It happened again last week.
During a call with a client, we were reviewing the About page copy she had drafted for her new website. I read through it and said, “This sounds ok… but it doesn’t sound like you at all.”
“Ugh, I know,” she said. “I hate it! I had been looking at a competitor’s website and it must have gotten into my head. I love her style, but it just doesn’t feel right for me.”
I think all of my clients have fallen into this trap at one point or another.
They feel stuck writing their own copy, so they look for inspiration on other websites. Then they end up with that icky junior high mentality: fit in — or else!
Of course, trying to fit in is a natural human impulse that helps ensure survival. But in the business world, fitting in can be fatal. Looking, sounding, and acting like the others isn’t competing; it’s camouflaging yourself.
Here’s my take on why spending too much time on your competitors’ websites is bad, when it can be helpful, and some ideas for what to do instead.
Why is it bad?
You might subconsciously pick up their voice.
This can be really hard to avoid, especially since each industry tends to share a common type of language and style. But your website should sound like you, not someone else.
You may start second-guessing your own strategy.
Maybe you’ve worked hard to define your niche, but then you remember that all of your competitors are “full service” providers. If they’re all doing it, doesn’t that mean it’s the best way to do it? Absolutely not! Or maybe you’ve written your website copy and then you realize that many of your competitors use certain jargon on their websites. Will your clients think you’re not as smart if you don’t use those same buzzwords? Nope! In fact, they’ll probably be relieved if you don’t.
If you’ve done your homework and have made decisions about your business in a conscious and informed way, stick to your guns and don’t let your competitors undermine your plans.
You have no idea if their website is actually working for them.
Even if you somehow know this competitor is very successful at getting clients, or is getting fabulously wealthy from their business, it’s very unlikely that you know whether their website is the reason for that. Maybe all of their clients are via word of mouth or referral or from a radio ad they run all the time. Maybe their clients actually secretly hate their website and find the copy annoying, hard to read, or difficult to understand.
My point is that just because your competitor’s website looks nice, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doing its job well.
Your business is just different from theirs.
What works for them may not work for you. You are a different person, with different clients, a different way of delivering your service, and a whole variety of factors that make your business unique.
Think about it like physical health. We all know some health nuts who have died young, as well as some heavy smokers who have lived to be 95 years old. Just because we’re all human, doesn’t mean our bodies all work the same way. The same goes for your business. You have to make the choices that are best for your business.
Does this mean you’re not allowed to look at your competitors’ websites at all? Of course not! It’s a type of research that can be very helpful — in certain situations.
When is it a good idea?
It can be helpful to look at your competition… not in order to be more like them, but to see how you can be different.
When you want to make sure others aren’t filling the same need for the same target market.
Any time you’re defining your brand, narrowing your niche, or altering your services, it’s smart to do a little research to make sure there aren’t 1,000 other businesses offering the same thing to the same customers. Even then, keep in mind that having a lot of competition isn't a deal-breaker -- it just means you'll need to work harder to differentiate yourself.
When you need a reminder of what you’re trying NOT to do.
In a lot of old-school service-based industries, there are A LOT of crappy websites that are crappy in similar ways. Lawyers and accountants come to mind… stock photos of gavels and conference rooms and boring copy that sounds like it was written like a robot, anyone? It can be useful to remind yourself of what’s out there so you can do something completely different.
To make sure you’re not leaving out key pieces of information that your potential clients might be looking for.
I’m hesitant to include this one, because there’s a fine line here. Say you’re a wedding photographer and your site currently has pages for About, Services, and Portfolio. But by glancing at other photographers’ sites, you can see you might also want to include some testimonials and a list of publications your work has been featured in. Just make sure that your decision to include additional types of content is based on what’s right for your brand and target market.
What can you do instead?
Here are a few ideas for writing copy for your business that depend less on external research and more on following your internal compass.
Take some time off.
If you’re in the midst of re-writing your website (or any copy, for that matter), make sure you leave a couple days between your online research and the writing itself. This will give your brain time to flush out all the competitor gobbledygook and focus on your clients, your voice, and your brand.
Review your brand.
Before you sit down to write, get re-steeped in your own brand. Go back and read your mission statement and values. Jot down everything you know about your target market or client segments. Remind yourself of what differentiates you and your service. Then start writing once you’re in that head space.
Start writing from scratch.
This is especially helpful if you have existing content (say your website) that you’re overhauling. Give yourself permission to get your new ideas out of your head and onto paper (or laptop screen) before you start looking back at your old content or around at your competitors.
Let it sit.
After you’ve done the writing, don’t look at it for a few days. Then go back and ask yourself some hard questions: does this really sound like me, or am I trying to sound like that other entrepreneur whose work I admire? Does this content help me stand out from my competitors, or does it make me blend in?
Peek into other industries.
It’s funny to me how entrepreneurs often only look at websites in their own industry, when there are other industries that are doing things in innovative ways. If you’re a writer, why not look at how designers organize their portfolios? If you’re a massage therapist, why not check out the websites of potters or other people who work with their hands? Staying in your own little world is a sure-fire way to not innovate.