Maintaining a competitive advantage over other businesses is a key part of any product strategy. Conducting research into a product’s competitive space, however, is often time-consuming and expensive. As a result, many companies—particularly those in the early product planning and development stages—have limited insight into their competitors and customers.
In this article we explore a fast and free user sentiment analysis technique for mobile app competitors on Google Play and Apple’s App Store. I used this process successfully for a client that was planning to launch a mobile app in the coupons and discounts space. While the client knew its major competitors across web, mobile, and other platforms, the company had only a vague notion of its customers’ opinions or how to position the app in the space.
The analysis I performed helped to define positioning, confirm an initial strategic direction, and clarify what customers valued. All of this enabled the company to determine which features to prioritize and how to communicate with users.
It’s important to note that strategic analysis and planning should continue for the lifetime of your product. We used this method as the jumping-off point for a more detailed plan that included proprietary and third-party research.
Determining Your App’s Competition
The first step in this method is to create a list of competitors. You may already have this information, but you can round out your existing list or develop one from scratch using Google Play or the App Store. Search for the keywords you think are most relevant to your business; in my client’s case the list included “coupons,” “savings,” and “saving money.” Next, begin typing what you think your customers may search for organically, and the software will provide a list of apps. These are your product’s competitors. The apps you find on Google Play may differ from those you find in the App Store. In this instance, I created a list of six competitors, but the number you find will vary depending on industry concentration.
To discover more keywords, use an app store optimization (ASO) tool, which reveals organic search opportunities and estimates search volume. I used The Tool, but there are plenty of others, many with free trials. Point your chosen tool at your listing—or your competitors’—and it will extract the keywords it thinks Google is using. Note the keywords you think are going to be most relevant and that provide the best ranking opportunities. In my client’s case, for example, I learned that US customers use “coupon” far more frequently than “offer,” while in the UK they use “voucher.” You should include these keywords in your listing and incorporate them into your brand messaging.
Next, read your competitors’ store pages to learn how they position themselves. Start with the app’s title, then the icon and screenshots, then the short description, and finally the long description. Try to understand what problems they focus on solving, how they prioritize solving them, and if they imply a focus on a specific audience segment. The strength of your competitors in this space can typically be gauged from their ratings and the number of downloads.
You should now have a list of competitors, their value propositions, strengths, keyword choices, positioning, and messaging. Now that you know what they are saying to their potential customers, it’s time to find out what their customers are saying about them.
Understanding Audience Sentiment
Create a spreadsheet with a column for each competitor. Study the reviews, looking for specific things users liked or disliked. As you identify common themes, create a row for each one and keep track of how many users mentioned it. This may take some effort, as people will often refer to the same issue using different language or allude to issues in a circuitous way. For example, if one user writes that they were able to link to their favorite stores and another writes that they were able to quickly identify the amount of savings offered, they are both pointing to the same thing: ease of use. Try to determine the underlying issues and aggregate common themes.
Some reviews will mention multiple items, both positive and negative (e.g., “This app is really ugly but extremely useful for helping me save money on my groceries.”). Make sure to account for each theme. Try to gather at least 100 mentions per competitor. Finally, sort the rows into “Likes” and “Dislikes.”
In practice, people tend to be much more specific and verbose about what they dislike. Research has found that a consumer is 21% more likely to leave a review after a negative experience than a positive one, so don’t be surprised to see more comments containing complaints. People who like an app are more likely to leave a positive rating without a review or a vague review that is unhelpful in revealing the reason for their satisfaction (e.g., “Works great! I use it all the time.”).
Your spreadsheet should look something like this:
Within the Likes and Dislikes sections, look for the proportionality of issues to indicate how important it is to users. In the following table you can see the importance of issues across all apps:
Analyzing the Results
You now have a list of what users like and dislike about your competitors and an understanding of the significance of each issue. If you are performing a SWOT analysis, strengths and weaknesses are typically inward-focused, while opportunities and threats are outward-facing. The likes and dislikes revealed by this exercise speak to the latter two.
You can use a number of these data points to shape your app. For starters, you know why users like certain apps and what you need to build to appeal to those users. In this example, enabling users to save money on everyday shopping is by far the most important thing to achieve. Usability is an essential offering for all mobile apps and should always be an objective. Only one competitor in this sample project received a significant number of mentions for “bonus cashback,” which could indicate that the feature is difficult to replicate. If your potential users value this feature and you have the capability to offer it, your product could present a strategic threat to that competitor.
The things users mention that they dislike can be looked at as a map of opportunities for your product. Problems with usability and quality are cited frequently, and while the most obvious takeaway is to avoid those issues, they may also indicate weaknesses to exploit in competitors. Usability problems might illuminate specific opportunities that your app could address. If capitalizing on these would use company resources that your firm owns or could develop, you could achieve a strategic advantage.
In just a few hours, you will have performed an app review analysis, mapping out an initial take on the competitive mobile app landscape, and defining threats and opportunities for your product. Keep in mind, however, that this exercise makes a number of assumptions that need to be proven. For example, it assumes that users who leave reviews are broadly representative of competitors’ users and that the number of comments is proportional to the importance of the issue to users. Additionally, the method I used to identify competitors focuses on reviews from one channel: app stores. If you look at other channels, such as Google reviews or social media, you may find a different set of competitors. This research also looks at users as a whole and doesn’t dig into audience segments within a product’s users—a critical function of analysis.
Interviews and surveys of app users can be used to validate the insights gained from your app review analysis. During testing and after launch, interview your users and ask them which competitor products they’ve tried in order to gather additional intelligence. A question I often ask customers is what they would use if the product in question did not exist. Sometimes their consideration set will include products totally outside the initial competitor list. Advertisements and app store experiments around marketing communications can be used to test theories about positioning, but a larger exploration across channels will provide a more comprehensive guide.
This fast and free analysis of customers’ opinions can give you a competitive advantage early on, helping you know which competitor features to replicate or improve upon and which to avoid, and guiding your product development to better serve customer needs from the outset.
Understanding the basics
A competitive analysis contains an assessment of your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses, and can help you identify key opportunities and threats. Understanding what customers think of your competitors is a key part of this analysis.
Performing a competitive analysis allows you to determine your main competitors, how to position your product in the market, and which features to prioritize based on what your potential customers value.
Analyzing app reviews is a fast and free way to get an overview of the issues that are important to customers in the market. Understanding user sentiment can help you avoid common pitfalls and kickstart a strong product strategy.