If you aren’t the marker leader, sometimes the best time to grab traffic and customers from your competition is when they screw up. You may notice that when your competitor makes a big mistake they generally don’t want to address it publicly, or if they do they only want to talk about it in abbreviated terms, which, for a juicy story, may not be enough for the general public.
The big, recent example of this phenomenon is the “HackGate” scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which hit the headlines at a fortuitous time for the Huffington Post (an AOL site that I work with).
HuffingtonPost UK launched on July 6 of this year, a date had been selected at least partly due to the following day being the anniversary of the 7/7 terror attacks, and therefore a newsworthy day that we could plan content for. But when the launch date came, the big story was the phone hacking scandal involving The News of the World and its former editor Rebekah Brooks.
Britain’s biggest newspaper – The Sun (a News Corp. paper) – had one small article on their website relating to the scandal that barely addressed the issues that had been uncovered. This meant that there was more traffic around for everyone else, including a brand new news website that had done a fairly large marketing campaign around the launch that day.
As the week went on, News Corp. papers started to talk more about the scandal, both online and offline, but, based on the UK traffic data that I’ve seen, the damage was done, and a nice chunk of the UK public were reading about the scandal on other sites such as the Huffington Post UK.
In 2009 ESPN intern Brooke Hundley outed married ESPN anchor Steve Phillips as having an affair with her. The AOL site FanHouse (no longer a standalone site) jumped straight on the story, posting articles about the events as they unfurled, along with pictures of the intern, of Steve Phillips, and of his wife. ESPN failed to leap on the initial story (although they did post some wire stories after the story had already garnered national attention), which meant that FanHouse was able to jump to the top of the rankings on a story about ESPN, and pull in that traffic.
The same happened several months later, in February 2010 when ESPN’s PTI anchor Tony Kornheiser attacked the dress sense of a colleague – Hannah Storm. FanHouse jumped on the story when it happened – Feb 18. ESPN didn’t mention anything about the incident until Feb 23, the date that they announced his two-week suspension. That story helped FanHouse to more than double their regular traffic on Feb 23 as their stories about the incident and about the suspension once again outranked the official ESPN articles.
What if you’re not a news site? What if you’re a product company? Well, the chances are that a competitor may still do something dumb that you can take advantage of if you’re smart.
In 1995 the programming language Smalltalk was under siege from a new offering called Java. So the manufacturers of two of the three main Smalltalk versions sent an email out to all their customers telling them that they were going to stop working on merging their two versions of Smalltalk and were instead going to work on a new Java offering. They provided no transition path for their customers, and did little to assuage fears that their customers were now developing with a legacy language. This email became known as “The ParcPlace-Digitalk Suicide Note.”
The other Smalltalk version producer – IBM – saw this as an opportunity and released a public note for all PPD customers, talking about how they’d designed a transition path from the PPD version of Smalltalk to the IBM version of Smalltalk, which had a transition path to the IBM version of Java should customers want to go that route. This worked so well for IBM that within two years PPD (rebranded shortly after the email to ObjectShare) was sold off in pieces after losing the majority of their clients.
Bottom line: Make sure that you keep an eye on your competitors and be ready to pounce when they mess up. Just remember that they’ll also be watching you, and you’d better have a good reputation management plan in place when you do so they don’t take advantage of your missteps.