Stiff Competition

You were an innovator in your category. You built your ‘big’ idea into a profitable business. You have been very successful.  Tenure, reputation, professionalism, and committed clientele are all in your favor.  All of a sudden, the competition catches up to you.  Now what?  How do you retain your clients?  How do you enhance your acquisition of new clients? How do you effectively compete and embrace your competition?  Read, learn, and take your company to its next level of success.

Are you in a Comfort Zone?

A former client owned a very successful sporting event company for over 30 years. His professional creativity, business savvy, and ability to connect and engage with people earned him tremendous success in a very targeted industry.  During most of his tenure managing and growing his event company, the regional competition was minimal… until the last 5-10 years.  

Many business owners secure their competitive edge for many years and continue to do the great things that they are doing to retain their success.  However, when you are not being constantly challenged by your competition, many become very secure in their existing strategies and client base, sometimes losing sight of required changes and the risk-taking that comes with running a successful business in today’s world.  Others get stuck in the way they always did things, believing that old strategies will continue to work in the same way they did in the past. 

Let’s explore what an existing tenured event business experienced when challenged with new competition. And then let’s explore how to rethink change and why it is so important to continued growth.  We will start with the topic of competition…

Win, Gain, Defeat, Establish…or Embrace?

The word compete means, “a person or group that strives to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same.”  Wow, this definition sounds very aggressive, defeating, and negative. 

I view business competition in a very different way than the definition we just recited. Today, there are over 7 billion people living on Earth. The Internet allows access to a significant portion of those people. There are enough clients and customers in your target audience to go around.  Target audiences, even if targeting very specific niches, are abundant. 

Having a competitive edge remains important, but directly competing to ‘defeat or establish superiority’ is not always necessary and produces fear, anger, and anxiety. So should you embrace your competition or compete with them?  My recommendation is to embrace your competition.

Why don’t Authors Compete?

A blog post written by Seth Godin, captures an important notion about embracing competition.  It actually appeared on my email the same day I was struggling with a critical decision for the sporting event company that I was managing.  My decision had to do with embracing our competition vs. directly going head to head with them:

Why don’t authors compete?  There’s an apocryphal story of a guy who went for his final interview for a senior post at Coca-Cola. At dinner, he ordered a Pepsi. He didn’t get the job.

And most packaged goods companies would kill to be the only product on the shelf, to own the category in a given store. Yet, not only do authors get along, they spend time and energy blurbing each other’s books. Authors don’t try to eliminate others from the shelf, in fact, they seek out the most crowded shelves they can find to place their books. They eagerly pay to read what everyone else is writing… Can you imagine Tim Cook at Apple giving a generous, positive blurb to an Android phone? And yet authors do it all the time. 

It’s one of the things I’ve always liked best about being a professional writer. The universal recognition that there’s plenty of room for more authors, and that more reading is better than less reading, even if what’s getting read isn’t ours. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s an infinite game, one where we each seek to help ideas spread and lives change. 

It turns out that in most industries in the connection economy, that’s precisely what works. People happily tweet each other’s handles to their followers and give references to others that are looking for jobs. When a business that’s comfortable not having 100% market share happily recommends a competitor, they’re sending a signal about trust and confidence and most of all, about feeding the community first. The competition isn’t the person next to you on the web, or the store. The competition is none-of-the-above.”

Seth Godin

Seth’s reference about sending a signal about ‘trust and confidence, and feeding the community first’ significantly resonated with me.  When we create a hostile, competitive environment, it is usually driven by fear – fear of losing a business, fear of not making enough money, and/or fear of losing power.  When you go ‘head-to-head’ with a competitor, you are demonstrating your fear; not your power, intelligence and determination. But when you embrace a competitor, you are demonstrating your confidence, smarts, and business savvy. 

A Decision to Embrace the Competition

I took over management of my friend ‘Todd’s’ sporting event company while he was battling a tough illness.  When I first took over management of the company, the competition changed drastically.  In addition to a few local event companies that were slowly expanding over the last few years, a new company appeared that was created by a person who formerly worked for our event company.  This person spent several years learning and mentoring with Todd.  Unfortunately, he left our company on negative terms and was determined to build a very similar company, competing aggressively against our company and working hard to damage our reputation.   Although our company was still the largest, most professionally managed, and most tenured local sporting event company in our local region, within a few short months, our competitive environment had drastically changed. 

Embracing the community that our event company served was a top priority for me.  However, in the past, Todd disagreed with that approach, keeping his perceived competition very far away.  Yet, many of these perceived competitors were also our target audience and could bring large groups of our target market to our sporting events. I wanted to use our significant, professional, and very tenured platform to create a non-competitive, friendly atmosphere and build and promote everyone in our community.  My desire was for our company to become the core-marketing platform for all perceived competitors. 

