Sizing up your competition with a competitive audit

A 4 minute read written by Sam May 20, 2015

An illustration of three baseballs with a green background

Anyone who follows sports knows that teams are constantly sizing up their competition. They’ll study the stats, consider who’s injured, and assess special skills, like who’s left-handed (or footed). It’s all about trying to get an edge by understanding the opponents.

Similarly, a competitive audit is an activity that’s crucial for ensuring the success of your new website. Whether you’re reviewing an audit as a client, or analyzing comparable sites as a designer, read on for a breakdown of what makes this activity so valuable. I’ll also share some tips and tricks on how we can get the most out of this activity.

So what’s a competitive audit anyway?

Companies and organizations perform competitive audits to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their competitors. These audits are typically broad in scope and examine a wide range of success factors such as marketing strategies, distribution, and customer service.

Keep in mind that such audits aren’t “one size fits all.” An audit for your web project is different.

How? Well, for starters, we’re primarily focused on the quality of the information architecture, content, usability, and design of your competitors’ websites. We also ask ourselves questions like: What makes this competitor’s site so darn unique? How does their site strategically address their marketing goals? These attributes can point to things that your website can improve on, or shed light on gaps that need to be filled.

The value of a competitive audit

Here at Yellow Pencil, we do web design, development, and hosted solutions - we’re experts at it. But when it comes to what you do, you’re the expert. We perform competitive audits because they teach us about your industry and other organizations that operate in the same arena. They also help by informing our project requirements and setting benchmarks on the features and qualities we must surpass to ensure that your finished site exceeds the competition.

As our client, you’ll benefit from this activity by getting a better idea of how others in your industry are solving similar problems on the web. And together, we’ll know more about both the advantages and the drawbacks of common solutions used by your competitors.

Changing up the game plan

Traditionally, the results of a competitive audit are captured in a document listing all the sites that have been analyzed. Each site is accompanied by a description, a collection of screenshots, and a list of pros and cons. Once the research is complete, the document is packaged and sent out to our clients for review.

Now, this isn’t always the ideal approach because a document containing multiple competitors, each with pros and cons, is normally a text-heavy document that requires some arduous reading. There’s also no clear way to define the ranking of all the competitors we’ve audited since websites independently have varying strengths and weaknesses. Such an important document needs to be more user-friendly.

A better way of approaching these audits is to group comparisons by individual features or “patterns,” rather than to analyze each site as a whole.

For example, say that we’re performing a competitive analysis for an academic institution. We can begin answering questions like: Of this group of competitors, how are these sites reaching out to prospective students? Which one does this best? How does each site address donations? Which of these sites has the strongest solutions or patterns to solve this specific problem?

Not only will this make the audit more pleasant to review, but things will also be more organized and we can begin ranking how each competitor site addresses similar problems. In other words, we’re comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

After grouping all the features that each of the sites have in common, we’ll still need to review the aspects of these sites that make them unique. This is where we make a list of each site with a particular feature to be called out.

A league of their own — the comparative audit

So, what if you don’t have many direct competitors in the industry? Is there still any value in doing an audit? The answer is yes! It’s still incredibly valuable to analyze what’s out there. The great thing about building websites is that we never have to reinvent the wheel. There’s always inspiration and lessons to be learned by comparing what sites in other industries are doing to solve relatable problems. We can simply call these comparative audits, rather than competitive audits.

And contrary to that, if you do have lots of direct competitors to your organization, it’s often equally beneficial to review comparable websites to gain more perspective.

Team up

The final (optional) step to get the maximum value out of this activity is for both client and vendor to contribute to the analysis. The feasibility of having this collaborative approach mostly depends on what your needs are as a client. In most cases, we’ll analyze your competitors and present our findings to you, but if there’s an opportunity for us to find time to work together on this, even better. Hearing your perspective on what you think your competitors strengths and weaknesses are on the web can be especially valuable for our creative process.

So there it is! Have any thoughts or suggestions on how we can make competitive audits even better? Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment below!