The Importance of Being Different: Creating a Competitive Advantage With Your USP

Posted by TrentonGreener

“The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

While this quote has been credited to everyone from Francis Phillip Wernig, under the pseudonym Alan Ashley-Pitt, to Einstein himself, the powerful message does not lose its substance no matter whom you choose to credit. There is a very important yet often overlooked effect of not heeding this warning. One which can be applied to all aspects of life. From love and happiness, to business and marketing, copying what your competitors are doing and failing to forge your own path can be a detrimental mistake.

While as marketers we are all acutely aware of the importance of differentiation, we’ve been trained for the majority of our lives to seek out the norm.

We spend the majority of our adolescent lives trying desperately not to be different. No one has ever been picked on for being too normal or not being different enough. We would beg our parents to buy us the same clothes little Jimmy or little Jamie wore. We’d want the same backpack and the same bike everyone else had. With the rise of the cell phone and later the smartphone, on hands and knees, we begged and pleaded for our parents to buy us the Razr, the StarTAC (bonus points if you didn’t have to Google that one), and later the iPhone. Did we truly want these things? Yes, but not just because they were cutting edge and nifty. We desired them because the people around us had them. We didn’t want to be the last to get these devices. We didn’t want to be different.

Thankfully, as we mature we begin to realize the fallacy that is trying to be normal. We start to become individuals and learn to appreciate that being different is often seen as beautiful. However, while we begin to celebrate being different on a personal level, it does not always translate into our business or professional lives.

We unconsciously and naturally seek out the normal, and if we want to be different—truly different in a way that creates an advantage—we have to work for it.

The truth of the matter is, anyone can be different. In fact, we all are very different. Even identical twins with the same DNA will often have starkly different personalities. As a business, the real challenge lies in being different in a way that is relevant, valuable to your audience, and creates an advantage.

“Strong products and services are highly differentiated from all other products and services. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.” – Austin McGhie, Brand Is a Four Letter Word

Let’s explore the example of Revel Hotel & Casino. Revel is a 70-story luxury casino in Atlantic City that was built in 2012. There is simply not another casino of the same class in Atlantic City, but there might be a reason for this. Even if you’re not familiar with the city, a quick jump onto Atlantic City’s tourism website reveals that of the five hero banners that rotate, not one specifically mentions gambling, but three reference the boardwalk. This is further illustrated when exploring their internal linking structure. The beaches, boardwalk, and shopping all appear before a single mention of casinos. There simply isn’t as much of a market for high-end gamblers in the Atlantic City area; in the states Las Vegas serves that role. So while Revel has a unique advantage, their ability to attract customers to their resort has not resulted in profitable earnings reports. In Q2 2012, Revel had a gross operating loss of $35.177M, and in Q3 2012 that increased to $36.838M.

So you need to create a unique selling proposition (also known as unique selling point and commonly referred to as a USP), and your USP needs to be valuable to your audience and create a competitive advantage. Sounds easy enough, right? Now for the kicker. That advantage needs to be as sustainable as physically possible over the long term.

“How long will it take our competitors to duplicate our advantage?”

You really need to explore this question and the possible solutions your competitors could utilize to play catch-up or duplicate what you’ve done. Look no further than Google vs Bing to see this in action. No company out there is going to just give up because your USP is so much better; most will pivot or adapt in some way.

Let’s look at a Seattle-area coffee company of which you may or may not be familiar. Starbucks has tried quite a few times over the years to level-up their tea game with limited success, but the markets that Starbucks has really struggled to break into are the pastry, breads, dessert, and food markets.

Other stores had more success in these markets, and they thought that high-quality teas and bakery items were the USPs that differentiated them from the Big Bad Wolf that is Starbucks. And while they were right to think that their brick house would save them from the Big Bad Wolf for some time, this fable doesn’t end with the Big Bad Wolf in a boiling pot.

Never underestimate your competitor’s ability to be agile, specifically when overcoming a competitive disadvantage.

If your competitor can’t beat you by making a better product or service internally, they can always choose to buy someone who can.