Todd had a difficult time with this concept. He felt that by embracing the competition, we were taking away from our company and we were minimizing the prestige that we built. However, I believed that by embracing this sporting community, engaging them, and making them a part of our business in strategic ways, we could jumpstart our growth and re-establish the competitive edge that we had secured for so long. 

Although Todd and I differed in our competitive approaches, I compromised in my approach and began to indirectly embrace our community through different creative and relevant marketing tactics including loyalty and incentive programs, gifts, parties and promotions. 

What Makes You Unique?

Every business is unique and you need to really be clear about:

  • your purpose and what problem your product or service is solving, 
  • who your target audience is 
  • how you are currently communicating with your clients

When thinking about these specific pieces of the puzzle, you can identify unique and compelling ways to engage clients and continually demonstrate and remind them about why they need your product or service.

Defining Loyalty

As long as you know your customer, loyalty programs are a very effective way to retain and ‘wow’ your customers.  What is loyalty and how do you create it?

“Loyal customers understand that there’s almost always something better out there, but they’re not so interested in looking… Tell a story that appeals to loyalists. Treat different customers differently, and reserve your highest level of respect for those that stand by you.” Seth Godin

“Get closer than ever to your customers.  So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” Steve Jobs

“The key is to set realistic customer expectations, and then not just to meet them, but to exceed them – preferably in unexpected and helpful ways.” Richard Branson

Godin, Jobs and Branson teach us how to create loyal clients and customers.  It actually is simple.  If you have a product or service that is solving a problem for a specific target audience, just treat that customer like gold and constantly pay attention and address their needs and feedback.  You will find that they will stick around for a while!!

Loyalty Analysis 

During my time at the sporting event company, we knew we had a strong, targeted, loyal client base that attended our events for four key reasons: 

  1. Athletes were in great hands; our events were extremely professional and organized, optimizing customer safety at all times.
  2. Buying Local; our events were local and did not require incremental travel and expense.
  3. Challenge and Diversity; our courses provided a diversity of distances and challenges for our athletes.
  4. Tasty Food & Drink; Our events offered great post-race food and drink options.  Food and drink are always key!!

However, we lost sight of a few important influencers that impacted the loyalty of our target audience…

  1. We started to put less emphasis on the gifts and perks we provided to our participants. Hence, our ‘wow’ factor had diminished.
  2. We did little to recognize our loyal customers who participated in multiple events within the season.
  3. We did not engage and support the clubs and teams participating in our events. Many of these groups and clubs consisted of large, dedicated followings.
  4. We did not engage and integrate our partners and sponsors beyond the event day and a few online newsletter articles.

We conducted some analysis on our sporting event customer database and discovered that a significant portion of our client database was sourced from our regional area and mainly participated in just one of our 13 events.  Our company executed more than 10 sporting events each season.  So, with most clients only participating in only one event, there was a tremendous opportunity to focus on turning our 1-time event clients into 2 and 3-time event clients (or more).  But how?  

Loyalty Strategies

We started with some simple improvements to get us back on track and aligned with our competition.  Our clients already paid a substantial fee for our type of event, which was competitive with other events of similar caliber.  Clients always received a quality, logo’d sports shirt, but their goodie bags had a lot to be desired.  We thought about how we could change that, fund it, and utilize and negotiate with our new business partners who could contribute to those enhancements.  Now, when clients came to pickup their event registration packets, they received a reusable bag with relevant items including nutrition bars, gadgets, discounts and much more.  

In addition, we added a customer loyalty initiative.

Every time clients signed up for one of our events, they accumulated loyalty points towards future events.  If they exceeded specific hurdles and did more than 2 events within the season, they could apply their earned points towards the following season’s events.  The primary goal was for clients to earn points for next season by doing more than 2 events this season.  Again, the focus was to move our 1-event clients to 2 or more events per season.

We went a bit further and also created a unique, fun incentive competition among our customers to incent them to do our events.  Before announcing this new competition, we invited several key members of our sporting event community, partners and sponsors, key staff, and some key athletes to an event launch party.  At the party, we announced the new competition, which included a significant dollar amount for a first, second and third place award.  This award was partially funded by some of our sponsors and partially by our company.  The competition focused on customer teams and clubs.  The more events that the athletes from these teams and clubs participated in, the more points their team/club accumulated.  The team/club with the most points at the end of the season, would win the cash awards.  The focus here was to embrace our community through the support of teams and clubs and provide them incentive to encourage their teams and club members to do our events.

