You're not the same as, you might not even be the same as your competitor

It’s the bane of many a web professional, when talking with your client about their website and they say “well on Amazon…”

We’re going to be the next Amazon!

As a very basic line of reasoning there is some logic to this: Amazon are the most successful on-line retailer, so what they do must be right. Right?

Well, if it’s your job to sell books, electronics, kitchenware and computer games (and other stuff) then yes, maybe you can draw a comparison with Amazon. But more often than not, you’re not talking to someone who is selling books, and if its local government you’re probably not selling anything*. So just because Amazon do it doesn’t mean that you should.

I’m not saying that there isn’t anything we can learn from such a successful website and company as Amazon. They spend vast amounts of money on design, content and user testing, and they get many many things right. But we have to be wary of the danger of “If they do it, then so should we,” not least because they are in a totally different business to us.

The Amazon example is the fairly obvious one but this can go further. Often, people will ask for us to look at their competitors’ sites, and replicate what they are doing(1) - “we’re just like x, so make it like this site…” - but even then, you have to actually look, and ask are we really like x? Especially when it comes to public sector services. There can be overlap, where the private sector is selling something similar, but often with a different motivation and a completely different desired outcome.

Take leisure facilities: both the public and private sectors operate leisure facilities. Local council leisure facilities are there to provide a service to everyone - you can turn up and go for a swim, or just do that zumba class, and nothing else. Private sector leisure facilities are there to provide services for members - you have to join before you can do a thing. Yes, you can be a member of a council gym, but membership is not their primary service.

This means that on the surface local councils and private gyms are direct competitors, and that there is an overlap between them. But they have different targets, and different operating models. You can’t just copy a private sector gym website and expect it to work for a council-run gym.

Another example of competitors with different targets are the BBC and Sky - the BBC are the public service broadcaster in the UK and Sky are a satellite subscription service. Both are in the business of broadcast TV, but the BBC is paid for by licence fee, and Sky funded by subscriptions. Even when both companies are screening the same thing, their models are different. Sky and the BBC share this year’s Formula One rights, but a quick look at the BBC F1 website, and Sky’s F1 site, shows just how different they are.

BBC not selling

The BBC don’t need to sell their product. You get it with your (near compulsory) TV Licence. Sky’s model, however, relies on you signing up to their service, so they are selling - two apparently similar services with totally different models resulting in different websites.

Its easy to try and compare your site/company/service with what you may see as your direct competitor, and to try to imitate how they have built their on-line presence, but you need to look deeper into how your business model compares, and build a website that services your business not your ‘competitors’.

(1) Oh, and winners don’t imitate they innovate, but that’s another argument.