After months of courting, on June 4th, 2012 Starbucks announced that they had come to an agreement to purchase La Boulange in order to “elevate core food offerings and build a premium, artisanal bakery brand.” If you’re a small-to-medium sized coffee shop and/or bakery that even indirectly competed with Starbucks, a new challenger approaches. And while those tea shops momentarily felt safe within the brick walls that guarded their USP, on the final day of that same year, the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew a stack of cash all over Teavana. Making Teavana a wholly-owned subsidiary of Starbucks for the low, low price of $620M.

Sarcasm aside, this does a great job of illustrating the ability of companies—especially those with deep pockets—to be agile, and demonstrates that they often have an uncanny ability to overcome your company’s competitive advantage. In seven months, Starbucks went from a minor player in these markets to having all the tools they need to dominate tea and pastries. Have you tried their raspberry pound cake? It’s phenomenal.

Why does this matter to me?

Ok, we get it. We need to be different, and in a way that is relevant, valuable, defensible, and sustainable. But I’m not the CEO, or even the CMO. I cannot effect change on a company level; why does this matter to me?

I’m a firm believer that you effect change no matter what the name plate on your desk may say. Sure, you may not be able to call an all-staff meeting today and completely change the direction of your company tomorrow, but you can effect change on the parts of the business you do touch. No matter your title or area of responsibility, you need to know your company’s, client’s, or even a specific piece of content’s USP, and you need to ensure it is applied liberally to all areas of your work.

Look at this example SERP for “Mechanics”:

While yes, this search is very likely to be local-sensitive, that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out. Every single AdWords result, save one, has only the word “Mechanics” in the headline. (While the top of page ad is pulling description line 1 into the heading, the actual headline is still only “Mechanic.”) But even the one headline that is different doesn’t do a great job of illustrating the company’s USP. Mechanics at home? Whose home? Mine or theirs? I’m a huge fan of Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” and in this scenario there are too many questions I need answered before I’m willing to click through. “Mechanics; We Come To You” or even “Traveling Mechanics” illustrates this point much more clearly, and still fits within the 25-character limit for the headline.

If you’re an AdWords user, no matter how big or small your monthly spend may be, take a look at your top 10-15 keywords by volume and evaluate how well you’re differentiating yourself from the other brands in your industry. Test ad copy that draws attention to your USP and reap the rewards.

Now while this is simply an AdWords text ad example, the same concept can be applied universally across all of marketing.

Title tags & meta descriptions

As we alluded to above, not only do companies have USPs, but individual pieces of content can, and should, have their own USP. Use your title tag and meta description to illustrate what differentiates your piece of content from the competition and do so in a way that attracts the searcher’s click. Use your USP to your advantage. If you have already established a strong brand within a specific niche, great! Now use it to your advantage. Though it’s much more likely that you are competing against a strong brand, and in these scenarios ask yourself, “What makes our content different from theirs?” The answer you come up with is your content’s USP. Call attention to that in your title tag and meta description, and watch the CTR climb.

I encourage you to hop into your own site’s analytics and look at your top 10-15 organic landing pages and see how well you differentiate yourself. Even if you’re hesitant to negatively affect your inbound gold mines by changing the title tags, run a test and change up your meta description to draw attention to your USP. In an hour’s work, you just may make the change that pushes you a little further up those SERPs.

Branding

Let’s break outside the world of digital marketing and look at the world of branding. Tom’s Shoes competes against some heavy hitters in Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and Puma just to name a few. While Tom’s can’t hope to compete against the marketing budgets of these companies in a fair fight, they instead chose to take what makes them different, their USP, and disseminate it every chance they get. They have labeled themselves “The One for One” company. It’s in their homepage’s title tag, in every piece of marketing they put out, and it smacks you in the face when you land on their site. They even use the call-to-action “Get Good Karma” throughout their site.

Now as many of us may know, partially because of the scandal it created in late 2013, Tom’s is not actually a non-profit organization. No matter how you feel about the matter, this marketing strategy has created a positive effect on their bottom line. Fast Company conservatively estimated their revenues in 2013 at $250M, with many estimates being closer to the $300M mark. Not too bad of a slice of the pie when competing against the powerhouses Tom’s does.

Wherever you stand on this issue, Tom’s Shoes has done a phenomenal job of differentiating their brand from the big hitters in their industry.

Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get.

This is worth repeating. Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get, whether that be in title tags, ad copy, on-page copy, branding, or any other segment of your marketing campaigns. Online or offline, be different. And remember the quote that we started with, “The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

The amount of marketing knowledge that can be taken from this one simple statement is astounding. Heed the words, stand out from the crowd, and you will have success.

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Panda 4.0, Payday Loan 2.0 & eBay’s Very Bad Day

Posted by Dr-Pete

After a period of relative quiet, MozCast detected a major “temperature” spike in Google’s algorithm at some point on Monday, May 19th. This occurred after some historic lows, including the 3rd coldest day on record (May 11th).

Tuesday afternoon, Google confirmed two updates, Panda 4.0 and Payday Loan 2.0. Matt Cutts tweeted the Panda 4.0 announcement:

Less than an hour earlier, Search Engine Land confirmed the 
Payday Loan 2.0 update. This ended a weekend of wild speculation (including many predictions of a Penguin update), but didn’t leave us with many details about the timeframe or the impact.

Which update was which?

For the moment, we’re going to have to speculate a bit. If the latest iteration of the Payday Loan update is like the first, it hit hard but fairly narrowly. Google laser-targeted some very spammy verticals with Payday Loan 1.0 (back on June 11, 2013), but the overall impact was moderate. That update was also very query-specific. My gut reaction is that it was unlikely that the May 19th update was Payday Loan 2.0 – that update was probably smaller and rolled out over the weekend (possibly May 16th). There was heavy flux around a few potentially spammy queries on May 16th, including “mortgage rate trends” and “cheap apartments”, but competitive queries tend to change frequently, so the evidence is unclear.

Google’s numbering scheme suggests that Panda 4.0 is a major update, which probably means that it is both an algorithmic update and a data refresh. This typically means substantial rankings flux, and I think that’s much more likely connected to what we’re seeing on May 19th. While Matt’s tweet implies a roll-out on May 20th, most Panda updates over the past year have been multi-day roll-outs. We should know more in the next few days.

What happened to eBay?

Digging into the May 19th data (and before Google confirmed anything), I noticed that a few keywords seemed to show losses for eBay, and the main eBay sub-domain fell completely out of the ”
Big 10” (our metric of the ten domains with the most “real estate” in the top 10). Sites shift, and nothing on the level of a keyword means much, so I took a look at the historical eBay data. This is eBay’s share of top 10 rankings for the past week across the MozCast 10K (approximately 94,000 URLs, since not all page-1 SERPs have ten results):

Over the course of about three days, eBay fell from #6 in our Big 10 to #25. Change is the norm for Google’s SERPs, but this particular change is clearly out of place, historically speaking. eBay has been #6 in our Big 10 since March 1st, and prior to that primarily competed with Twitter.com for either the #6 or #7 place. The drop to #25 is very large. Overall, eBay has gone from right at 1% of the URLs in our data set down to 0.28%, dropping more than two-thirds of the ranking real-estate they previously held.

It is entirely possible that this is temporary, and it’s not my intention to “out” eBay – I have no idea if they’ve done anything that merits major ranking changes. This could be a technical issue or a mistake on Google’s part. It’s also worth noting that these results only track the main eBay sub-domain (www.ebay.com), not other ranking sub-domains, including popular.ebay.com.

What exactly did eBay lose?

Looking just at the day-over-day change from May 19-20, I dug into the keywords that eBay lost out on, hoping to find some clues about the broader Google updates. The vast majority of losses were where eBay had one top 10 ranking and then fell out of the top 10. In three cases, eBay lost two top 10 rankings for a single keyword phrase. Those phrases were:

  • “fiber optic christmas tree”
  • “tongue rings”
  • “vermont castings”

Here’s what the top 10 looked like for that first phrase (sub-domain only) on May 19th:

  1. www.kmart.com
  2. www.walmart.com
  3. www.americansale.com
  4. www.sears.com
  5. www.amazon.com
  6. www.christmascentral.com
  7. www.ebay.com
  8. www.ebay.com
  9. www.bronners.com
  10. www.ask.com

eBay held the #7 and #8 spots. Here’s the top 10 for the next morning, May 20th:

