Can you guess who’s the most popular person on the recently launched Google+? According to Social Statistics, it’s Facebook’s own Mark Zuckerberg. At last count, Zuckerberg had 225,849 friends—more than anyone else on the new service, including Google’s founders.
Zuckerberg isn’t the type of CEO/president who’s sitting around with loads of time on his hands. Nor is he pining for social networking friends—he already has 4.7 million friends at Facebook. Perhaps his thinking is that the best way to beat a rival is to join them?
As the media reported last week, Google+’s big advantage over Facebook is Circles. Think of them as circular file folders of friends. You create categories, such as “gym friends,” “college buds” and “biz contacts.” Then you drag incoming friends into the appropriate Circles. Best of all, each Circle experiences only those friends in that group, limiting what different groups of friends can see—meaning that your colleagues at work will never know what your party friends said to you this morning. You can bet Zuckerberg & Co. are developing something right now that will mimic Google+’s Circles and raise the stakes accordingly.
So what’s the take-away for small business owners? To stay ahead of your competitors, sometimes you need to become one of their best customers.
Sounds like a no-brainer—but it’s not. Many small businesses dismiss their rivals as inconsequential and may unknowingly instill a top-down culture that trashes the competition. The unintentional result, however, is that employees ignore rivals or are too fearful to mention interesting things about them in a positive light.
What Zuckerberg demonstrates here is that whether you own a bakery or an online retail operation, one way to stay ahead of the curve is to eat your rivals’ cupcakes or buy things at their sites. Study how your competitors market, how they interact with customers, how they respond to satisfy their needs, and the quality of the products and services they provide.
And, you should encourage your staff to do the same. Employees are typically fearful of mentioning the competition and won’t point out interesting aspects of a rival unless you’ve made it safe to do so. Setting up regular meetings specifically for this purpose might be ideal. You may also set ground rules ensuring that rivals’ pros and cons aren’t praised or trashed, just objectively examined and compared to what your company offers—free from snide remarks.
As you and your team study your rivals, be sure to take notes. While Zuckerberg’s bold stroke generated chuckles of admiration, you can be sure that his Facebook team is performing a careful analysis of Google+ to determine its initial strengths and weaknesses. Then they’re going to use the analysis not only to track their rival’s progress but also to stimulate new ways of thinking about improving Facebook’s features.
When asked about Zuckerberg’s move, a Facebook spokesperson said in The New York Times last week, “There are opportunities for innovation everywhere.” So true. Handled correctly, tracking your competitors can function as a mirror, helping you see how your company can improve and perform at a higher level.
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