Market Differentiation: How to stand out

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This blog was written by Andy Lambert – Director of Growth at ContentCal

Differentiation is easier said than done. In fact, I’d say it’s up there with one of the most challenging aspects of modern business.

It’s the thing that we battle with on a daily basis because it doesn’t stay static. You might think you have a unique proposition today, but with the pace of modern business, this reality could be very different tomorrow.

Let’s set the scene for the market we operate in here at ContentCal.

Market Differentiation: So. Much. Choice.

In 2012, there were 300 products in the Marketing Technology Software category. Now there is just shy of 7,000.

The majority of these competitors in our space are better funded, have more resources, and already have an established customer base; so set against this backdrop, why would we even bother?

Whenever you are outside a market looking in, it always looks harder to penetrate than it really is.

The more time you spend inside a market, the more you’ll see opportunities for differentiation.

Many see differentiation as ticking off one (or several) of these boxes:

  • Better
  • Faster
  • Cheaper

Market Differentiation: A Misconception

The way most people see ‘differentiation’ is actually wrong.

The notion that market differentiation is based on being better, faster, cheaper is, in turn, rooted in the assumption that people make rational decisions when it comes to the products they buy.

We’d all like to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers, but the reality illustrates anything but. Let’s look at an example:

The SaaS (Software as a Service) industry that we operate in has exploded over recent years.

This has given buyers more choice than they’ve ever had, making the ability to come to a rational decision based on evidence nearly impossible.

While this seems like a curse for any businesses wanting to enter the market, it’s actually a blessing in disguise.

Market Differentiation: Choice is a Blessing

B2B buyers are beginning to behave more like B2C consumers.

In a more consumer-driven world, people naturally search for a sense of belonging and commit to products/businesses that they identify with personally. It’s kind of tribal in the way this manifests itself.

This behaviour is influenced heavily by a ‘brand’ (a point we’ll return to shortly).

It’s not just us feeling this shift, it’s a point that was discussed at length in Des Traynor’s (Co-Founder of Intercom) keynote at SaasStock this year.

From Des Traynor himself:

“Features will not protect you in a SaaS world.”

The point he was making is that in an increasingly commoditized landscape, the ‘feelings’ we elicit from our audience are more important than the ‘features’ of our product/solution.

Market Differentiation: Brand Feelings

Features can be copied. Feelings can’t.

So, differentiation is already looking slightly different to how we might have previously thought about it. Let’s return to the point around ‘brand’.

What is ‘brand’?

I’d personally subscribe to Jeff Bezos’ view here: “Your brand is what people say about your business when you’re not around.”

Basically, it’s all around the feelings.

There are four steps in differentiating your brand:

  • Identify a shift (what’s changing in the industry/market)
  • Create and own a space (what’s your unique take on this and how can you reposition it)
  • Reinforce a theme (the old way vs. your new way)
  • Start a movement (give your shift a name and allow people to identify with what you are about, enabling people to become part of your tribe)

Market Differentiation: A Case Study

This is also where content comes in. Let’s take Hubspot, for example, and how they applied the rules above:

Identify a shift

The way people buy products was changing. Purchases were moving online and being influenced by content. Businesses were becoming less reliant on a salesforce to cold call prospects.

Create and own a space

They came up with the term ‘inbound’ marketing

Reinforce a theme

Hubspot created a number of tools at each stage of the marketing funnel.

Most notably their ‘website grader’ that allows people to see their score as to how ready they were for ‘inbound’ marketing.

They also created an annual event, also called ‘inbound,’ driving this message home and using their early adopters as case studies to create downward pressure on rest of the industry.

Basically FOMO at scale.

Start a movement

Once this theme was reinforced by a metric ton on content, they created a fanatical community on social media that has kept them grow into what they’ve become today.

I would suggest that what I’ve described above presents the biggest opportunity for differentiation, but differentiation can also be sought across your entire business.

Distribution (how and where you market)
Sales (how can you add value to a prospect in their journey)
Customer Service (customer expectations are now much higher, but the opportunity to surprise and delight is key)

Essentially, there’s an opportunity for further differentiation to support the brand message through the entire value chain.

Market Differentiation: Keep it Simple

This point around customer service is a key one. This is something that’s been incredibly powerful to our business, as any interaction with a customer gives you the best opportunity to manifest these ‘feelings’ that we’ve discussed.

In his latest book Talk Triggers, Jay Baer makes this point:

“Surprising and delighting customers, and doing something that’s ‘noteworthy’ and ‘unexpected’ is one of the best ways to engineer positive word of mouth. “

For us at ContentCal, word of mouth has been our most fundamental growth driver.

It’s as simple as recording a personal ‘thank you’ video for signing up, sending someone a t-shirt in the post, or even just sending a birthday card.

It’s unexpected, it has meaning, and it differentiates you from everyone else, regardless of how big or well-developed your competitors are.

Market Differentiation: Things Have Changed

Before becoming one of the founders of ContentCal, I’d spent my career in Sales. Since then, it’s changed. A lot.

Customers now have all the power and all the choice.

They tell us how they want to be sold to, and with so much information at hand, decision-making has changed.

We now live in a world of infinite supply.

The playbook we use for acquiring customers has changed; we can’t keep playing the same playbook. Customers have the power so we have to change.

This shift will be driven by a strong brand message and purpose, delivering ‘talk worthy’ moments and experiences for customers and prospects, and engineering word of mouth at scale through social and content.

Differentiation is now not about the Product. It’s all about the Person and the Brand.

How do you feel about market differentiation? Let us know over on Twitter at @ContentCal_io

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