As SEO’s, we so frequently focus on how we can meet a market demand, doing things like analysing search volumes and reverse engineering the tactics of competitors, but that only gets you so far.
If you’re working in industries which are already established, you’ve got big budgets, and you can afford to test out different tactics, then your standard digital activity will generally be fine – it might not get you the huge growth you’re looking for, but it’ll get you on the way to it.
If, however, your market is relatively new or you have a limited budget, or you’re looking to launch an entirely new product or service, you can’t use the same tactics you would in an established market because the demand simply isn’t there yet. You need to build your own demand. So, how do you do that?
Knowing your markets
Before we can look at how you can create your own market, we need to recognise the key characteristics of different markets.
In a traditional competitive market, there are three core characteristics you’ll see time and time again:
- Existing demand – customers know what they want, and the market already exists
- Similar products – products are comparable, so people are making a direct choice without compromising on things like functionality
- Price sensitivity – people are sensitive to the price of a product, and can and will shop around for the best deals
So really, to win in a competitive market you have to be the best. And that means being the best in quality, value, availability, choice, and more to be able to win the custom of your audience.
To do that, you need to invest a significant amount into your product as well as operations and entering the market with a truly robust offering, which can then limit how much you can put into really enabling your business to grow.
Competitive markets are getting more and more difficult to compete in, with factors coming into play in recent years including:
- Globalisation and rapid improvements to production
- Economic downturns increasing sensitivity to pricing
- Faster delivery and fulfilment timeframes
- No barriers to online entry
Factors that historically wouldn’t have been an issue have made it harder for businesses to compete in traditional markets, so businesses need to be looking at ways to cut through the noise.
Red Oceans Vs. Blue Oceans
When we talk about traditional competitive markets, we’re really talking about Red Oceans:
- Competing in a known market
- Beating the competition
- Capturing existing demand
- Cost-value trade off
But we know that the Red Ocean is murky, it’s difficult to see through and it is overcrowded. Not to mention all of the factors above making it an extremely volatile place to be.
So instead, we need to think about where we could want to be working – in a Blue Ocean:
- Building an unknown market
- Make the competition irrelevant
- Create new demand
- Break the cost-value trade off
In Blue Oceans, you aren’t aiming to outperform competition; you’re looking to expand industry boundaries and then operate within that space, ultimately making your competition irrelevant.
Examples of Blue Ocean strategies that worked
Before we go any further, it’s important to show that this approach does really work; and it has done for decades.
One of the oldest examples of a Blue Ocean strategy is Ford and the Model T. Back in 1890, everyone was travelling by horse and buggy, until the first automobile was created and released in 1893. But as with most innovations, the first car was expensive, making it a luxury status item more than a reliable and convenient mode of transport. Henry Ford noticed this and spotted a gap in the market – cheaper, mass-produced, standardised cars. By 1923, just 30 years after the first automobile was released, the majority of American households owned a car. By standardising the parts used to create the cars, Ford were able to significantly reduce costs in manufacturing, ultimately allowing them to sell the cars for at a lower price, thus appealing to a larger market.
In 1908, when Ford released the first Model T, they had an estimated market share of 9%. By 1921, that had grown to an estimated 61% – they’d created a new market for mass-produced cars and then dominated the space while competitors hurried to try and catch up.
Sticking with the auto theme for a moment, Uber is another prime example of a Blue Ocean strategy that worked.
Before Uber, hailing a taxi could be a bit of an ordeal, to say the least. You first needed to be on a road they usually drove down, or know where to find the minicab office, flag one down, and then find out how much you’d be expected to pay for your journey before you could guarantee you’d be travelling. If you were organised, you’d phone up the local taxi firm and arrange for a specific pick-up time with a pre-booked destination. But, as we all know, that was never guaranteed either – if they were late, all you could do was wait or phone the company back to be told they’re on their way but no, they don’t know how long they’ll be.
Uber saw all of these pain points and focused on providing a different way to book, taking the hassle out of booking taxis. Technology allowed for easier access, easier booking, more control over journeys, and upfront pricing, right in the hands of customers before embarking on a trip.
