What is Commercial Awareness (and how do you show you’ve got it)?
by Matt Arnerich
Creative or analytical, public or private, big company or small, almost any graduate role seems to mention the importance of commercial awareness these days.
But what on earth is it? And how do you even show your commercial awareness? Essentially, commercial awareness is all about how well you know both the business, and the marketplace that it exists in. Understandably, many employers are worried that inexperienced graduates might lack the sort of business acumen needed to succeed in their first role.
The truth is, it’s relatively simple to develop commercial awareness, and the steps to develop it are much easier than many other soft skills employers might expect you to have.
We take a look at the main things you need to focus on, and how to make sure you walk into your next interview ready to impress.
- Understand the product or service
The number one priority for any application process is making sure you know exactly what the company does. This is the most basic part of commercial awareness; any company worth their salt will value someone displaying a deep understanding of the way they operate.
It demonstrates not only your ability to fit into the new culture, but that you care enough to have taken the time to do your research. They’ll know that they’re hiring an engaged member of staff.
The How: Make sure that you can explain what the company does in a couple of sentences, as often this can actually be harder than explaining it in five minutes. From here, make sure you understand all of the different areas of their business and how they work together. To do this you’re going to need to move away from the job spec or careers page and delve into their whole website, blog or social media.
- Who are the customers?
All businesses have customers of some sort, whether they’re selling to the mass market, or making bespoke B2B products. Even within the public sector, you’ve still got people that you are trying to reach and effectively engage with.
Whatever area of the business you’re going into, understanding who these people are is essential to understanding the wider company goals and direction. Businesses that don’t understand the people they’re trying to appeal to don’t tend to last for very long.
The How: Go through the process of buying their product, or at least start to enter into the process by taking a look at any sales materials. Look at their clients and testimonials, and think about how they’re marketing their product. The way in which they’re marketing across different mediums will tell you an awful lot about exactly the type of person they’re trying to reach.
- Understand the marketplace
Now that you understand the company that you’re applying for back-to-front, it’s time to broaden your search.
Start with identifying and assessing their closest competitors. This should be fairly simple, and you can start by simply searching key industry terms and taking a look at the other companies that surround them in the rankings. Take a look at their websites, and try to work out how their offering differs from the company that you’re applying for.
From here, take a look at Google News and industry-specific sites so that you’re up on the latest developments within the sector. Together, this should give you a good enough grounding to answer any questions they throw at you.
The How: Can you name three competitors? Can you answer a question on what each one does? Would you be able to give an opinion on a number of industry related news items? If it’s a yes to all three, then you’re good to go. For extra credit, make sure you learn a glossary of acronyms and key terms. You don’t want to be tripped up by something that simple!
- Get role-specific
Now that you’re caught up with everything that’s going on in your sector, it’s time to get more specific with your research.
Perhaps there’s an emerging marketing tool or new channel that could change the way digital marketers communicate with their customers. Equally, there might be a serious skills gap that top companies are looking to address in IT. Whatever your role is, you should know about what’s going on.
The How: Set up Google Alerts to deliver specific news to your inbox every day based on certain keywords. Take a look at some professional publications too. Yes, some of them can be a bit dry but they are a vital source of knowledge for any interview.
- Get forward thinking
Hopefully at this point, you should have a complete understanding of the company that you’re applying for, as well as the state of the market within both your role and sector.
How to go the extra mile? Try to pull some of this information together and form an idea of what the future might hold. Consider whether past cycles are likely to come back around again and influence the way that companies operate, or how an impending world event might affect the marketplace. Maybe you can think of a way in which a new piece of technology might be utilised by your sector, for example.
The How: Work this into your answer about your opinion on the state of play within the industry. Being forward thinking and giving some insight into the future unprompted will be particularly impressive.
- Think backwards
Some companies will focus specifically on whether you’ve engaged commercially with companies you’ve worked for in the past. Why? They want to know that you haven’t just prepared especially for the interview, but that you have a natural inclination towards taking a genuine interest in your role.
Whether you’ve got some work experience or even just held a part time job in the past, they may try to blindside you by asking about the sector, what you thought of the company or how you would improve the way they operate.
The How: To really shine in an interview, go back through your CV and make sure you’ve thought about each company as a whole, and not just your role within it. Think about potential obstacles to growth, or things happening in the wider marketplace that may affect them going forwards.
- Not just for business and finance
Commercial awareness isn’t just important if you want to get into a highly business orientated role, marketing or finance.
Within the arts sector, you need to know all about the importance of funding, and of changes in government initiatives. Health sector workers should understand how changes in technology are influencing the area, and how the budgets are changing. People going into education need to know about the latest surveys and reports on effectiveness and methods.
No matter what you’re doing, understanding the space that you’re entering into is essential to impressing.
The How: Don’t make the mistake of thinking commercial awareness isn’t relevant. You don’t want to be taken by surprise with a question about some news that everyone is talking about that you hadn’t bothered to research. Even if they’re not, it can show that you’ve been thinking about the wider environment around the business, and it’s a way to stand out from the crowd.