Study the market, and your competition, to find your edge

HISTORICALLY, we chose our doctors, lawyers and dentist from referrals by friends or acquaintances.

Google searches on the internet have changed all of that. Most consumers today get their referrals from online searches. That, in turn, has led to the emergence of search engine optimization. With that said, the world of SEO has not replaced the importance of market differentiation.

For example, we all know about Domino’s Pizza. But what we didn’t know was that the company, founded by Tom Monaghan, verged on bankruptcy almost since its inception.

What led to Monaghan’s eventual success was an important adjustment to his offering. He promised delivery of pizza in 30 minutes or money back. That may not seem very dramatic, but Domino’s became so successful that Monaghan was able to buy the Detroit Tigers and build a new college in South Florida.

Locally, Jeff Hughes, a lawyer by training but a serial entrepreneur by profession, came to the same conclusion when he started his own law firm.

He knew that he needed a successful SEO effort if his new firm was going to succeed. So, he tried all of the traditional ways, both paid and unpaid, to improve SEO results. But he wasn’t having any luck.

Hughes and his partner took a timeout to rethink their business model. They wanted to develop a business that would build trust with potential clients. Their SEO outreach attracted a wide variety of cases and clients, so they were a jack of all trades but master of none.

So, they decided to focus their business primarily on family law. With nearly 50% of marriages ending in divorce, the potential market was huge for handling everything from resolving marital difficulties, to alimony, to child custody and support, to property division.

Next, they did more homework and discovered that most consumers were terrified of potential legal bills. Those fears were justified. Lawyers rarely quoted the total cost of representation for a given legal problem. Most lawyers quote an hourly rate but will not attempt to estimate the total cost of resolving the legal problem (I speak from first-hand knowledge because I was a practicing lawyer for a decade.).

Like Tom Monaghan, Hughes and his partner saw an opportunity to distinguish themselves from other law firms by giving clients a fixed cost for most legal services. If they have a complex litigation case on their hands, they give fixed costs for each stage so clients know where they stand at all times. Clients are often willing to walk away from potential settlements because they don’t fully understand the eventual cost of taking their matter to trial.

Hughes and his partner tested their idea in their local market in Menomonee Falls, and they found it was a winner. In almost no time, they became the number one website for searches of consumers wanting legal help on family matters. Then, they waited to see the client feedback through online reviews post- ed to their website. Eventually, they amassed more than 3,000 positive reviews.

Consequently, they knew they had a proven model to test in other regions by creating local offices in areas of the state such as Madison, Milwaukee and West Bend. They expanded their efforts in the markets that proved the most ripe to growth.

What can you learn from their experience?

  1. That search engine optimization has not changed the rules of the game when it comes to marketing. Your company still has to differentiate itself from the competition, and if you can find after customer research that they are truly distinguishing characteristics, you’ll be off to the races.
  2. That requires you to study your competition and find out how customers generally feel about your competitors. Then, dig deep to find out what potential frustrations or problems consumers might be experiencing and fill that gap with a different offering.
  3. There’s a great deal of talk about innovation through disruptive technology. That’s a heavy lift. Tweaking your value proposition to make it more appealing to consumers is still in vogue and works magic if you can find that burning customer need and fill the gap.

The bottom line is that nothing beats spending time with potential customers – almost like an anthropologist – to determine where you can fill a need that your competition hasn’t been able to fill.

This reminds me of when I practiced law because I learned that the most effective representation would be to understand my client’s needs before making my recommendations or taking action. ■