During the season, we were able to utilize the competition throughout our marketing communications via all channels and social media and keep the momentum and excitement about the competition going.  It was a great way to create new loyalty and excitement throughout the season and eventually became its own marketing campaign.

We created our own competition

Yes, we created our own ‘competition’. But we created a fun, engaging competition. Our competition was not based on sports statistics and race winners.  It was based on participation throughout the season.  Our company would also throw in bonus points for customers who attended partner fundraisers, who volunteered at our events and partner events, and who attended relevant trainings and seminars.  Our goal was to also expand the incentive competition to include some competitor sporting events and help grown the regional sporting event industry, bringing more customers to our regional community for every company’s events.  Our 3 primary goals were to:

  1. Embrace our competition
  2. Develop our local industry
  3. Grow our business

The first two goals helped accomplish the third one!

We identified an up and coming target market

After introducing new giveaways, parties, loyalty point programs, and a team/club cash incentive, we also introduced a competition for local high schools. We are mentioning this program because it helped to set the stage to develop a future target market and opportunity for our business.  The word ‘future’ is important.  This would not provide a positive benefit today, but, based on reviewing current trends and projecting to the future, we recognized an opportunity that our company had the capability and scale to begin to develop and grow today.

The events that we produced were now being recognized as a college-approved sport for women; men would soon follow.  With this occurring at the college level, trained and accomplished high school athletes within this sporting category would expand over the next several years.  However, many public high school programs did not fund this event category.  There were a few small, individually funded club programs that existed and occasionally competed at our events.  Money was a significant barrier to entry as training was costly and the actual events were costly.  

As a company, our goal was to create a regional competition for this sporting category – a place for these high school athletes to compete locally.  In addition, we would utilize our resources and connections to help them with training and, most importantly, provide a way for them to compete affordably. 

We partnered with another local event company to create the high school competition. In exchange for volunteering at our events, the High School teams/clubs accumulated loyalty points towards their entry fees.  This helped staff our events with relevant people who were very familiar with the sport and it helped to subsidize the student entry fees. Therefore, the two event companies were not losing money.  However:

  • we were expanding community participation by inspiring youth,
  • providing opportunities to learn and compete, and 
  • educating parents about the sport (and also inspiring them to participate also!).  

Identifying future opportunities for growth is critical.  Taking the risk to build and capitalize on those opportunities now (vs. in the future) is even more critical.   This initiative became another opportunity to embrace the competition and benefit the entire community, ultimately leading to our company growth.

Don’t Let Your Partners Manage You!

Let’s talk about some other items that a tenured business may have to manage in order to stay competitive. Business development through aligned partnerships and sponsorships is a key way to get your brand in front of new segments of your target audience.  But, it is critical to think through who would make an ideal partner. When analyzing existing partnerships and selecting new partners and sponsors ensure that you consider the following:

  1. Does this partner or sponsor help you get closer to your vision?  Might be a great ‘name,’ but do they really add value to your product or service and to your clients?
  2. Are you allowed access to your partner’s target audience? Are their clients interested in your product or service?  Are your clients interested in their product or service?  Does the partner’s brand add value to your brand?
  3. Have you reviewed and outlined the specific deliverables for both you and the partner? What will you do for them and what will they do for you?  What opportunities do you have to market to their audience and through what channels?  Ensure everything is documented into a written, signed agreement.
  4. Will this partnership or sponsorship cost you money?  If yes, does the cost offset the opportunity gained?  
  5. What does it take to manage this partner?  Are they a real partner looking out for the best interests of both companies or are they a very demanding partner, always addressing issues and concerns and demonstrating that they have what you need?  If you have a gut feeling here, go with it!  You are probably right!

True partnership?

When I abruptly took over management of Todd’s event company, there were many existing partner agreements and sponsorships that required ongoing management and serious review. As I reviewed the agreements and met with the partners, I realized that many of the agreements cost our company time and money to support the commitments that were in place.  On the surface, they were perceived opportunities for our company. However, in reality, when I actually lived through the time it took to deliver on some of the commitments and assessed the cost, in some cases, it became an expense without any upside.  In addition, some of these companies felt they were doing us a favor and the relationship became one of ‘pleasing’ the partner. It was not a true partnership on both sides.  

Some partners felt they were not getting anything out of the partnership.  However, when we analyzed it and presented our observations, the partner was not putting any proactive efforts into our events and therefore was not seeing any positive results.  For example, when you attend a sporting event, a sponsor will usually set up a table with demonstrations, free samples, and product to sell.  In some of our partner situations, the partners were sending very passive staff to the event who sat behind the table and did not interact with any of the athletes.  In this case, the partner is not doing what needs to be done to support this type of event venue and really capitalize on the true opportunity of the event partnership.

