because he was speaking on the positive change in the fast food industry as a whole.

However, I would not advise my clients in biotech for example to reference failed clinical trials of other company's when the client is still in testing. There is no need bringing a negative light on another's failure when you do not know if you will succeed.

Gerald Buckley

Mom always said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

I'm frequently genuinely admiring something a competitor has done. Sometimes I'll even talk about it (with them or others). Having confidence in your own ability to compete shines through in how you carry yourself, how you're perceived by both your customers and your competition and it opens FAR many more doors than it closes.

So, yes, talk about your competition with honesty and integrity when you must talk about them at all. Your credibility will instantly be taken up a notch.

Malcolm Kass

This question is really more of an academic question, and most consumer behavior academics would also say that it depends. Is being more transparent important? Yes. But you still have to apply the marketing principles that we have learned in Marketing 101. If not, we fall into the same marketing exec. mistakes that happened during the dot com boom.

I would love to see more academic research regarding the value of discussing the competition, esp. if we can infer that anything really has changed from the social community uprising. Can anyone help me out?

Peer Lawther

I've embraced this position over the past few years. While running corporate blogs and forums for a video games publisher in my last role I actively discussed the other products in genre and also, where appropriate, let fans have on-going threads about rival games.

I felt that if I approached it honestly, talked with (potential) customers in a trustworthy manner, differentiated between ours and any rival products, highlighted where our product excels (USPs) etc then we'd be viewed in a mature way. We'd also hold on to the fans on our forums/blogs (rather than losing them to the rival half the time) as they knew they could chat openly about them without fear of "censorship".

I've also found that it silences a lot of the critics/trolls who are genuinely surprised when I've not only mention a rival product but know its good and bad points.

It can and has freaked out higher management when I've talked in this way about a rival, but it's always reinforced a bond with the customer - which, let's face it, is what it's all about.

Kuki McKinsey

I agree to comments that you can't ignore competition, so you better mention it, though the social media has given a tool to CEOs these days in the form of blogs, where they are ranting it out against competition in open! Case in point www.scottragsdale.com CEO, naseba, which I chanced upon while browsing. What can be the impact of this?

Laibeus Lord

Ah, well said and great article.

I strongly agree. That's what I always do with the communities (especially corporate/official forums) of the company I work for. After leaving them, they started reversing things, and their community started to go hostile against them.

Same with Peer Lawther above. For someone in the Philippines where majority of Asian Companies are still living in the "Old Way", it is super duper hard to work.

I've always believe in talking about your competitors if the people and the community are talking about it, and turning it around for your own products' endorsement.

Always worked. I will never understand the "Old Way" or as you refer to them "Corporatists".

george tomas

Melfi,
your mother was a true woman

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