Lessons in Focus, Free Space, and Fighter Planes with



During #SMWONE’s Casper Vahlgren broke down his best tips and practices for conducting competitive benchmarking


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You know that the people attending a session got what they needed when they refer to it as “the best support group” in the chat. And Senior Strategist Casper Vahlgren definitely understands why some support might be needed for those doing this work. “We have an enormous amount of data available to us, which can be exhausting and overwhelming.”

In “Using Benchmarking to Inform Your Social Strategy,” during #SMWONE Vahlgren paired his considerable knowledge with actionable advice and suggested exercises to lower the depth of the pool that many feel as though they’re drowning in.

Here are the primary insights and takeaways:

  • Seek out the space where very few seem to be
  • Don’t overlook the learnings from unsuccessful campaigns
  • Focus on the markets where sales are outpaced by the size of the current audience

Positioning Where There’s Potential

For many who design social strategy, the prospect of determining how best to use budget can seem fraught. External parties always want to weigh in, and even when the decisions are left to us, it’s not always easy to figure out what to do. Vahlgren offered a metrics-based and thoughtful way to decide: benchmarking as a guide to what markets have potential, versus those which might be saturated or dead ends for your brand.

Vahlgren recommended looking at the three market states alongside each other and focusing energy and budget on markets where the potential audience and sales are outpaced by the size of the current audience. It is there that you have room to grow, he points out, and it is there where you should invest your time and money accordingly. This isn’t always going to yield the sprawling multi-channel campaigns that competitors may be putting up, but it will be the best and most efficient use of your time.

Working Within the White Space

There was a consistent theme of economy in Vahlgren’s talk; another example came when he answered the question of how to use benchmarking as a tool to stand out in your industry. His answer? Working within the whitespace. By that, he means plotting the results of your benchmarking data on an axis-based visual map. Do your competitors lean toward an achievable use of their product or service, or an aspirational one? Does their content come from a place of observation (we make your life easy), or of perspiration (we make it easy for you to work hard)? And crucially, what place on the map is free and clear?

To stand out, Vahlgren posited, you should seek out the space where very few seem to be and go there. Position your brand in a way that deviates from the more heavily trafficked places of the map. Differentiate your tone, your visual signatures, and your content themes. Once you’re authentically there, the customers who didn’t see themselves in your competitors’ approach, can see themselves in – and with – you.

Beward of Bias

Vahlgren cautioned the audience at the beginning that there would be some cursing, and delivered on that promise with his final exploratory question of the talk: “how do I not f*** this up?” His answer: beware of biases that you may bring to the data.

As an example, he shared charts of WWII fighter planes that returned to the airfields, shot up but ultimately still flyable. These planes were studied heavily to determine where to add additional armor to make them safer for future missions…until someone pointed out a neglected argument: shouldn’t we also think about the planes that didn’t make it back? The lesson: while we tend to focus our learning and future actions on the successes that benchmarking surface, there’s as much or more to be learned from the campaigns that don’t go well. But no matter where we choose to pull our lessons from, Vahlgren encourages asking why…a lot. “Once you’ve asked ‘why?’ five times, you’ve probably found the right answer. Keep asking why.”

While Vahlgren poses a number of questions in his session, this one may be the most important one for social media strategists to ask as they embark upon their benchmarking efforts. With a solid, unbiased, and well-informed “why?” in mind, chat boxes shared by these professionals will hopefully go from places with calls for support, to ones with stories of success.

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