  1. www.kmart.com
  2. www.walmart.com
  3. www.sears.com
  4. www.amazon.com
  5. www.americansale.com
  6. www.christmascentral.com
  7. www.bronners.com
  8. www.hayneedle.com
  9. www.dhgate.com
  10. www.alibaba.com

It’s interesting to note that both eBay losses here were category pages, not specific products. Here’s one example (from 
this eBay URL):

For the other two keywords where eBay lost two positions in the top 10, the lost URLs were also category or sub-category pages (not individual auction listings). The remaining losses were either situations where eBay went from two listings to one or one to zero.

Here are the top 25 keywords where eBay lost one top 10 ranking position, ordered by their MozCast temperature:

  1. “beats by dr dre” (231°)
  2. “honeywell thermostat” (190°)
  3. “hooked on phonics” (188°)
  4. “fajate” (188°)
  5. “batman costume” (181°)
  6. “lenovo tablet” (181°)
  7. “pyramid collection” (170°)
  8. “hampton bay” (170°)
  9. “jordan 11 concord” (168°)
  10. “pontoon boats for sale” (168°)
  11. “mockingjay pin” (166°)
  12. “kobe vii” (166°)
  13. “food trucks for sale” (166°)
  14. “galaxy s2” (166°)
  15. “jordan spizike” (163°)
  16. “foamposite” (163°)
  17. “george foreman grill” (161°)
  18. “wholesale jerseys” (161°)
  19. “tend skin” (161°)
  20. “fender stratocaster” (161°)
  21. “rims for sale” (161°)
  22. “shed plans” (158°)
  23. “hello kitty vans” (158°)
  24. “cheap used cars” (158°)
  25. “lilly pulitzer bedding” (156°)

It’s very hard to interpret individual keyword changes, but, not surprisingly, many of these phrases seem to be products and product categories, and some are fairly competitive. Most of these drops seem to be from lower positions in the top 10 – I was unable to find a case where eBay lost a #1 ranking day-over-day.

In one case, it appears that both “www.ebay.com” and “popular.ebay.com” lost out. Here are the top 10 sub-domains for May 19th for the query “hooked on phonics”:

  1. www.hookedonphonics.com
  2. itunes.apple.com
  3. www.amazon.com
  4. en.wikipedia.org
  5. www.youtube.com
  6. popular.ebay.com
  7. popular.ebay.com
  8. www.ebay.com
  9. www.time4learning.com
  10. www.walmart.com

…and here’s the same SERP the morning of May 20th:

  1. www.hookedonphonics.com
  2. learntoread.hookedonphonics.com
  3. itunes.apple.com
  4. en.wikipedia.org
  5. www.youtube.com
  6. popular.ebay.com
  7. www.amazon.com
  8. www.amazon.com
  9. thekrazycouponlady.com
  10. hip2save.com
One page on “popular.ebay.com” kept its spot (this category page), but two narrower category pages lost out. In this particular example, Amazon picked up a top 10 spot, although their highest position dropped. Both Amazon URLs were for specific products, although it’s important not to generalize too much from one example.

What does it mean for you?

I’m sorry to say that it’s probably too soon to tell. We’re hearing reports of big losses and gains, which is the norm for any major update – for every winner, there’s a loser. If Google is to be believed, we’re looking at two sizable updates in the span of a long weekend. It’s possible we’ll see even more changes before the US holiday weekend (Memorial Day), so I’d strongly suggest keeping your eyes open.

Update (May 21st – 9:30AM)

Good follow-up post from Rishi Lakhani about eBay’s internal linking structure. Digging deeper, it looks like all of the URLs of the form “ebay.com/bhp” have disappeared from the rankings, at least within our data set. We’ve collected another day’s worth of data since the post was written, and the situation hasn’t changed. This could be a manual action on Google’s part, but it’s hard to tell.

Google is now saying that Panda 4.0 impacted 7.5% of English-language queries. Despite Matt’s “…starting today” statement on May 20th, I (and others) strongly believe the Panda 4.0 roll-out may have begun over the weekend, and is connected to the May 19th temperature spike.

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