Just when you thought you’d left these middle school nuisances behind, you see something come across your Instagram feed that looks shockingly familiar. A little too familiar…
You overhear a newcomer to a networking event with an elevator pitch that you’ve heard before. That you’ve delivered before…
Copycat competitors are lurking everywhere, regardless of what industry you work in. And with the proliferation of online content and widely shared ideas, it’s easier than ever for someone to pick up your trail and start mimicking your every move.
If you haven’t experienced copycat competition yet, chances are, you will at some point down the road.
Since getting off the Internet and conducting business by smoke signal isn’t exactly a viable option, how can you set yourself apart and stay one step ahead of your copycat competition? And are there any ways that copycats can actually help you stand out from the crowd?
Read on to learn more about how you can stay ahead of your copycats and mute their impact.
Step One: Own Your Niche
Chances are, if you have a business of any sort, you also have a niche. Whether you cater to Colorado newlyweds seeking unique honeymoon itineraries or repair air conditioners in government buildings, you know your market and how to reach them.
When you work your niche, you gain visibility in and develop strong relationships with others in that niche. Typically, you don’t have a lot of competition within that niche, and you stand out from the crowd simply because it’s such a specialized portion of the market.
When copycats try to enter the scene, they may be watching your moves and try to gain an edge in that niche – whether it be geographically based or product driven.
However, the copycat is at an immediate disadvantage because they don’t have the track record and trust that you’ve already established.
Step Two: Be the Expert
In a similar vein, copycats will find it hard to replicate your products, services and ideas if you’re already an established expert in your field. A strong web presence goes a long way in solidifying your expertise and helping you to build a loyal following.
Even though your website and social media accounts may provide fodder for your copycat to feast on, you also gain the online home field advantage when you’re the first or most vocal expert in your area. For this reason, it’s critical to stay on top of your editorial schedule and publish regular blog posts.
You also need to stay active on your business social media accounts and engage followers, especially those who might have questions and concerns when they notice a copycat competitor moving in your space.
If your niche is already loyal to your brand and turns to you for expert opinions and advice, you have already won the battle.
Your competitors might try to win new customers with flashier graphics or gimmicky campaigns, but don’t let their underhanded techniques stand in for the quality expertise that you have to offer.
Step Three: Protect What’s Yours
Sometimes, you need to go a step further to protect your company’s assets from copycat competitors. If you have a physical product that can be patented, then by all means, patent it.
Similarly, if you have intellectual assets or proprietary designs, look into the proper legal channels for protecting them. Small business owners and firms often overlook the importance of legal protection for assets (physical and virtual) that are rightly theirs.
Often, the expenses of filing patents and seeking legal representation to ensure that you have all of your “t”s crossed and “i”s dotted are daunting. But the expense of having your hard work cloned or stolen by a copycat competitor is far higher.
A word of caution: not everything can be copyrighted, patented or otherwise legally protected by the state or federal government.
For example, your social media posts can be stolen and distributed as much as any copycat pleases and there’s not much you can do about it.
If you think you have a product that can be patented or otherwise legally protected, talk to a lawyer about the possibility of pursuing this approach to safeguarding your hard work.
Step Four: Add Value to Everything You Touch
Would-be copycats have a significant disadvantage when it comes to copying the things you do for your brand and customers, because they can really only see those things that you make publicly available.
For the most part, your business is probably conducted in places like your email inbox, company conference rooms or across the table at a local coffee shop. Unless you’ve got a business partner who’s looking to undercut you, a copycat is going to have a hard time figuring out exactly what happens in your day to day interactions.
This is a huge opportunity for you to outsmart wannabes by simply making interactions and transactions with your business as valuable as possible. If your customers love working with you, they won’t even notice when your copycat tries to mimic the external components of your business plan.
Remember: The outer workings of your business are only the tip of the iceberg. It’s what’s below the surface that truly matters.
Step Five: Be Honest About Your Competition
At some point in time, you very likely will face copycat competition. When this happens, you’ll need to remain honest and aboveboard to stay ahead.
A copycat who comes in and tries to claim your territory is a follower, not a leader. This means that you don’t need to bother yourself with trying to sniff out their next move or beat them at their own game – you wrote the rule book, after all!
If you have legal channels that you can challenge your competitor through, such as in the case of copyright infringement, utilize them. If you need to engage your copycat for some reason or another, do it.
You don’t need to worry about whether engagements will compromise your position. You’re the one with a position your copycat envies and wants to emulate. You’ve already got the upper hand.
Step Six: Keep Your Cards Close to Your Chest
That being said, make sure you don’t do things that will give your copycat an advantage that could push them ahead. If you’re open about everything you’re doing as a business owner and share your future ideas or details about product development, expect to be copied.
In order to keep copycats from beating you at your own game, keep your cards close to your chest. Share important information and market the hell out of an amazing new product you have coming down the line.
But only do so after you’ve got all your ducks in a row. Don’t unveil something while it’s in development or months away from viability.
Think back to your grade school days and the measures to which teachers went to keep children from copying from one another during a big test. I had one teacher who assigned us large folders to stand up at the corners of our desks so that wayward eyes wouldn’t find what they needed to cheat.
Now, consider ways that you can put big folders up in the corners of your work desk as you chip away at secret projects or special ideas.
It’s not that hard to keep your plans from prying eyes, but you do need to be aware that they’re probably out there waiting for you to slip something secret.
Step Seven: Don’t Let Social Media Undermine Your Creative Process
Social media is an ideal place for your copycats to gather the information they need to poach your business. However, your social media presence is essential for reaching your customers where they’re ready to interact with your marketing messages.
How can you utilize social media for good without giving too much away to your competitors?
For the most part, you can keep doing whatever works for you. The thing about social media competition – and social media in general – is that the rapid paced interactions and visibility don’t allow anything to linger for too long.
Someone has got to work pretty hard to poach your strategy through social media posts alone. Similarly, if they do start to emulate your social media sales techniques, it may be much harder than they think to reach the broadcast-ability that you’ve already won with your audience.
And if someone does manage to break through, it’ll become pretty obvious that they’re a fraud posing behind your pictures. While it can be a true headache to sort out accounts that outright steal and redistribute your social media content, ultimately this strategy is not going to get your competitor very far, since they can only replicate your posts and not your core product offerings.
Bottom line: Don’t get too sidetracked with social media “dos” and “don’ts” and be genuine in your social media interactions.
Step Eight: Shake Off the Interference
When copycat competitors come ‘round to try and poach your customers and market share, you can easily stay many steps ahead by keeping your cards close and building trust and loyalty among your followers.
Remember, copycats are copying you because they don’t have much else to offer. And while it’s a huge frustration to deal with someone shadowing your every step, in the long run, your copycats will get burned out and find someone else to leach off of.
Keep doing what works for your brand, work your niche and be the expert so that your loyal customers don’t have any reason to head off to a nearby competitor – even if it looks like they offer the same products or services that you do.
Is your website working to help you deflect copycat competition? Your SEO, blog and marketing mix should work together to help you stand out from the crowd.