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Once you fully understand the question, you’ll wonder how any brand (including your own) could function without addressing it.

It’s a query so fundamental that it drives everything that comes after it.

There are only two possible answers, but choosing the wrong one can drive your entire online marketing effort into a dead end.

And lots of websites get the answer wrong, simply because this particular question didn’t occur to them.

And here it is:

“Is this a category sell or a competitive sell?”

Is that clear? No? Well, let me approach it another way:

Are you selling the idea of your product category to people who hadn’t considered it, OR are you selling against your competitors to people who are actively looking?

Read that last paragraph again. Then proceed; I promise this will get clearer.

The Category Sell

You’d employ a category sell approach if you’ve developed a new type of product or product variation. Let’s say it’s a self-driving lawn mower that works like one of those Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. You’ve in essence created a new product category.

In your marketing, you’d be selling the idea of a robot lawn mower to people who maybe could use one, but hadn’t up until now considered it.

Your market could include virtually ALL homeowners, which is an enormous playing field, but you’re hampered by the fact that at this point at least, no one is actively looking for robot lawn mowers.

So, a potentially large, but largely unqualified audience.

Strategically, you’d put your promotional efforts into emphasizing the clear benefits of this this new product category to homeowners who have better things to do than mow their lawn every week.

The category sell is also generally the way to go if you dominate your market. For example, if you’re lucky enough to have a 75% market share, it makes sense promote that product category overall, because you’ll reap 75% of the revenue by default.

The Competitive Sell

Now, let’s say you’ve gained some success, and as often the case, when a product becomes popular, competitors spring up to try to grab a piece of the action.

If I’m one of those competitors, I’m going to compete with you by promoting the fact that my lawn mower’s batteries hold a 12 hour charge (vs. your 6 hours). It also has a special sensor that keeps it from decimating the customer’s flower bed (a known problem with your product). And by the way, my mowers are available in nine designer colors (yours just comes in one).

That’s a competitive sell. Those unique competitive benefits will allow me to peel away some of your ready-to-buy customers.

The Trade-Off

For a category sell, you’re talking to a potentially huge market of ‘unqualified’ buyers – people who might potentially have a need, but aren’t really thinking about it.

For a competitive sell, you’ve got a much smaller audience of primo ‘qualified’ buyers, people who are actively shopping and motivated to buy.

Determining which approach is likely to be most lucrative overall is more of a business decision than a website decision. But once it’s made, it then drives the entire strategic direction of the website.

The Big Mistake

Here’s how companies most often get it wrong on their websites: unless you’re first-to-market with a unique product, or clearly dominate your market, then you should probably be focusing on your competitive advantages.

Here’s why: Soon homeowners will begin searching for robot lawn mowers, most likely clicking on several of the search results, to see what options are out there. If your home page is trying to convince them that they “need” a robot lawn mower, you’ll lose them, because they’re already past that decision. Otherwise, why would they be on your site in the first place?

People who are checking out various providers’ sites are specifically looking for reasons to pick one brand/product over another. That’s where your competitive benefits come in, by showing that you’re better than anyone at satisfying that one add-on perk that’s really important to the buyer.

On the other hand, a unique or new product without much competition risks diluting its core message/benefit by paying too much attention to those same peripheral details. The top of your home page may be devoted to all your nice color options, but if the unique nature and benefit of your product isn’t clear right up front … you’ve lost me. Happens all the time.

Now you see why not thinking this through can mean saying the wrong things to the right people, and vice versa. Happens every day: firms put time, money and effort into creating a company site, then wonder why it’s not getting engagement or responses.

Why don’t all companies start with the ‘category vs competitive’ question up front?

Often it’s because company insiders are approaching this from their own point-of-view instead of getting into their perfect customer’s head.

Or sometimes because it’s more fun to start a website project by picking web themes, fonts and colors.

Or, as suggested earlier, it simply didn’t occur to them.

Who knows. But at least now, if you’re ever in a situation where it would make a difference, that one crucial question just might occur to you.

Need to learn more about strategy? Read An Atlanta Copywriter Shares 3 Surprising Secrets.

Need dedicated help with your company’s online strategy? Contact me to plan a New Site Strategy Session.

Tom Tortorici Inc. | Tom@TomTortorici.com | 770-934-7861 | 3101 Rockaway Rd | Atlanta GA 30341

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