Partnership gone bad

We had an agreement with a big name food company that was supplying food and water for our events.  However, our agreement required us to pickup all of the food and water, deliver it to the sites, setup their tent, and staff their tent the entire event which included all food preparation and cleanup, reporting back with detailed write-ups and pictures, and promoting them throughout the entire season via all of our marketing channels.  Sounded like a great opportunity on paper.  However, when we actually broke down the time and money spent managing all the food sponsor requirements and deliverables, purchasing our own food and water was actually cheaper, more manageable, and less demanding on our staff. In addition, this partner, being a big name food company, felt very entitled to bully our staff and felt entitled to continuously create new demands.  This type of bullying atmosphere is detrimental to all involved.  Both companies should proactively be excited to be a part of a partnership or sponsorship. If there is hesitancy or concern, my best advice is to not move forward.  Another option is to initially test the ground with a small commitment and assess from there.

Evaluating new partners

When it was time to review the sponsorship and partnership plans for the following season, we devised a plan to pursue partners who met the following criteria:

  • Supplied healthy products or services for our clients.  We believe in practicing what you preach.  When you are promoting health and wellness, you should be delivering healthy products to your clients.
  • Actively attending and participating at all events and training programs.
  • Offering locations to support events and trainings.
  • Offering cross-marketing opportunities to a target audience aligned with our clients.
  • Supporting our client gift bags and awards with products and/or services.
  • Having a positive, proactive attitude from the beginning and throughout the contract process.

It is very exciting when a partner or sponsor expresses interest in being a part of your event.  That means that you have something that they need or want. However, ensure the partnership is relevant to you and your clients as well.  Also, if it becomes difficult to agree at the beginning of the relationship, it will most likely be just as difficult to maintain the relationship and keep that partner happy.  Think twice and follow your intuition.

Your Staff & Marketing Plan: What Do They Have in Common?

Another challenge that we encountered when taking over management of Todd’s sporting event company was the intricate staff relationships, dynamics, structure, conflicts, and past promises.  

Our company had three full-time staff, a seasonal team of approximately twenty paid contract staff and a team of volunteers and groups who worked for event credits.  There were several personnel challenges that we had to overcome due to sudden changes in management two weeks prior to the season opening event launch.  And there was significant uncertainty about the future of the company given Todd’s illness and past events with the pivotal employee who left. All of this created fear, anxiety and rumors amongst the staff. 

Employees are not just there to support and operate a company.  They are there to market your company.  Every interaction they have with customers and every time they mention your company to another person, creates an impression that becomes a permanent part of future consumer decisions as to whether they should do business with your company.  How employees represent you and your business to the public impacts your growth, reputation, professionalism and ultimately the bottom line.  Employees are marketers…please don’t forget that! 

So, we had our work cut out for us! Given this challenging employee landscape and the fact that we needed the support of the ‘marketers’ of our company, it would take persistence, patience and lots of learning before we could earn the respect of the staff, rebuild a loyal team, and move beyond the troubled past and rumors.

Control Freak No More!

How does management style play a role here?  In my younger days, I will admit that I used to be controlling. I yearned for perfection and worked hard at creating it.  After years of learning, listening, and observing my controlling nature through the feedback from others, I just learned to start letting go.  I let go of the need to control. Delegation works once you learn to let go.  Creating a responsible, loyal team to help manage is effective and makes your life a lot less stressful.

I will admit, hiring quality personnel and delegating the right tasks and roles are critical, learned skills. But these skills are personally worth mastering as they help to remove stress.   And professionally these skills help lead to more success.  

In order for a team to succeed, you need to become a focused, collaborative team.  That means that each team player has a responsibility.  In the event business, this was even more relevant vs. other industries. Being in the event industry requires an event director to rely on the effectiveness, timeliness and efficiency of a team.  Yes, there are always weak links.  A team learns how to address those weak links, capitalize on the strengths of all team members, and troubleshoot challenges.  

So please let go of your inner ‘control freak’!  It will help your business flourish and minimize your stress levels.  

What have we learned?

  1. In the world of continued growth and success, it is a requirement to step out of your comfort zone and seek change.
  1. EMBRACE your competition in ways that help to expand your target audience.
  1. Properly assess prospective and existing partnerships, sponsorship and business opportunities and keenly listen to your intuition throughout the assessment process.
  1. Your marketing strategy includes everyone on your staff.  Every interaction they have is a marketing opportunity.
  1. Your management style dictates your personal and professional growth.  Let go of that control freak create an effective team of marketers who believe in you and your company!

We can’t wait to learn about your big idea!  We will help you to turn that big idea into a marketable business!