Competitors are now entering the market Uber created, but Uber still own an estimated 69% of the market share in the United States.
iTunes is another example of companies using technology to create a new market.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, illegal music downloads were soaring with file sharing programs like Napster and LimeWire allowing anyone to digitally download music for free and share it with other people. There was a clear trend emerging for digital music over physical CDs and records, and this is where Apple noticed the opportunity.
The digital downloads people were getting for free were often terrible quality or badly burned tracks off of albums – but this in itself was a trend: a desire for single track downloads rather than full albums.
With this, and the technology already available, Apple created iTunes and, in agreement with five major music companies, offered legal, easy-to-use, high quality, and flexible music downloads. Combined with strategic pricing whereby single tracks were priced more reasonably than full albums, the digital music era was welcomed by the masses and now iTunes accounts for more than 60% of the global digital music download market.
Cirque de Soleil
It isn’t only technology that leads to new markets being created, and Cirque de Soleil is one of the best examples of a business that changed its own offering to bring a new audience to the shows.
Historically, Cirque de Soleil catered to a family only audience with the main event of their shows being the live animal entertainment. With the live animal aspect, they were able to charge a higher price – a luxury for many to see. But as more and more entertainers entered the market, live animal shows became the norm and people were no longer interested in paying large fees to see them.
So, Cirque de Soleil decided to pivot focus by pursuing both low cost and differentiation. Instead of sticking with their previous shows, Cirque de Soleil removed the live animal acts from performances which allowed them to drastically reduce their costs. They then introduced live music and storylines to the performances, bringing a focus onto human physical skill inspired by live theatre, which led to entirely new shows the audiences had never seen before.
They’d created a new market within the circus industry – one that was focused on being different to every other show – and that broadened their appeal helping them move from a pure family audience to adults and corporate clients as well. With this new audience being more affluent, they were also willing to spend more money, helping to cater for different levels of the market with ease.
One hit wonders? Absolutely not.
With new markets created and new audiences attracted, these companies all went on to see huge success and further innovation. None more so, perhaps, than Netflix.
Netflix have created not just one, but two blue oceans in their short history. The first by becoming the first online streaming provider at such scale, and the second by creating Netflix Originals; a legitimate blue ocean. Since then, we’ve seen new players enter the market and copy their path, but none as yet to the success that Netflix has seen.
So how are these brands staying ahead and creating these USPs to stand out from others?
They’re making sure their business is offering something nobody else has in the market. They’re investing in product.
But there is huge risk if you invest and it doesn’t work out; if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Rather than trying to reinvent the market, we need to remember that products are comparable; even if we look at Netflix there isn’t that much difference between ‘Originals’ on Netflix/Amazon Prime/Sky/your platform of choice. It’s not that unique but the messaging really emphasises exclusivity.
That, is marketing. Marketing can help you create the illusion of a blue ocean rather than having to actually forge a new market, and really you do that through three steps:
- Finding your niche
- Building your content
Finding your niche
Finding your niche really involves three core steps:
- Discovering non-customers
Here, you need to be able to identify people in your market who aren’t your customers right now, and you need to know what they’re doing and where they are.
You can use platforms and tools like GWI, YouGov, Similar Audiences, Focus Groups, Competitor Research and Market Research to uncover who these people are and what they are looking for.
- Uncovering hidden pain points
Once you’ve identified non-customers in your market, you need to be able to uncover their pain points – what is it they need that you are not catering for at the moment?
To do that you can look at forums, even people also ask features in search results, look at competitor USPs or mine social media for real-time issues. If you’re on a budget, you can use social listening tools like Falcon.io or YouScan, and of course you can scrape everything using tools like Screaming Frog and various custom extraction setups.
You can also use Data Miner to scrape forums, download competitor reviews in bulk, or People Also Ask features and related searches – there’s also a handy Chrome extension to do this as you browse so if you uncover something by chance you can easily keep a record of it.
- Minimising market blockers
Once you’ve found your audience and their pain points, you need to be able to minimise any blockers that would stop you bringing them to you or limit your success, such as:
- Adoption hurdles
- High costs
- Low demand
While you’re investigating you should be answering three core questions and tying these back to the pain points you’ve identified:
- Why do they need it?
- How do you scale it?
- Why should they care?
One of the biggest parts of creating a blue ocean is the need to generate your own demand; if people don’t know a market exists then they don’t know what to look out for, and this is where content strategies come into play.
Building your content
Content strategies are designed to generate demand and interest around particular topics.
Let’s take the standard conversion funnel:
In blue oceans, this doesn’t work. It requires someone to actively search for your product or service – but what if they don’t know your solution exists because it’s a value-add different product to any others out there?
Nobody is pulling content through searching, so instead it is about how we push into their space. That looks a little more like this:
So instead of pushing content that engages at different levels of the purchase funnel, you’re creating content that meets different audience types.
For non-customers sitting in unexplored markets, i.e. those distant to your own, you need to be looking for opportunities to connect with them, possibly through thought leadership. This is about product expansion and brand establishment – find out what they need, then how you connect your brand to it.
You want to be creating content to appear where unexplored audiences would be searching. Borrow My Doggy does this really well, they help the user first with everything they could need to know about dog ownership which gets them into the spotlight for potential dog owners.
For non-customers who are refusing to purchase, you need to find a way to address their concerns through both product and brand marketing. That involves things like trust signals, testimonials, and even brand ambassadors.
Here, messaging gets much more direct. Looking at Borrow My Doggy again they focus on content that shows they’re an alternative to another service with established demand.
So now, people know who Borrow My Doggy are, they’ve potentially searched and seen answers to common questions or articles, but now they need to make a decision about whether they want to use the service or not.
Soon to be
This moves them into the ‘soon to be’ tier, and here, you need to be providing content that directly addresses how you can help, what you offer, and why they should try your solution. This is pure product-focused marketing.
Borrow My Doggy do this through clear step-by-step explanations about their service and what you can expect, and have over 160 FAQs answered on their site – they’re giving direct, in-depth answers and reasons to trust them, and to use them over an alternative established service.
Finally, you’re able to take non-customers who started in unexplored markets into your current market. This is where the traditional marketing funnel comes into play, with trust signals, brand awareness, and brand marketing all playing key parts of the final stages.
Borrow My Doggy showcase this by having dedicated elements on their website to push a conversion, from highlighting press mentions in trusted publications through to real-life, real-people stories about their service, and all the way through to a community of social proof.
So now you’ve got your content strategy worked out and you know what you need to be pushing out on your website, how do you take that and scale it?
The problem with blue oceans is that people aren’t actively searching, so you’re generating your own demand. Established brands or ones with bug budgets can do that with billboards, TV ads, or huge campaigns, but most of us have to think smarter about getting attention.
Now, most people would think of amplification as some form of link building – getting the content out to relevant publications and getting a link back from them to build authority in the space.
But the key difference here is that we’re building demand, not links. It’s more important to tell the right story and get people talking about your product area (not even necessarily your brand) than it is to obsess over links or direct references to you. We know that the search space will be uncompetitive, so we need to focus on making a good story.
There are a number of characteristics that go into a good story, including but not limited to:
- Record breakers
- Human interest
- Expert insights
- Hyper relevant
Once we have a good story, we need to get it out to the right places. Remember, this is education about a need, not selling a product, so tactics are a little different. For finding these publications you can dissect competitor link profiles as you would for a linkbuilding campaign, but you can also run display advertising whereby you release a report or piece of content that would capture the interest of your audience, follow them around the internet with display placements, and then narrow down the list of relevant publications.
However you’re finding your publications you need to be narrowing them down based on reach and readership, not things like DA or TF. By the end of it, you’ll have a thorough list of highly relevant publications your audience is visiting frequently and you’ll be able to start building an established connection between what they search for and are interested in, and what your business can provide.
Bringing it all together
So, it’s pretty simple to do really, three steps and things we should all be doing anyway. But it’s about shifting away from thinking about how you talk about your product, to how you talk to your audience.
Really, it’s about taking it a step further to change mindsets both internally and externally. And whether that is internal or external, it’s all about creating the illusion of a new market, without actually having to create one.